We had the opportunity to watch a Kathakali dance performance while we were in Kochi, and grabbed it with both hands. Now, viewing a Kathakali dance performance had been on my bucket list for long. So, we when we discovered that the Cochin Cultural Centre held performances every day, we could not contain our excitement and booked tickets right away. We were not at all disappointed. The show was simply superb, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Kathakali is said to have originated in Kerala as far back as the 17th century, and has undergone several changes since then. The dance gestures and costumes have become more elaborate over time. In those days, Kathakali performances used to begin in the evening, go on all through the night, and end only in the morning, considering that people had very few other modes of entertainment. As lives got busier, the performances started getting shorter and shorter, and now, hardly extend for more than 2 hours. The performance that we saw lasted for a little more than an hour.
The word ‘Kathakali’ is made up of two distinct words – katha (meaning ‘story’) and kali (meaning ‘performance’).A Kathakali performance is, thus, a story told in the form of a performance. The dance we got to see was ‘Keechakavadha’, based on a story from the Mahabharata about the slaying of the demon Keechaka.
As a wonderful bonus, we got to see the artistes getting dressed up in their finery and applying their make-up before the performance. That, again, was something I had always wanted to do. It was quite a sight to see – watching simple, demure men transform into grandly dressed heroes and heroines and fiery demons! My heart was in my mouth to see the amount of make-up that went on each artist’s face, but I relaxed visibly when we were told that all the make-up for Kathakali performances is done using entirely natural ingredients, like rice paste and the powder from stones and flowers.
There is very little or no speech in a Kathakali dance performance. The story is narrated entirely through the song (which a singer sings in the background), the eye and hand movements of the artistes, and little grunts and other songs made by them. I never knew grunts could be so expressive!
I was initially afraid that I might get bored during the performance or not understand it at all. Thankfully, all my fears turned out to be ill-founded. I was spellbound throughout the show, and could not take my eyes off the artistes. The same was the case with the OH and the 20-odd guests we watched the performance with. I had no problem at all in grasping any part of the story. The performance was not at all slow, but went at the right pace. I did not even know when it came to an end!
I am so glad to see the art of Kathakali is being accepted so well by Indians and foreigners alike. Unlike many other Indian folk arts and crafts, there are considerable steps being taken to keep this dance form alive, I am delighted to note.
We had not known what to expect out of the performance, but now, I am so very happy that we took a chance and went to see it. It is an experience worth having in life, something that each of you should do whenever you are in Kerala.