Like other Indian states, Kerala is devoted to its culture of dance and music. Without even visiting you automatically associate Kerala with Kathakali because every advertisement or poster about God’s own country is accompanied with a majestic image of the dancer. However there is much more than just Kathakali in Kerala and if you really want to learn more then you must visit the Kalamandalam arts center.
I can’t help but feel like this is straight out of a story book. A vast property with small cottages where students practice with their gurus, the hot sun beating down along with a faint but cool breeze, music in different corners of the school as students practice their instruments, girls and boys running to class and giggling with each other – Kalamandalam seems like a happy environment where students are eager to devote their days to learning different dance forms, music and a lot more. The school takes great care in honing the students skills and teaching them.
There is an immense amount of discipline here and as I stroll through the school watching the students in practice, I realize this is my first real encounter with the cultural side of Kerala. Till now my focus has been on visiting places, discovering their food and meeting people. Here I hang back a bit and watch interestingly at girls and boys probably younger than me, attack their homework with such diligence.
You have to really love what you do or you wouldn’t fit in this school. There is no fancy air conditioned auditorium with surround sound or air conditioned classes or a plush canteen. Yet it has everything a student would need to learn and excel and like the rest of the people in Kerala, I realize everyone is very happy.
While Mohinattam and Kathakalli are dance forms that are taught and dancers are trained and perform at various functions all over the world, there is another dance form which has a more religious background than cultural. Theyyam is a ritual worship through dance in Northern Kerala. I had absolutely no idea about this till we were scheduled to visit a temple at night where it was to be performed. It had been a very hectic day and I was exhausted by the time we were on our way back and I was one of the few that opted to give this temple visit a miss. A part of me felt bad that I’d be missing out on something but as my friend Oscar rightly said ” I don’t do crowds”. Also the thought of losing my money or phone is petrifying on a trip like this so I just thought you win some, you lose some and headed back to my hotel with some of the other less adventurous. Luckily for me it turned out there was no temple visit due to some other reasons and no one went. Instead our hotel was kind enough to organize a private session before dinner the next day so we could experience a Theyyam performance.
It took the dancer, just one single dancer almost 2 hours to get ready, which included making part of his costume and putting on his makeup. All this while I thought nothing of it, just another dance , till the drums started and the dancer took center stage and along with his costume had 4 sticks attached to him which were lit on fire. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like just another dance. I don’t understand his movements or his frequent chants or shouts ( is it prayer or a release because of all the weight and heat on him) but I’m unable to tear my eyes off him. He’s prancing about the space, he inches closer to the crowd and then back and then closer again and at one point I’m startled because I think he might come too close or worse pull me up – I don’t know, I’m completely unaware of what to expect but all the while I cannot stop watching him. I’m told that these performances never happen anywhere except in a temple and these dancers can go on for hours and hours and that their costume and make up is far more elaborate. I can barely understand how this dancer is performing for so long with the heat and flames I can’t even imagine what it would be like to watch them in the temple.
Suddenly the loud constant drumming comes to a halt and the dance is over. There is a sudden silence, almost respectful, among the audience and I watch the dancer heaving heavily trying to catch his breath. I feel like I’ve witnessed a little bit of magic with his performance. We’re told we can offer the dancer a token ( money) and I don’t know what makes me rush over to meet him. He shakes my hand, takes the money, puts some milky liquid on my forehead and head and I assume he blesses me. It’s strange because for a second I look straight into his eyes and he looks into mine. I’m scared, almost as if he can see what I’m thinking or can sense my unsureness. He mumbles again and squeeze my hand tight, almost in a reassuring manner. I don’t know if it’s because my mind was pre occupied with events or because I was having a bad day and desperately needed to believe in something but it felt for a minute, albeit a brief minute, that he really did bless me and almost squeezed my hand as if to say don’t worry – at least I’d like to believe that.
With such a trigger happy group and about 5 cameras being pointed at him during this time even he realized he’s the star of the evening and chuckled as he held my hand and posed with me. I got to witness a bit of Theyyam, pose for a photo op and get my blessing, I was a happy little taster – I think I made a friend 😉