In the southernmost Indian State of Kerala, Kathakali is the traditional dance.
At the performance where I took these photographs, the narrator used a hand percussion instrument and he was dressed in white and stood in a back corner of the stage. The drummer sat on a cloth-covered box in the back corner opposite the narrator, and the dancers took the front and middle of the stage.
The narrator described the dance as a way to relate to goodness. He explained the signs and symbols of the dance while the dancers demonstrated. Facial movements, eye movements, and neck and shoulder movements are used to convey traditional Hindu stories that the audience already knows–like enacting Biblical stories for a Christian audience.
Frequently, the audience arrives early to watch the actors having their heavy makeup applied. The dancers painted with bright green were the good characters; the dancers painted with red were the bad characters. (So was the Wicked Witch of the West good or bad?)
Sometimes a dancer might wear long silver nails like long finger picks on the fingers of only one hand and I wondered if that character had been a guitarist in a past life and now couldn’t get rid of the coveted, long nails (for finger picking) if they tried. These fantastic characters, in the bare setting with the drumming, gave me the sensation that I was at a séance conjuring up the surreal.
“It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.”—Arunhati Roy, from The God of Small Things
Eye Dancing and India’s Ancient Art of Kathakali is a YouTube that provides more information.
Buy it. Read it. Let me know what you think. –TMLL