The meaning escaped us

In the hills near Munnar. Last evening we went to a nearby performance of the art of Kathakali dancing.

Kathkali is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance, a “story play” genre of art, but one distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and facemasks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. Kathakali primarily developed as a Hindu performance art in the southwestern region of India (Kerala), where we are now.

We were thinking that, while the language of Kathkali (Sanskrit) might be a problem, we would be be able to follow a basic story line – as one sees in commedia dell’arte or pantos or Punch and Judy. Surely those were ancient and universal fodder for the stage?

That may be, but we were just unable to make the leap with what we saw last night. Endless repetition of music and gestures of three main characters just didn’t translate, and to our Western ears, the music was relentlessly loud and atonal.

We started out well, with one character demonstrating emotions with his quite expressive make-up.

The first act was his alone, and then another character joined, to much excitement. The costumes were quite elaborate and colorful and the interaction of the two was lengthy though mysterious. The routes of this art go back for centuries, more than 1500 years. It was impressive – just not comprehensible to those as uneducated as we are.

Care to tap your feet to the rhythm?


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