Kathakali: Katha-kali: literally translating to story play or story drama.
[Yesterday, I was privileged enough to watch this cultural zeitgeist show of heart thumping music, mind blazing colours and girth expanding costumes called ‘Kathakali’. A forty-minute show in a touristy place that housed a long corridor which doubled up as an art gallery and reception, besides opening into various rooms of small curio shops, café and a folklore museum displaying puppets of various traditional costume dances with anecdotes of history and significance associated with it].
It is predominantly a facial dance involving almost all muscles of the face including the littlest ones around eyes and mouth, as also the eyes and mouth and its components to create a drama that is only heightened by the mesmerising make-up in colours that can be best described as basic but hypnotising. Add to it the drummers in the dark background, the white and red umbrella like costume boosted up by small pillows, I believe and the dark kohl literally adding a frame to the eyes of the kathakali player as if to say—look into my eyes, here you’ll find the story. Very minimal use of feet which include a bit of hop skip jump and walking besides a bit of dancing movements. The hands have a language and its alphabets called ‘mudras’ tell a story which add to the hypnotising drama of the face and eyes. If you can take your eyes off that face you might just be able to read the language of the hands but that would be like video recording a show and trying to watch It at the same time. But when the characters play out the drama you are feeling the ‘navarasas’ (emotional language in a spectrum of nine expressions) or at least one or more of them in great dramatic brilliance. At the end of the show, which portrayed a story about a seductress from the evil world of Asuras and a powerful king of the Devas/good world, I was convinced that the king was a patriarchal chauvinist of the common kind back in those days and the seductress just too tempted by his pomp and glory. In the end, he cut off her breasts and nose as punishment. But the story-play perhaps goes on to reveal the real drama and plot where the seductress was sent as a political move to overwhelm the king as part of a stratagem to win a war that was raging between the demons and Gods. But cutting of breasts and nose symbolically in our modern days would mean defamation and drying up the milk of kindness of a woman. Then it would seem that the story is very much relevant to our modern times and would still feel like chauvinism if viewed in seclusion from the rest of the drama, if at all the girl was innocent about being a pawn in the game.
It was the darkest drama I have ever seen in a dark auditorium on a dark stage lit initially only by lamps and then by some spot-lights focused on the swaying characters and yet it amazed me instead of horrifying me. Its effect was as if it put me in the centre of a warm room mesmerised by the dance of two awestruck light-bugs of brilliant colours. And I will be haunted by that experience forever just as I was by one Kathakali show stuck to my childhood memory witnessed on some beachy compound of a temple in an open theatre, while the audience sat half-sleeping half cross-legged on the sand. Was there a tarpaulin under us? I don’t remember. All I remember is that it was a story about some Gods at war or some monkey with a huge tail that could not be moved, a blue lotus and 😉 Zilch! Nothing more. But it remained a vibrant, haunting memory that took me back to seek out a green ghost and yellow witch for a replay effect.