Home > India 2012 > Books, Tapestries, and Theater

Books, Tapestries, and Theater

“Oh wow! I’ve read about that!” is something I’ve said quite a few times on this trip. The Ramayana and William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives have come to life several times. One was in the city museum in Kochi, where I saw tapestries depicting many scenes in The Ramayana and the Epic of Pabuji. The former I teach in World Literature, and the latter was featured in a chapter of Nine Lives. There’s something really exciting about being in such a foreign place and getting a glimmer of recognition.

Nine Lives came to my aid again when Pakis and I attended a traditional dance/theater performance called Kathakali. We were taken to the theater half an hour early to watch the performers’ makeup process, which seemed like a rather strange idea. It turned out to be fascinating, though.

We entered the theater to find a couple of performers sitting cross-legged and one lying down on the small stage. The seated ones were applying their own extremely colorful, extensive makeup while looking in hand held mirrors; a fourth person worked on the face of the prone actor. There were several people already in the audience when we arrived, and others filed in over the next 30 minutes.

Villain in makeup

Villain in complete makeup

When each actor’s makeup was finished, he stood in a dignified way and looked out at the audience, wordlessly inviting people to take their pictures before the show began. (No flash allowed later).


Decoration in front of stage

Once they were all ready, one of them came out and made decorations on the floor and the stage, lighting incense and praying to an idol before approaching the microphone.

What followed was a very helpful explanation of plot and technique.  Accompanied by the drummer, one of the actors gave an absolutely extraordinary demonstration of the eye and face movements that convey important elements of the story. It’s hard to imagine the stamina that would be needed for a traditional, all-night performance. We saw just a one-hour excerpt of the epic that was tailored for tourists. It was perfect, transporting us to an alien world without straining our attention span. Having just read about the related Theyyam tradition in Dalrymple’s book made it all the more accessible and fascinating.

Arjuna in performance
Categories: India 2012
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