Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Canned cultural immersion.  We've experienced it before, and ever since we've preferred to avoid tourist trap cultural shows.  However, when the "real thing" is a twelve hour, overnight, sitting-on-the-floor-of-a-temple dance performance, sometimes the two hour tourist production is the right move.  (Especially when it's ninety degrees outside and the tourist production has aircon.)  And that's how Dave, Russ and I found ourselves at the Cochin Cultural Center's Daily Kathakali Show.

Well, mostly we found ourselves there because I demanded that we go.  The boys were less than convinced.
But who are they to deny the "Kerala Tourism Excellence Award Winner"? 
Kathakali is an Indian dance-drama that began in Kerala in the seventeenth century, although its origins go back as far as the second century.  Traditional and religious stories are told through the actors' clothing and make-up, precise facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements, accompanied by music.  The makeup application is itself an art form, and we were able to show up early and watch the men paint their own and each other's faces.  The type and color of makeup is extremely specific to the qualities (hero, villain, god, animal, woman) of the character being portrayed.

Kathakali training takes 8-10 years, and performers typically start learning their craft as young boys. Precision and discipline are crucial, and the actors even learn to control the movement of their eyeballs.

This man was moving his eyeballs back and forth, up and down,
perfectly in synch with a constantly changing drum beat.  Amazing.
Although the actors don't speak, they manage to tell complex stories.  Mudras are hand gestures that form a kind of sign language.  Navarasas are the nine facial expressions, representing love, valor, pathos, wonder, derision, fear, disgust, fury and tranquility.  Bored was Russ, sitting in the back, rubbing his freshly shorn head.




The show that we watched was a condensed performance of the story of a demon who seduces a prince. A young, handsome prince is out for a walk by the lake, when a beautiful woman calls out to him.  It's pretty much my and Dave's life story.
A casual underarm sword-tuck is just right for a casual lakeside stroll.
Our beautiful woman calls out (non-vocally, of course), "Hey there handsome!"
They fall madly in love, and the prince wants to run off at once to ask his father if he can marry her.  But she has other ideas.  Ideas like jumping his bones, right then and there.  The prince is an honorable man, so he insists on parental permission (and protection).  But she pursues him relentlessly.

To all you men out there, beware!  Never trust a sexually aggressive woman. It turns out that the supposedly beautiful woman is actually a demon who has borrowed the body of one of her earthly maidservants in order to sleep with the prince.
The demon is unmasked!  It is (even more) hideous!
I'm not sure that I ever need to attend a full, overnight Kathakali performance, but two hours was the perfect amount of time to learn about this unique art form and admire the skill and expressiveness of the performers.  Even if the moral of the story was less than feminist.

Pretty sure the actor took one look at Dave's dome and flashed the "disgust" navarasa.

All of our photos from the Kathakali dance performance are available here.

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