In a first, Muslim girl, 14, enrols for kathakali course at Kalamandalam

Wearing a hijab, the 14-year-old acquired the mudras from none other than the doyen of kathakali, Kalamandalam Gopi Asan, who was present at the enrolment function.
Saabri N trying out a kathakali mudra at the Kerala Kalamandalam
Saabri N trying out a kathakali mudra at the Kerala Kalamandalam

PALAKKAD: It was after 90 years of its existence that Kerala Kalamandalam finally opened its doors to female kathakali students -- in the 2020-21 academic year. On Wednesday, Saabri N delivered another blow to the glass ceiling at the Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur-based prestigious institution, becoming the first Muslim student in its history to enrol for the course. 

In the latest batch of admissions, the Anchal, Kollam, native joined the eighth standard of the traditional kathakali vesham (thekkan) course. Wearing a hijab, the 14-year-old acquired the mudras from none other than the doyen of kathakali, Kalamandalam Gopi Asan, who was present at the enrolment function.

Saabri walked up to the 86-year-old and sought his blessings. “Saabri had a passion for kathakali and used to accompany me to the Mahadeva temple in Agasthyacode, Anchal, which used to host regular recitals,” her father S Nizam said.

“She wouldn’t even sleep through performances and used to watch the dancers intently, impressed by their vibrant makeup and colourful attire. I used to show her my photos of kathakali performances and these captivated her young mind,” said Nizam, a freelance photographer who manages the Ammas Art Gallery in Anchal. 

‘I expect no hurdles in Saabri’s path’

Saabri took her first lessons in kathakali under Aromal of Chadayamangalam and learned mohiniyattam during the pandemic from a teacher near her home. But her first love was kathakali. “After Class 7 at Government Jawahar High School in Edamulackal, I asked Saabri whether she wanted to learn kathakali. I had heard Kalamandalam had started admitting women to the course. She was very excited,” said Nizam.

On whether there will be any resistance from the community, Nizam said, “In the state’s south, members of our community see art as art...which transcends religious beliefs. However, there would definitely have been some discussion in private circles. But I consider kathakali as an art form. I expect no hurdles in the path of my daughter. It will not affect us,” he stressed. 

There are two streams, vadakkan and thekkan, in kathakali. A student who enrols in the 8th standard at Kalamandalam can continue for 12 years till they complete PG. 

“It was in the 2020-21 academic year that female students were first admitted. Now we have 11 girls: three in the eighth standard, four in the ninth standard and four in the 10th standard,” said Kalamandalam Ravi Kumar, HoD, kathakali vesham (thekkan). “This year, there were six seats available in the eighth standard for women. We received 20 applications. There is interest,” he said.

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