Having watched a Kathakali performance on Doordarshan years ago and on learning that Kathakali and Kutiyattam were the traditional dance forms of Kerala, I made up my mind to catch up on a performance during my upcoming trip to Kerala. These dance forms were traditionally performed in temples or in the courts of the kings. The Kutiyattam dance form has recently been included in the UN’s representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and a complete performance can last up to 40 days. In spite of extensive research (on the Internet) and talking to friends in the know, I could not find details of any Kathakali performance in a temple. Finding a performance of Kutiyattam was even more difficult. There wasn’t a single performance listed in the places that we planned to travel to. I could find details of a past performance in London but no upcoming performance in Kerala. As a last resort, I even sent a tweet to a Keralan MP who is renowned for his interest in culture and had written articles on the subject and asked him if he had any details of any upcoming Kutiyattam performances. Not surprisingly, my tweet went unanswered. Reluctantly therefore I had to forgo any hopes of catching a Kutiyattam performance. On the other hand, Kathakali performances were plentiful. Though Internet reviews suggested that the Kathakali centre in Cochin provided the best Kathakali performance, having an evening free in Munnar, we decided to catch a performance in Munnar itself.
Kathakali blends together dance, music and acting and depicts stories from the epics. The dance entirely consists of facial expressions and hand movements. The make-up and costumes are elaborate, colourful and striking. The dancers are based on individual types rather than individuals. The type of character of the dancer can be discerned from his make-up and costume. For instance, Green make-up denotes a good character whereas black or red makeup denotes a villain.
Two members of our gang of four were somewhat reluctant to watch the performance and were unable to understand my enthusiasm for it. I could not understand my enthusiasm for it either, as I do not understand and have no interest in Indian classical dance. Let us just say that I felt instinctively that the allure and the pageantry of the dancers would not let us down. Since I felt somewhat responsible for our entire gang, it was imperative for me that the performance went well and nobody got bored. It was in this frame of mind that we reached the Punarjani centre in Munnar at 4:00 in the afternoon. The performance was from 5:00 to 6:00 but the make-up started from 4:00. For the next forty minutes or so, we were the only people in the audience. It was a hot day, the room was small, there was no air conditioning and the fans were off. Two members of our gang had already started yawning. Not a good sign. I was hoping that the reluctant gang members would be persuaded to change their outlook by the performance and most importantly hoped that they would let me enjoy the show in peace without displaying any signs of passive aggression.
The stage was simple with a single oil diya placed in the front. Kathakali dances do not require an elaborate stage. Our seats were on the front row. The putting on of the make-up duly started. Putting on the costumes and the make-up is an elaborate process and takes almost 5 hours. We were just given a glimpse of what the process entailed. A handsome young lad, sat on the stage putting on hues of yellow to his half painted face. This went on for about ten minutes after which he left the stage and was replaced by another young lad, this time putting on green paint on the face. It was revelation to see how young the lads were. I was under the impression that Kathakali was mainly performed by middle aged dancers. It was encouraging to see that young people were interested in keeping this tradition alive. Traditionally it took around ten years for the pupils to master this dance form with students starting to learn when they were as young as ten. However this has slowly started to change with new dancers now joining at later stages.
The show started at around 5:00 with rhythmic beats on the Chenda, which is played with two sticks and the Edaykka, which is played with one stick. A musician gave the accompanying music on the cymbals and there was one vocalist. One member of our gang complained about the music being too loud but I kept my eyes on stage feigning an inability to hear.
A lady dancer with elaborate make-up arrived on stage. She started to demonstrate her various routines, which were enjoyable to watch. In the middle of the performance the dancer gestured to a member of our gang to join her on stage. Our gang member was extremely reluctant and refused to go. The dancer however was adamant until finally our very nervous gang member stepped up on the stage. The dancer then demonstrated the dance of a traditional welcome to our gang member. The gang member sat nervously through it all when finally after only a few minutes, she was allowed to join us. The dancer demonstrated various interesting routines calling up various members of the audience, all seated on the front row. So a tip to remember, if you are reluctant to go on the stage then do not book a seat on the front row.
A Tirasseela or a curtain was then held up on stage behind which appeared another dancer piercing the air with terrifying screams. The curtain is held up to denote a change of scene. The dancer could not be seen, only his screams could be heard to the accompaniment of loud music. The curtain was finally dropped away to reveal a terrifying figure with long hair, painted almost entirely in black, grotesquely screaming. One gang member held my hand thinking that she would be called on stage yet again and I could see that she was not totally enamoured of what she saw. It was a bit frightening to be honest. The screams along with the make-up and accompanying music created an atmosphere that reminded me of the ancient voo-doo dancers or the traditional ghost-busters of yore. The first sight of the grotesque dancer was electric and terrifying. It was difficult to believe that he was the handsome lad who had first appeared before us with the yellow make-up. His transformation was complete and remarkable.
He was then joined on stage by the dancer who had his face painted green exuding an agreeable expression. His actions and dance movements denoted his nature, which was pleasant and appealing. It was not always easy to understand what the dancers were trying to convey. There was an explanation provided at the beginning of the performance, which was a little difficult to understand because of the sound system. An entertaining fight ensued between the two characters to the accompaniment of the music and the vocals. The musicians adapted their music whenever the dance routine changed. The green dancer won and it was the end of the performance. To say that we were riveted to our seats would be an understatement. Even the reluctant gang members had been fully engrossed. The performance had been alive and engrossing somewhat akin to watching a rock performance. The fact that it was only an hour long helped. Had it been longer then it may not have had the same impact. We were surprised to see that the theatre had completely filled up. I would have loved to know what the foreign tourists and especially the younger tourists thought of this dance form.
A stupendous performance worth the amount of money that we had paid and the reluctant gang members had complained only once! At the end of the performance, you could walk up to the stage to have your photo taken with the dancers. Normally I’m shy with such sorties however I really wanted to have my picture taken with the impressive evil dancer. Finally leaving all shyness aside, I ambled up to the stage to have my photo taken. After having several photos clicked, I thanked the dancer, who smiled and even through all the layers of his grotesque make-up it was still possible to detect the shy, pleasant young man beneath it all.