Kathakali dates back to the 17th century as the classical dance-drama of Kerala, South India. It is rooted in Hindu mythology and combines literature, music, painting, acting and dance. Typically the actors do not speak, but the story is sung by Kathakali singers. The acting is rendered in elaborate gestures and through skillful body language.
The performance I had a chance to attend in Fort Cochin old city was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the ears, listening to the hypnotic voice of a modern-day local Kathakali Theatre singer who brilliantly rendered the story of unrequited love, or perhaps more to the point “lust” unfolding on stage.
The play was titled Kichaka Vadham – The Killing of Kichaka, an anti-hero and Commander-in-Chief of the Army who was depicted in half green, half red mask which we in the audience got a chance to see being skillfully painted onto the actor prior to the performance. Malini, the Queen’s lady in waiting, played by a male actor gloriously camouflaged as a woman, is courted by Kichaka. Despite his persistence and elaborate and charming postures and dancing, Malini rejects Kichaka’s advances and escapes into the palace kitchen where she informs a guard Bhima of Kichaka’s ill intentions. The two set up a trap for lovelorn Kichaka. Malini lures Kichaka into a parlour where Bhima lies in waiting to kill him at the end of the play.
Perhaps it was the day long touring of the old sea port of Fort Cochin and learning about the history of the spice trade back in the 17th century by the Portuguese that set the stage appropriately for this high drama in the evening. Nevertheless, I truly appreciated spending the first half an hour of the time watching the actors prepare their elaborate face make-up and listen to the eery drumming that nicely prepared us for the spectacle that followed. The play made me think about how others in the port town had gone to similar performances for over 300 years and how amazing it is that this art form has survived. A must see for all lovers of theatre, acting, mime and dance.