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Dr Farley Richmond:
In the Quest of Ancient Indian Theatre


“Kuttiyatam is the most complete surviving example of ancient theatre in India.”
When one hears the word ‘kathakali’ the picture that conjures up is of vibrant color, elaborate costumes, fantastic make-up, and outstanding story telling. 
Dr. Farley Richmond, professor of theatre and drama at the University of Georgia, Athens, educates us further on this great tradition and talks about ‘kutiyattam’ (the grandparent of ‘kathakali’) and his interest with Indian theatre. 
Can you tell me a little about yourself, about your background?
Yes, I’m a professor at the University of Georgia, in the theatre and drama department and my specialization is Indian theatre. And I have spent many years in India beginning in the mid 1960s and a number of years in Kerala, and studied the Sanskrit theatre, the ‘kutiyattam.’ I am currently taking a group of students to India this coming summer for a study-abroad program, conducted by the University of Georgia.

Why this interest in Indian theatre?
Oh, that goes way back (laughs). I was originally studying to be a director when I went to college and I got my PhD at Michigan State in 1966 and I started out focusing on directing. But then I got interested in Asian theatre and later in Indian theatre. And so I went to India in 1965 on a Fulbright grant to study English theatre in India and then later on I studied Sanskrit theatre and then focused on the ‘kutiyattam’.

Is that a form of kathakali or is it different?
No, no it is the grandparent of ‘kathakali’. ‘Kathakali’ is the grandchild of ‘kutiyattam’. It’s a very ancient form of Sanskrit theatre and it’s usually referred to a regional form of Sanskrit theatre. It’s the most complete surviving example of ancient theatre in India. 

And is it still very popular in Kerala?
Well, it’s never been very popular. Approximately 13 people know how to perform it today. And the UNESCO in Paris recognized it as one of 19 intangible international properties. Just as they recognize the Taj Mahal as one of the great wonders of the world, they recognize ‘kutiyattam’ as one of the great examples of ancient theatre.

So are you promoting all these ancient forms of dance in Atlanta?
Not really. I’m at Athens, Georgia and my interest is in teaching my students the importance of studying theatre in a cultural context.

So where do you hope to take this interest?
Well basically it’s a research interest of mine. But, we find that our theatre students learn best when they see performances of work in their traditional format. So for example in the 80s at Michigan State we produced a Japanese play in Japanese with masks and costumes from Japan. And then in Stony Brook in New York we produced a modern Indian play, Vijay Tendulakar’s and also ‘Silence the Court is in Session.’ But the idea is to give the students a chance to experiment with works from another culture, a non-Western culture.

Are these art forms appreciated more by the West than by Indians themselves?
That’s hard to say because Westerns find these art forms quite exotic, I think primarily because of the costume and the make-up. And the style of performances is so very different from Western style of performance. But I think Indians in Kerala who are familiar with kathakali for example are quite enamored of it, but if you go to Calcutta they might not be at all interested. So outside of the regions, the art forms that have grown up within certain regions in India don’t have an appeal, but within the region they often have a stronger appeal. And I think a lot of it has to do with the language in these various regions.

If you were to promote ‘kutiyattam’ to a person who has never heard or seen it before, what would you say in a sentence or two?
It emphasizes acting of a very high and specialized order and it stresses the use of characters who are part of the epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. It’s a cultivated taste; you really have to understand the techniques of performance in order to fully appreciate it. It takes years to cultivate that and I can’t say that I have a complete knowledge of the ‘kutiyattam’. Many of my friends have been seeing it for years and they have a much more specialized interest in it. And I think that may be true of ‘kathakali’ as well, all though ‘kathakali’ may be more easily accessible to Western audiences.

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