Kathakali & Kalaripayattu: Kerala's Ancient Art Forms
A stay in Kochi affords you the opportunity to sample Kerala's best-known classical art form Kathakali, a performance style that delves into the world of demons, deities, soldiers, sages, and satyrs, taken from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata. Combining various theatrical and performance elements, it is said to have developed during the 16th century under the auspices of the Raja of Kottaraka, and today the best Kathakali school is in Kalamandalam, founded by a poet named Vallathol Narayan Menon in 1930. Here, students undergo a rigorous training program that lasts 6 years and includes massage techniques, extensive makeup training, and knowledge of the precise and subtle finger, body, and eye movements that constitute the language and grand emotions of Kathakali. There is also a host of instruments that may be mastered, as no performance is without musical accompaniment. So striking are the costumes, makeup, and jewelry associated with this form of dance-theater that the image of the elaborately adorned, heavily made-up, and almost masklike face of the Kathakali performer has become the state's most recognizable icon. Performers employ exaggerated facial expressions and a highly technical set of symbolic hand gestures . Vocalists and musicians help set the mood, utilizing the chengila (gong), elathalam (small cymbals), and chenda and maddalam (drums). Traditionally, Kathakali performances are held for entire nights, often as part of festival events. In Kochi, however, a number of Kathakali groups stage short extracts of the longer pieces specifically for tourist consumption. Kerala is also renowned for its unique martial arts form: the supremely acrobatic Kalaripayattu, believed to be the oldest defense-combat system in the world. Apparently discovered in ancient times by traveling Buddhist monks who needed to protect themselves against marauding bandits, Kalaripayattu is believed to predate more recognizable forms, like kung-fu, that emerged farther east.
In Fort Kochi, the Kerala Kathakali Centre near Santa Cruz Basilica hosts the best Kathakali demonstration in the city. Kathakali performances are held daily from 6 to 7:30pm, with makeup demonstrations starting at 5pm. Afterwards, the center also hosts hour-long Indian classical music performances, starting at 8pm; on Saturdays, another classical dance form is performed instead of the music concert. Martial arts demo shows are held in the afternoon at 4pm. If you're interested in attending a proper all-night Kathakali performance at a temple, speak to one of the organizers at Kerala Kathakali; some of their top performers are often involved in authentic rituals.
If you want to cram as much variety into the evening as you possibly can, then catch the kaleidoscopic look at Kerala's traditional dance forms at the strictly-for-tourists Greenix Village, opposite Fort House hotel, just down the road from the Brunton Boatyard. The nightly showcase is a bit heavy-handed, with a thundering narration explaining each of the dances, but at least you get to see forms other than Kathakali, including a short theyyam piece , and a sampling of koodiyattam, the oldest surviving Sanskrit theater form. Tickets are Rs 300, and in season it's probably a good idea to book in advance . The theater has a permanent exhibition on all of Kerala's dance forms, which you can walk through prior to the show, and there's a good little bookstore to peruse afterwards. Shows start at 6:30pm and last an hour. Kalaripayattu sessions happen 8 to 9am and 3 to 4pm.
The other, more famous Kathakali venue, featured on a number of television programs, is inconveniently located in Ernakulam, near the Junction Railway station India Foundation hosts nightly performances, introduced to the audience by P. K. Devan -- he reveals the religious roots and philosophy behind the katha (story) and kali (play). Performances are held between 6:45 and 8pm; makeup starts at 6pm.
While there are a number of dedicated training schools (kalaris) where Kerala's traditional martial arts form, Kalaripayattu, is taught for its intended purpose, it is usually performed in a staged environment for tourists. Shiva Shakti Kalari Kshetram holds daily demonstrations of Kalaripayattu from 5 to 6pm; the institute also provides training and Ayurvedic massage based on principles derived from the art of Kalari. Another option is Dakshina Bharatha Kalari , with daily shows at 7pm.
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