Thursday, April 03, 2008


I met a German girl called Nina and she invited me to join her at a performance of Kathakali, a traditional Keralan art form.

We took our seats (plastic patio furniture) at the front of the small theatre, and waited for the show to begin. We were introduced to the principal actor, a man "famous for playing the lady parts", a lady explained. Middle-aged and pot-bellied, with a hairy chest under his sash, layers of make-up and bright gloss lipstick smeared clown-like around his mouth, he looks a lot like a panto character. Cinderella's sisters spring immediately to mind. Only uglier.

First we would be shown a demonstration of some of the movements. The actor obediently launched into a sequence of eyebrow raising, tongue-poking, eye-rolling and general grimacing, like some sort of facial yoga. Next, the depiction of emotions - "anger", "fear", "love", etc. Then animals: "this is a snake," which involved flailing arms and legs in what struck me as a most un-snakelike manner. It was as much as we could do to keep a straight face as he acted out a swarm of bees and a lotus flower. For the final demonstration, the commentator-lady instructed us to "watch as a man plays the part of a loving mother". We watched as the man apparently stalked an imaginary child around the stage, screwing his face into what I suppose was meant to be a tender smile, but I'm sure would frighten the poor thing. Then he mimed breast-feeding an invisible child whose head was apparently detachable, as he held it under his sash, while cradling the body on the other side of the fabric.

The main performance was a scene from one of the Hindu epic legends - I forget which. The commentator lady explained that a demoness has transformed herself into a beautiful princess to try and capture the heart of a handsome prince. "Famous for the lady parts" sweeps onstage, a change of costume and the addition of a couple of tennis balls on his collar bones transforming into the sort of beautiful princess you wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley. He's joined by the handsome prince, heavily coated with green face paint and peculiar traditional rice paper gills.

Demoness-slash-Beautiful-Princess sets about attempting to seduce him, but he rejects her. She doesn't give up so easy though, and tries again. Eventually tiring of her advances, he runs her through with his sword. This seems a trifle excessive, but anyway his attack seems to make her revert to her demonly form (couldn't be quite sure, except that she sticks her tongue out), which confirms he did the right thing - the moral of the story being that evil, no matter what its form, should always be punished.

Now, I'm sorry, I know this is supposed to be all very cultural, an art form rooted in ritual and steeped in tradition and generally a spiritual and enlightening experience, but even as Handsome Prince stomped about the stage with the drummer working up to a crescendo, honestly it just seemed a bit daft - especially with the least believable Beautiful Princess in history trying to be coy at the side.

At least now when everyone in Kerala asks if I've seen Kathakali yet, I can say I have.


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