Last Sunday we learned a bit about the South Indian dance theater form called Kathakali. We traveled to the house of our teacher on the outskirts of Kolkata. The calming smell of incense and a beautifully manicured traditional dance floor made of packed mud welcomed us. Various sitars (a classical Indian instrument) and masks covered with the distinct makeup of a Kathakali artist lined the room next door.
Our teacher started out telling us a bit about the history of Kathakali in the state of Kerala. A few things that I remember from the talk include that it’s traditionally performed in temples only by men (playing both male and female characters) and there are 101 classical stories told through the art form. It’s also performed throughout the night- from dusk until dawn. The painting on the faces and each outfit has specific meanings and takes hours to put together. I’m talking 6 plus hours to get ready for a performance! Each characters’ makeup is different depending on its nature (bad vs. good) and the headpieces and costume can weigh over 12 pounds. Of course, please give a it a quick Google if you want to learn more 😉
Our teacher studied Kathakali for over ten years before he had his ‘coming out’ performance. I’ve learned that many artists of Indian classical dance, be it Kathakali or Bharata Natyam, have a coming out performance of sorts where they show their family and friends their skill, passion and devotion to the art form. What a beautiful ceremony honoring a cultural tradition as a community.
We tried a few of the Kathakali movements throughout the class. Because it is in many ways more theater than dance, a huge amount of control over the small muscles in your face was required. It was awe inspiring to watch our teacher act out human emotions such as love, fear, anger, bravery, and disgust. The emotions he evoked through his facial expressions spoke to every part of my being. I went on an emotional rollercoaster with him as he walked our group of dancers through the human condition.
Move to Teach. Move to Learn. Move to Love. Move to Care. Move to Change.