Theatre night

While we were checking into our new guesthouse the host offered to book seats to a traditional performance that evening. VIP, he said, and he wasn’t kidding. We were ushered to the front row in the theatre of the cultural centre right across the street.

This was a Kathakali music and dance performance, a style of theatre native to this area of southern India and practiced by the Malayali people.

The performance was in three parts. As the audience arrived the two actors were already seated onstage preparing their makeup, a ritual part of Kathakali. There are distinct designs representing individual characters, and each of the colors is symbolic. The actors spent many minutes grinding natural pigments into a paste then applying base and designs with what looked like sticks. There was an unhurried, meditative quality to the process and it went on for an entire hour. The process presents the transformation of an ordinary human into a mythical character right before your eyes.

Makeup done, the actors left the stage and a musician arrived with a large drum and curved drumsticks. As he set up a narrator described the traditions of the art. He explained that to become a Kathakali performer a boy apprentices at a young age for many years to learn the flexibility and muscle control required to portray the ritual emotions.

This lead to part two of the performance, a demonstration of the actor’s craft. As the narrator described each move or emotion, and the musician drummed trance-like rhythms, the actor demonstrated through his eyes, face, hands, and body the coded moves that tell the story.

At one point as he held his face perfectly still his black eyes circled round and round and round and round, fast and faster, accompanied by insistent drumming. It was at once creepy, hypnotic, dazzling. I was so transfixed by the minute control he had of his eyes and the individual muscles in his face that I didn’t even lift my camera. The man was middle aged and pudgy but moved with the strength, balance, and posture of a ballerina. I’m pretty sure I was staring agape at some of the things he could do. This was by far our favorite part of the show.

During the demonstrations the performer interacted with those of us in the front rows, then invited a young boy onstage with him, where he taught a few moves. The kid was a good sport and we gave him a hearty round of applause.

Finally, after a short break the actors appeared in full costume and performed an abbreviated version of one of the classical Kathakali plays. The musician sang a haunting tune and enhanced the story with his drumming.

At the climax of the play the woman, portrayed by the chubby actor, turned away from the audience for a moment, then spun around and shrieked and was revealed to be a demon. It was quite dramatic, even though we’d read the text of the story in the program and knew it was coming.

This was definitely one of the best experiences we’ve had in India and we’ve chided ourselves for not seeking out this kind of cultural show more often in our travels. It’s always exciting to see traditional art forms, particularly music, dance, and theatre.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

We love to hear from you!