First Feature of Kerala Theatre
The sense in which the term stage or theatre is understood in the state, its most outstanding characteristic seems to be the wealth and variety of its forms. The aim of all spectacular or more correctly dramatic entertainments is mainly two-fold: to impart instruction and to afford pleasure. The theatre is possibly the surest and certainly the most obvious way of educating the masses. It is again a very powerful instrument of social reform and, no doubt, in olden days it discharged this function as satisfactorily as the press and the platform do in modern days. Besides, in those times the propagation and popularisation of religion constituted one of the main functions of the theatre. And lastly it provides inexhaustible source of delight. Then as the object of true dramatist differs, so does the nature of the play!
Didactic plays are generally careful of their story, and this so far, has been true of all Sanskrit theatres. Those intended to reform society teem with wit and humour. Religious plays are either allegorical or clothed in an atmosphere of super-naturalism. Proper acting with due regard to naturalness of representation, and dress, music and scenic effect can be met with only in such dramatic works as have pleasure for their main aim. This variety of aims accounts to no little extent for the variety in the spectacular entertainments of the state. The theatre of Kerala, which has predominantly an educative, aesthetic and religious value, has huge popularity in the state among the masses. Thus the Sanskrit section of Malayalam theatre has served most effectively to popularise the Hindu religion and philosophy, and with it the language in which they have found expression. It also developed a keen sense of literary appreciation and produced a number of literary works and commentaries which, both in quality and quantity occupy a high position in Sanskrit Letters. Likewise, the vernacular section has by its contribution developed a spoken dialect into a literary language. And it is not too much to say that stage theatre of Kerala has got its eloquent appeal to make to the students of literature, both Sanskrit and Malayalam.
And furthermore, it can claim an unbroken continuity through the vast sweep of at least a thousand years. Then, on account of these facts, Malayalam theatre becomes an important source of study to all those who aspire to a knowledge of the ancient culture of the state.
Second Feature of Kerala Theatre
Another feature of the Kerala theatre, probably the most outstanding one, which to a great extent distinguishes it from the Tamil theatre, the Telugu theatre, the Kannada theatre or the English theatre in India, as now known, is the prominence it assigns to actual acting and dancing. Such terms as Nataka Natya lend weight and authoritativeness to this practice of Kerala stage; for these are suggestive enough of the place that has to be assigned to acting in the presentation of a Sanskrit drama, which is as it were the well-spring of all our indigenous types of vernacular entertainments. The venerable sage Bharata may also be mentioned in this connection in view of the fact that he devoted a large section of his work to the scientific exposition of the art of acting.
Third Feature of Kerala Theatre
The third equally important and prominent feature of Malayam theatre is the use, almost exclusive use, of the gesture language of a highly codified and systematised character. This is so prominent a feature that in some varieties this, and not any spoken language, is the only means of expression. The codified gestures which are used as a means of conveying ideas are natural gestures, imitative gestures and gestures resulting from the amplification for secular purposes of the orthodox types of Tantric and Mantric symbols such as those used for Aradhana, Abhaya, Dana, Avahana, etc. Gestures from a crucial part in Malayalam theatre, and instinctive gesticulations and natural symbolic representations lend themselves to all sorts of permutations and combinations, and these, when combined and systematised, constitute the code of gesture language
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