A blast of South India

Tonight I went to see a performance of Kathakali dance by The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company at the Mill Arts Centre.  Fantastic live music and great story telling with amazing costumes.  I was at first disconcerted that a Northern lass stepped out on stage to give a bit of background explanation and introduce the audience to this South Indian dance form.  She was the make up artist for the company and had strayed in to India many years ago on her travels and been hooked ever since.

We were treated to a demonstration /explanation of the use of gesture and facial expression and the difference in characterisation between male and female characters -all played by males.  This was clearly and humourously presented and I found myself give out a huge laughs as the exaggerated male versions were shown.

This was followed by a short film which showed the elements contributing to the performance – costume, dance, make up, music and then a synopsis of the story we were about to watch.  Another disconcerting element as it was an Indian version of Snow White!

I was not expecting any of this introduction, and part of me, having practised a different South Indian dance form and seen many Indian classical dance performances felt I didn’t need it.  However, I think it was a really useful and helpful bridging tool.  Using a well known tale and telling it in a different dance language, giving a few specific and easy to understand gestures which the audience could recognise when they occured in the story.  Also drawing attention to the very specific skills employed in the use of eye and face movements.

The make up and costume are quite extraordinary – green and black faces,  white protuberances from the face, elaborate decoration.  Huge headressess with manes of long ‘hair’ and wide,  short rounded hooped skirts.  On some fingers were metal extensions and from the costume dangled various cords and tassles and cloth that could be tossed and stroked or examined as the mood demanded.

At all moments the musicians bare chested (not young) men stood framing the action and completely attentive.  Wonderful subtlety and precision of timing with the actions and gestures on stage, dramatic changes of volume and rhythm, perfectly repetitive beating, tapping creating suspense or the sense of time passing.  Some beautiful singing, gentle and melodious enveloping actors and audience in emotions felt in the heart.  The complete integration with and support of the movement and emotions of the actors was wonderful.  What a treat live performance is!

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