I was feeling itchy in my residence—both mentally and physically (some travel sickness-prescribed antibiotics combined with sunburn created a nasty rash). It had been almost a week and I really hadn’t felt inspired by anything enough to photograph it in depth. Pleasant is fantastic for living, but just so-so for images. Kochi, in all its loveliness, has a durable tourist veneer, and I needed to scratch beneath it just a bit. I had done some research on local art forms and I was most excited about Kathakali: the native Keralan dance. Cobbled together in the 17th century from existent dance styles, Kathakali was created for the royal court’s enjoyment. There are over a hundred different stories that are intricately acted out, many from the Bhagavatha.
Kathakali is fascinating to me because the method of storytelling is so intricate and opaque to western eyes. As a singer and rousing drums provide backup, the dancers, painted grotesquely and clothed in architectural uniforms, tell stories not with their mouths, but with numerous mudras, or hand movements—essentially a Malayalan sign language. In addition, the actors utilize very controlled and exaggerated facial expressions by quivering each part of the face at will, or controlling eye movement with skillful, unblinking precision. None of this is improvised. The stories remain as they were originally conceived, and all members of the troupe commit to at least four years of training in their roles to perfectly retell the epics, which are often over nine hours in length and are performed until dawn.
The unmistakeable makeup is applied ceremoniously, from highly pigmented rocks that are ground and emulsified with coconut oil. Tiny seeds are placed into the corners of the eyes to painlessly render them bloodshot.
I was lucky enough to be invited backstage after the performance and see the actors disrobed of their personae.
Special thanks to Kerala Khatakali Centre and their talented performers.