One evening in Fort Kochi (Cochin, Kerala) I decided to check out this cultural center that was advertising traditional Indian performances, specifically something called Kathakali.
Kathakali is described as a “dance-drama” and I thought that sounded interesting, so for about $5 I bought a ticket and went to the show. They said to arrive at 5:30pm for “make-up.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
I arrived on time to the small, 2-storied theater and was seated about 12 rows back. On the stage there were two guys seated cross-legged putting brightly colored make-up on their faces. Another guy was laying on his back and a skirted man was doing his make-up for him. That guy was having his face painted green. The other guys were painting their faces red and orange. It was like being backstage at a play and getting to see all the preparations the actors make before a performance.
Kathakali is an ancient art form that originated in the state of Kerala in the 17th century. It has always been characterized by the elaborate costumes worn by the performers. They used to wear masks, but now just use elaborate make-up. It’s also characterized by very defined hand gestures and facial expressions, including some incredibly fast and specific eye movements. At the beginning of the show, one of the performers comes out and explains at least 20 hand gestures and facial expressions and their definitions to the audience.
In addition to the guys in costume, who are mostly “dancing” by stomping, gesturing and using facial expression, there are three other men on the stage who are singing and drumming. The drumming is extremely loud (so loud that I was wishing for some ear plugs toward the end). The story is told by the singer/narrator, but the venue provides each audience member with a written description of each act. Traditionally this type of play lasts about 8 hours, but for the sake of tourism they have condensed it to just over an hour.
The play I saw was about a demon who was terrorizing a kingdom by going on murderous rampages (this is the back story, not part of the play). So, a warrior is asked to bring a feast to the demon to draw him out from his hiding place (a cave) and then kill him. The killing scene was so overly dramatic and drawn-out, it was almost hard to watch.
Overall the “dance-drama” was a really unique and weird experience. I’m glad I went.
The demon is emerging from his cave… oooohhhhh!