Drums beating, cymbals crashing, lamp glowing, makeup shining, eyes glaring, face twitching, mouth gurning, hands undulating, feet stamping, costumes spinning, jewellery glinting, brow sweating, rhythm escalating. Welcome to the world of Kathakali, Keralan ritualised dance-drama with little unchanged over the last 1,500 years. Originally performed in the 16th century in temples, palaces and at religious festivals, the sacred dance-drama tells stories of Hindu mythology and the lives of the Gods.
The venue was Trivandrum’s striking Kanakakunnu Palace, surrounded by lush gardens, with wooden echoing flooring, gold-patterned walls, quaint balconies, luxurious chandeliers and colonial-style ceiling fans.
Always performed at night, Kathakali is enacted in front of a traditional kalivilakku butter lamp. The musicians assembled on stage; first 2 drummers, one with a horizontal drum strung around their waist and one upright. They were joined by two men on vocals and percussion, one with small symbols and one with a wooden rattle-like instrument. A loud narrator introduced the story, the Hindu epic of Ramayana, and the audience fell silent in anticipation.
Rama burst onto stage, luxuriant yellow satin skirt, purple velour top, and a silver-tiered headdress. His face was thick with bright green, lurid paint and his eyes glowed red and glared deeply into the captivated gaze of the audience. Dancers paraded down the audience aisle as the second act began, with 2 additional drummers increasing the volume and rhythm of the musical accompaniment.
The words of the singing vocalists behind are translated into actions by the soundless performers through a series of poses, bodily positions, facial expressions and sign language.
A small man with a big, bushy black beard and moustache leaps on to the stage, furious at Rama breaking Shiva’s bow. The singing paused as he began dancing angrily to frenetic drumming, Clenching his fists, he repeatedly and energetically jumped up and down, eyes and eyebrows twitching frantically whilst waving his red and gold tomahawk-style axe. He repetitively brandished his silver-tipped finger in accusation at Rama, who bows with hands together at every denunciation.
Periods of singing are interspersed with interludes of rapid drumming, with the drummers becoming faster and sweatier. The bearded character (clearly very pissed off about that bow still) is passionately expressive, constantly gesticulating and signing with his hands, eyes staring and intense facial expressions. The movements of his hands and fingers are detailed and intricate, known as ‘mudra’ these movements allow the silent actors to convey the story. The music gains momentum and volume to accompany escalating dancing and foot stamping. Just as you thought it was winding down, again he would begin stomping and spinning around.
Rama takes his, more sedate, turn for dancing, ignored by the bearded man who covers his ears. He responds by raising his axe towards Rama in a frenzy of drumming and hopping round the stage, beating his chest and forehead and preening his impressive moustache forcefully.
After two hours of intense drumming, singing, stomping and staring the performance reached its tinnitus-inducing peak. Rama and the bearded man dance together, passionately building up to a fight. A final tussle over the bow and suddenly Rama is recognised as a reincarnation of Vishnu which has an immediate calming effect on the angry bearded man who turns from violence to worship and embraces Rama.
In the humid, sticky Keralan evening I don’t know how the thick face-paint didn’t melt off but it stayed as still and perfect as the faces of the actors wearing it. Over two hours of one of the most intense and passionate performances I have ever seen left you feeling exhausted and wondering how the audience felt after the traditional all-night-long plays, let alone the actors and musicians with their unwavering stamina and intense concentration. A magical experience and the perfect finale to our enchanting time in the state of Kerala.