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kathakali dancing

I sat, camera in hand right at the back of the auditorium. Every couple of minutes I would work up the determination to walk up directly to the stage and snap a picture. The image I was trying to capture was the dancer as he blended on his makeup; slowly covering his face with a saffron orange and then a pea green. I wasn’t the only one. All the tourists around me were perched on the edges of the seat as he applied eye and cheek powder. His face was completely transformed into a creepy grinning villain; a demon to be precise.

The whole process took about an hour as the various characters applied their heavy makeup, the orange face and winged liner for a princess, yellow for the hero and the green and red mask for the villain. The process took an hour, by which time my 20-minute attention span had begun to wander. How did people transform themselves every day?

When the characters disappeared backstage, a hush settled over the audience. Lights were dimmed and a rainbow silk cloth raised. Drum beats and singing began as the dancers took their positions.

The story was simple, from the Mahabharta where Bhim kills the demon Kichaka who was troubling his wife, Princess Draupadi. The characters had donned elaborate jewelry, and colorful costumes. Their eyes were blazing red (later I would learn they used a seed to dye the inside of their eyes). There were no quick movements, they used their neck, eye, hand and mouth muscles to convey expressions. The climax of the play was when Bhim stabbed Kichaka and the demon went tumbling down.

As the play was over, people roused themselves, slowly leaving the auditorium. There were the admirers who sat back to talk to the dancers but I was so I walk shuffled out, desperate to get out of the AC.

Once I was out, an old man approached me.

“I’ve been here seven times,” He said. “This is the seventh performance I’ve seen, but it’s the best.”

 

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