[ KATHAKALI ] Kerala, India


As I've finally (after a long, insomnia-ridden train ride (my first of many no doubt)) reached 'Gods Own Country', aka Kerala, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to witness first hand the magnificent but rather peculiar tradition that is Kathakali. A traditional dance-drama, Kathakali has been performed throughout India for the last 300 years, but its origin lies within the modern day state that is Kerala. What drew me almost straight off the boat and over to the Kathakali Centre on Fort Cochin were the fabulously colourful costumes and exaggerated make-up styles of the characters. I'd seen pictures all over the internet during my research into the states' traditional practices but getting up close (the front row of course!) is really something else. The composition each character's costume are made up of a multitude of layered fabrics, jewellery and accessories -not to mention numerous coats of face paint!

One of three destinations for visitors to learn about Kathakali in Kerala (other than experiencing it at festivals and local village events), the Kathakali Centre in Fort Cochin offers a taste of Kathakali performance alongside narrated explanations of the various symbolic facial features and hand gestures used throughout the performances to convey emotions and actions. Make sure to arrive up to 30 minutes before the performance is due to start and you'll get to witness the dancers applying their thick coats of make-up. There is also a small museum detailing the history and narratives played out during performances.

As excited as I am about these beautiful costumes, in true wandering inquisitiveness I like to get a bit of background on my traditions. After all, what are aesthetics without a story behind them? So on my trip to the Kathakali Centre I discovered that these performances, like many other traditions throughout India are based on themes from Hindu mythology, in particular the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Check out these paintings from the museum: costume make up for various Kathakali characters and other tradtional dances - Inspiration for make up artists like my friend and sometime collaborator Elvis Schmoulianoff! Apparently the colours used on each character are symbolic of their nature and are generally classified into these five basic sets:

1. Pachcha (green):  noble male characters with a pious and kingly nature
2. Kathi (red streaks on green face): evil characters such as the demon king Ravana
3. Kari (black) : lady demons
4. Thaadi (beard) - Vella (white) is used for super humans i.e Hanuman (the monkey god), Chuvanna (red) for evil characters and Karutha (black) for a hunter
5. Minukku: females and sages.

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