Kathkali - mime on acid!

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April 10th 2017
Published: April 15th 2017
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When I was young, whenever I'd pull a silly face, fingers dragging my bottom eyelids down while at the same time shoving the tip of my nose up and my mouth wide (that was always the favourite) my mum used to warn me that if the wind changed direction my face would stay that way. Of course I didn't believe her and gurned away thinking I was hilarious, but still a tiny part of me wondered if maybe she was right making me stop pretty soon after. After all who wants to spend the rest of their life looking like a pig that's had a stroke? Tonight at the Cochin Cultural Centre Academy of Arts and Performing Theatre I am to get a lesson in extreme face pulling that no wind on earth could fix in place so quick are the movements.

This is to be an evening learning about the traditional Indian theatre art of Kathakali. We start by watching the two actors applying their stage make-up. In this art form men play both male and female roles so one of the guys is attempting a stylised version of a woman with large painted on eyebrows, shiny red lips and swirls of paint made to look like ringlets falling onto his cheeks. The other guy basically looks like an angry clown when he's finished but we find out he is to play the part of Jayantha, son of the King of heaven.

Before the performance we are given a demonstration of nine different emotions all hammed up to the nth degree - a bit like mime on acid! There is a drummer accompanying the acting, the actor's wide bulging eyeballs moving in time to the steadily increasing beat of the drum. It's very funny and also very clever. Of all the emotions demonstrated my favourite is 'disgust' which could equally be renamed 'constipation'!

Our demo actor disappears backstage to don his full costume and while he does this we get a breakdown of the story we are about to see performed Kathkali style. Summarised, basically a beautiful woman flirts with Jayantha in the garden. He's only interested if she's from heaven, which of course she insists she is. Passion and promises of sex make him believe her at first, but soon the truth is revealed - shock horror, she's really a demoness in disguise and he cuts off her breast and nose, as you do! It's just as well we have this description of the story as when the actor's, in their amazingly flamboyant costumes, perform it's so quick and confused there's no way we would have worked it out ourselves. What a fascinating evening's entertainment, one to be stored in the memory banks.

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