16 June 2019 – Visit to the Kerala Kathakali Centre
We took a rare evening out to visit the Kerala (State of) Kathakali Centre on Fort Kochi Island. During a few hours, we saw two different cultural things at this Centre, first was a demonstration of the ancient martial arts of Kerala, Kalarippayatu. Kalaripayattu (sometimes thankfully shortened as Kalari) is an Indian martial art and fighting system that originated in Kerala and was practiced by warriors of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is considered by some to be the oldest martial art still in existence, with its origin dating back to the 3rd century BC.
Where are the strings, one wonders?
This guy was spinning around with this very dangerous flexible blade sword.
These two guys were attacking one unarmed man – and they had knives!
Diane went down into their gym and got up close with them.
Our “main man” at the marina, our tuk-tuk driver and problem-solver —- Nazar —- is a Master of Kalari, having trained extensively in his younger days. This form of martial arts is not only ancient but its still quite popular.
The next thing we were introduced to was Kathakali, showcasing the ancient ritual plays of Hindu temples and various dance forms that are believed to have been gradually developed in Kerala from as early as the 2nd Century until the end of the 16th Century. Many of its characteristics are very much older than its literature, as they are a continuation of older traditions, but these did not crystallize until the 17th Century when the Rajah of Kottarakkara, a small principality in central Travancore, wrote plays based on the Hindu epic “Ramayana” in sanskritized Malayam (the local language), which could be understood by ordinary people. Before this, the stories were enacted in pure Sanskrit, which was known only to the well educated.
From that point onwards, Kathakali emerged as an individual style of dance-drama into a “people’s theatre”. The plays were performed by the Rajah’s own company of actors, not only in temples and courts, but from village to village and house to house – and became very popular. The feudal chieftains of Malabar (as the area was then called) began to vie with one another in their efforts to produce the best Kathakali troupes and this competition contributed to the rapid development of the art in a very short period. After watching it, my own assessment is that it seems to be a combination of theatre, ballet, opera (but there are very few words spoken) and maybe a bit of pantomime.
Before the performance started, we observed the two principal actors applying their makeup. It looked like a tedious process, particularly when you have to put on your own makeup.
We went to this theatre with Varghese, who was obviously hyped up to see the performance. It was very dark in the theatre and the use of flash photography was discouraged. Varghese joked that he had to smile showcasing his bright white teeth so that we could see him!
This is a good photo that shows what Kathakali looks like “in action”. There are two principal actors in this performance, with a drummer and a “singer” or “story-teller” in the background. None of this is in English, by the way.
You can get an idea of what’s happening in the story by watching the facial expressions of the actors. They don’t do much talking anyway.
On the ride home, I was hungry for some street food, particularly fried banana – which I’ve learned is usually available in a bakery. I soon realized that like Tandoori chicken (which is only available in the evening), fried banana is only available in the afternoon and not the evening. In the end we had to settle for some vegetable samosas and chocolate treats, which I usually enjoy.
This photo is something completely off topic, but I’ve been meaning to talk about it. Lots of women ride side-saddle on scooters and motorbikes, not as the driver – but as the passenger. Sometimes there is only one female passenger, sometimes the whole family. My point is, that there are lots of side-saddle passenger riders and I find it unusual. There are also lots of women driving scooters and motorbikes.
There was a story in the newspaper a few weeks ago about a woman who had a bad accident because her sarong became entwined with the rear wheel, something to be careful of.