Suitcase and World: Kathakali.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The driver deposited me at the entrance to the Kerala Kathakali Centre - there was just a simple plastic banner to identify the place. Definitely not anything fancy here.

I followed the path which didn't seem like it would lead to a place of performing arts but this is India and I've learned to not to assume anything. The path ended in a very small courtyard. There, seated behind a wooden desk was a man selling tickets. I handed over 500 rupee and got 250 rupee in change back and a piece of paper explaining the play in English. Less than $5 for two hours of entertainment. A cheap deal. Just hope it's entertaining.

I followed the instructions to head up the stairs and enter in the first door. On the other side of the door was a small theatre space. There were already about 6 people in the room. On the stage, there were two men - one was laying down on his back with his head near the lap of the other who was applying the makeup.

For some reason, the front row seats were all empty so I headed to them. Without my glasses, I need to be as close to the stage as possible and front row is as close as I could get without actually being on the stage.

Photos were allowed so I snapped away as I watched the men putting on their make up. In all the photos and images that I have seen of Kathkali, the main character has a green face. The man laying on his back had the green face so I presumed he was the key actor so I kept focusing my lens on him. Nearby were two other actors also getting made up.

I snapped a way so lots of photos; even took a short video.

As I waited for the performance to begin, I read the story. A short play with just three actor; the same three that were getting their faces made up.

The performance was scheduled to start at 6p but I don't think the actors were ready but no one cared that it started late. We were all fascinated by the prep work that was taking place on stage.

At one point, a man walked around with a stamp and decorated the edge of the stage with a pattern, in white powder, of pairs of feet. Once he was done decorating the stage, he used another stamp to create smaller pairs of the same feet on the terracotta tile floor.

He also sprinkled powder to create another pattern; in the middle of which he placed an orange marigold flowers.

Next, he decorate the edge of the stage with yellow marigold flowers and then placed orange flower heads on the two small statues of Ganesha that stood next to the steps that led up to the stage.

A drummer entered onto the stage and then another man who announced the program.

The performance would begin with a demonstration. An actor appeared on the stage to show the eye movements and facial expressions that are integral to Kathakali - happy, sad, angry, evil, curious, etc.

Without my glasses, I couldn't make out the eye movements and facial expressions so I used my camera lens to help me and I was able to take it all in though it got tiring holding up my heavy camera :-)

Next, the same actor demonstrated the mudras and hand movements that are also part of the Kathakali form of expression. Each of the mudras was mentioned by its Indian name so I have no idea what any of them meant. Even though the announcer called out each hand movement by name, they were pretty self explanatory - me, you, come, go. You can imagine what the movements were.

Then came the performance. Fortunately, I had read the piece of paper that I was given when I bought my ticket. It explained the three characters and the parts of the play.

Act I introduced the character Nakrathundi.  It was quite an introduction and she's quite a character! 

I had imagined, based on the description, that Nakrathundi would be a beautiful creature.  The creature that appeared after the curtain fell was anything but attractive.  She actually looked like a demon.  The wooden humps (??) on the costume represented her breasts which come in to play in the third Act.  She would also screech every now and again.  I couldn't figure out why. 

Watch a snippet of Nakrathundi's performance. I have to say that even with the demonstration in advance, I didn't remember enough to really translate all the hand gestures and facial expressions.

Act II introduced Jayanthan, the Green Faced character who is the target of Nakrathundi's obsession, and Lalitha, the Yellow Faced character who is Nakrathundi in disguise.  Definitely, not your usual, good looking couple.

Here's a snippet of their introduction.

 Then, it was time for Jayanthan's solo performance.

The final act brings Nakrathundi and Jayanthan back together for their confrontation which ends with the Jayanthan cutting of Nakrathundi's eyes, nose and breasts.

Another snippet of Jayanthan's performance.

Kathakali was not anything like what I expected - it was very strange at times. I still struggle to describe what I saw and heard.  I think you just have to experience it.  Surprisingly though, time flew by during the performance - I must have been caught up in all the action and didn't even realize it. 

After the performance was over, someone from the theatre passed around a guest book for noting down comments. I gave them a thumbs up. It's not a fancy or elaborate production but I'm all for people who go through the effort to preserve their cultural heritage.

When I was done, I backed tracked and met up with my driver. He turned out to be a chatty fellow so he talked my ear off all the way back to the Taj.

All in all, it was an eventful day. Things got off to a bad start but it all ended on a high note.

Tomorrow, I say goodbye to the Kochi and head on up the road to spend a few days with Smitha and her family. She said to leave the itinerary in her hands so I did not plan on anything. The days will unfold as they unfold and I will enjoy every minute!!