In pursuit of classical art in Kochi

Sep 07, 2014, 09:55 IST | Sonia Nazareth

Heralded as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi is known for its architectural marvels. But Sonia Nazareth goes on a trail of the classical arts to gain insight into the port town’s rich cultural heritage and comes away impressed after watching locals perform Kathakali and Kuttiyattam, the oldest surviving tradition of theatre

Best time to visit: August-February
You need: 4 days

Artistes believe tourist-friendly versions of Kathakali employ more people and breathe more life into the craft

No experience of the major port city of Kochi is symmetrical. No impression of it uncomplicatedly romantic or uniformly consistent. It’s easy to see why Kochi has been attracting explorers to her shores for over 600 years, with the promise of coir and cashew, seafood and spices. What glistens in reverie from any trip here, is an intriguing mix of influences. Giant, cantilevered fishing-nets from China stand not far from a 400-year old synagogue. Portuguese homes, ancient mosques and crumbling, colonial manors rub shoulders with each other, comfortable in their differences. But as with good prose, editing is important on journeys too; and what we choose to take in, is as crucial as that which we
leave out.

An artiste bedecked with heavy jewellery and make-up. These factors magnify the effect of a Kathakali performance. Pics/Sonia Nazareth

Exploring the folk arts
A chance stop in the neighbouring Ernakulam at the Kerala Folklore and Theatre Museum, directs my visit to Kochi into an exploration of the folk arts. I’m not usually a huge fan of socially-engineered spaces, but this museum is a thoughtfully- constructed building, showcasing different styles of local architecture. The wood-lined theatre upstairs has aficionados of local classical dance performances. A carefully-curated collection of artifacts — from theyyam masks to palm leaf manuscripts, kathakali headgear to ayurvedic massage boards — invites you to consider the spectrum of cultural particularities that dominate this land.

The guide says, with pride written all over his youthful face, “Culture here is not something to be gazed at rapturously in museums alone, but rather has an everyday living-breathing quality to it.” To underline this point, he drives me to the nearby village of Gothuruth. In a troop member’s rudimentary home, a local contingent is rehearsing for a performance of Chavittunadakam. Even if you’ve never seen or heard of it, it’s unlikely you will forget this energetic dance-drama in a hurry.

Kerala Folklore and Theatre Museum
Kerala Folklore and Theatre Museum 

In this form, which dates back to the period of the Portuguese Latinisation of the Kerala church, and borrows heavily from classical performing-art forms in the state, as well as from European opera, there is something brave and eccentric. There’s little money to be made, but the practitioners stomp on regardless. Dancing in time with the rhythmic playback music, throwing themselves into their detailed gestures and well-defined body movements, for the pleasure of the form itself and for the sense of community it fosters. This to me is as compelling as the his-stories that the dance-drama communicates — from the tales of Emperor Charlemagne to St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, to stories woven around St George and the Dragon.

“If you want to see other passionate displays of the arts, you must attend a Kathakali performance,” the guide says, urging me on. I assume that we are heading towards the Kerala Kathakali Centre, near the Santa Cruz Basilica, the hajj of travellers who want a glimpse into the dance and the context surrounding it. But if you’re truly after that which is done despite and not for the traveller, the best insight is in the local newspapers.

Striking a chord
Turns out that there’s a performance which will unfold at the Ernakulathappan Temple soon. Seated on the temple grounds before a makeshift stage, with a motley crew of travellers and locals alike, I am reminded of a time when people performed not for money, but for the sake of the performance itself.

Free of vanity or celebrity cache, these Kathakali performances usually continue until the wee hours of the morning. The actors on stage appear larger-than-life — with their magnificent headgear, exquisitely-crafted costumes and elaborate facial make-up. They depict scenes taken from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, and touch on themes of righteousness, fraility, darkness and light. People in the audience get involved — murmuring, wringing their hands in empathy with a character. There’s clearly no such thing as silence at a performance, in these passionate parts of the world.

Ernakulathappan Temple
Ernakulathappan Temple

I wander into the green room, where the actors are getting ready. One of the performers, having his face painted a bright green, tells me, “The costumes, ornaments, musical scores and the selection of instruments, magnify the personalities and action. Green, for instance, denotes a benign character.” Another proselytising player, whose eyes are red from all the make-up, opines that the tourist-friendly versions of Kathakali are acceptable to him as much as they employ more people and breathe more life into the craft.

Outside the green room, the Kathakali that engages everyone’s hard work and communal dedication, begins to take on spiritual power and has the audience utterly in the moment, transfixed.

A boy uses movements and gestures to perform Kuttiyattam
A boy uses movements and gestures to perform Kuttiyattam

Survival of the oldest
On this trail of the classical arts, the guide assures me that the theatrical form at which my enthusiasm will truly overflow is Kuttiyattam (pronounced Koodiyattam). The oldest surviving tradition of theatre, with an antiquity of close to two millennia, curiously survives only in Kerala. I make an appointment with Guru Margi Madhu — an expert practitioner and teacher. A walking encyclopedia on the subject, this family man, whose life is Kuttiyattam, tells us that the form most often draws a single act from a Sanskrit play and elaborates on it as a full-length drama, interpreting each verse for its subtleties and multiple meanings.

It’s clear, as we move to the stage and rehearsal room on the first floor above his living quarters, that discipline plays a huge part in the performance. The students follow detailed instructions on movement and gestures to truly imbibe the form. But once mastered, post years of rigorous practice, Madhu’s unfailing gaze is happy to notice creative variations, and new layers of meaning being injected into the production. The practitioners of Kuttiyattam recognise that traditions must evolve, if they are not to get calcified. King Lear being interpreted through the movement and gesture of Kuttiyattam — is an example of such a shift. But as any enthusiast (few though they may now be) will tell you, the spell of the traditional story remains undiminished.

A Kathakali artiste, whose eyes are red from all the make-up, strikes a pose
A Kathakali artiste, whose eyes are red from all the make-up, strikes a pose

In a globalised world, where things are faster, swifter, leaner, the idea of attending a performance, that once potentially extended over 40 days and 40 nights — seems unthinkable. Yet I’m pushed to contemplate a time of social poise, aesthetic refinement and economic possibility — all that made such elaborate performances possible. In the few practitioners who have ploughed on despite the brutal caprices of style and changing taste, lies a pocket of hope and a small act of atonement for the pace at which we now live.

Patronise these forms and you not only honour the classical arts. You gain insights into history, culture and memory.

Fact File

Getting there: Direct flights by major airlines from Mumbai. Trains also ply from Mumbai to Ernakulam.

where to stay: You can pick from four-star and three-star hotels, guesthouses and home stays.

what to buy: Buy clothing made of organic cotton and coloured with natural herb dyes from Niraamaya to gift your loved ones. Visit Tribes India, a Ministry of Tribal Affairs enterprise that sells tribal artefacts at reasonable prices.

For more details: Visit

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