The companion volumes are a superb offering from Kalamandalam artists Vijayakumara and Barbara who have dedicated over twenty-five years to popularising kathakali dance theatre form in the UK.
A History is a substantial documentary covering the use of hand gestures over a period of two millennia and their use in ritual worship, dance and theatre. Sumptuously shot on location in Kerela, the home of kathakali, the footage is taken from live and staged performances. We glimpse the mudras used by priests whilst reciting passages from the Vedas; in storytelling sections of dance forms such as bharatanatyam and kuchipudi; in theatre forms such as koodiyattam and kathakali.
We learn interesting facts such as the sister form of kathakali is krishnaattam or the re-telling of the Krishna stories through mime, movement and hand gestures which came to Kerela through the Bhakti movement. Also that mudras have a place in social and political satire.
The most extensive passage is reserved for an exposition of the kathakali form, which describes the training of the dancers, the elements of the performance from the make-up to the music accompaniment and finally witnessing the actual performance.
The commentary is clear, concise and is reinforced by text which is easy for the viewer to read and grasp. The photography is sensitive and poetic, evoking scenes of the flickering light of oil lamps in temples, the rich and vibrant colours of the silk curtains held up in front of actors before the play begins.
The Dictionary carries six hundred words: nouns, verbs and adjectives, which are demonstrated by kathakali actor and director-producer Vijayakumar.
All in all, the mudras are an important element of kathakali and the DVD set will enhance understanding the of the viewer. Although the effort to make the form more accessible is worthy of commendation, to explain the mudras as a sign language is too simplistic. The mudras work not in isolation but in the totality of the theatrical experience. The glory of kathakali is in the sum of the parts: the combination of sound, colour, emotional charge and the technical mastery of the artists.
The Dictionary and History do convey the dance and theatre forms in their totality and at a price of £20 should be grabbed by anyone who has an interest in dance and theatre and who wishes to delve into depth.