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Published: December 8th 2011
Our first night in Varkala completely failed to see any assault by tiny gecko feet on Tess, or Aisha for that matter. So we dragged ourselves reluctantly out of bed and into the hot, humid day. We wandered down the strip of shops (imagine a tiny Indian mall/market stretched out along the side of a path running the length of the cliffside) to see what we could see. We managed to find breakfast at the Rock & Roll Cafe (Aisha cunningly having noticed the night before that they did all day breakfast, which = winning, as any breakfast that requires leaping out of bed before 9am is not cool) and then proceeded to perform some light shopping. Tess decided to have some clothes made by one of the many tailors along the cliff in the hope that they'd be somewhat cooler than the merino t-shirts we'd (AISHA. AISHA THOUGHT THIS.) ill-advisedly thought would be cool enough for Southern India. So after Tess got measured and picked out some fabrics we set out to relax for most of the rest of the day. Although not before we'd attempted to book train tickets on to Alleppey/Allapuzha only to discover they were all booked
out - well, the ones at any human hour were booked out. So we figured we would spring for the 40-odd dollars to travel the 2 hours by car and arranged for a driver to pick us up at 11am the next morning
Lunch involved another session of sitting on top of one of the restaurants soaking up the view, though Tess' stomach has been a bit of a fragile little petal so her lunch was on the plain side. Something Tess had been keen to do was attend a Kathakali performance, which are held every evening in a small shed-cum-stage behind the main strip. At about 6pm we headed down to watch the three performers apply their stage makeup and get into their costumes, as this definitely qualifies as part of the entertainment. At this point some explanation is probably required. Kathakali is one of the seven recognised forms of traditional Indian dance, it's extremely makeup heavy and involves incredibly elaborate costumes and headpieces. Most of the art resides in the incredible non-verbal communication practised by the (all male) actors who are able to control each and every facial muscle to a minute degree conveying the story through
gesture and expression. The performance is backed by drums, cymbals and singing, but the actors don't themselves speak (although we were to discover they do yell, scream and laugh maniacally).
After watching the makeup we were treated to an explanation of the makeup used, which is all traditional pigments ground from stone and mixed with coconut oil, then were given a demonstration of some of the basic emotional states as displayed in Kathakali. This actor has been performing for over 20 years and was playing a woman in the show that nights and his ability to be so feminine in every gesture, look, movement and expression was insane. His simpering, coy 'Romance' was absolutely outstanding; and the bitchy looks of 'Anger' were spot on. Following this very impressive display we then were treated to the show. The story of this was a short one from the traditional folklore of India, about the demoness Nakrathundi who transformed herself into an attractive young woman and attempted to seduce a comparatively hot young piece called Jayantha, who spurned her advances, resulting in her transformation back into a demoness again, and him doing a particularly nasty piece of amateur mastectomy on her with
He/she was scary, okay?
a sword. Or as the helpful program explained (SPOILER ALERT!)... Nakrathundi & Jayantha Scene 1: The demoness Nakrathundi finds that her body is not clean and tidy. So she manages to clearn up her body. Then she combs her hair with fingers and ties it up. She cleans her ears and puts on ornaments. She cleans her eyes and paints her eyebrows. She wants to play. As there is nobody to play with her she begins to play some games alone. Then she goes to Devaloka to capture maidens. On the way there she sees Jayantha, the son of Indra. She falls in love with him. To fulfil her desire she assumes the form of a beautiful girl. Scene 2: Nakrathundi is now in the form of a beautiful girl. She approaches Jayantha. She asks him plainly to marry her. Jayantha tries to escape from her. She gets angry and assumes her real form. She starts to use physical force to fulfil her desire. There upon Jayantha draws his sword and cuts off her nose, ears and part of her breast. She retreates (sic) from the scene.
This summation completely fails to capture the
incredible spectacle that was the show however, as it really deserves far more than text and any pictures we took can convey. To watch the men as they started putting on the makeup and then see how they transformed into their characters on stage in these ornate and amazingly elaborate costumes was a true privilege. It was also incredible how absorbed we were in the performance. You know when you're watching a really good movie, and all of a sudden you realise you'd tuned out everything around you and were focusing just on the movie? It was like that. When the demoness came on stage, Tess was fully freaked out as he/she was actually really scary! Also because half the audience were wet blankets while Tess was getting into things, the demoness decided to pick on her throughout the performance, screaming and cackling in her face, making faces and gesturing at her until she was well and truly uncomfortable! The fourth wall!!! At one point she thought he was putting a curse on her. Following the performance, Tess faced her demoness inspired fear and got up on stage for a photograph with the cast. But it was sad to hear
that back in the 90s they were performing in front of hundreds of tourists rather than the small handful they do today. Apparently travelling to India is just one more thing that the War on Terror has dragged down into George W .Bush's paranoid pit of delusional suspicion in the eyes of many western travellers.
The show has to rate as being one of the highlights of our visit to India so far and may be one of the most enduring memories we carry with us from Kerala. We stepped back outside in something of a daze and went to grab a late dinner (luckily for us everything along the cliff strip is open pretty late, if not 24 hours). Dinner itself also deserves a mention, because it's probably going to shape our expectations of barbequeued fish from here on and turn us into those twats who are forever saying 'yeah its good, but not as good as this one time we were in Kerala...'. Also it was at the Sea Queen Multi Cushion Restaurant! We ate there after all! Tess was disappointed at the lack of cushions, however. But we digress (there's a lot of that in this
blog), dinner was in fact a whole white snapper, freshly caught (as in was swimming around 3 hours before we ate it) and then barbequeued to perfection with Keralan spices and marinade, served up wrapped in a leaf to keep the juices in. It may be one of the tastiest things we've ever eaten, the fish just falling off the bone and all too quickly it was gone, to sighs from both of us. Also it was 500 Rupees! After the Osaka taxi currency conversion, you are more than welcome to do our rupee fish conversion. After Aisha decided to cement his reputation for gluttony on this trip by ordering dessert, we crashed out for the night to the sound of huge waves hitting the cliff.
The only additional note was the power cuts - power supply is somewhat sketchy through the region, but that last night in Varkala the power went on, went off, went on, went off. The only problem was that the fan was the only thing making the temperature livable in the room, so not much sleep was had...
Aisha & Tess
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