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An Examined Life

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Tag: dance

Performance Jitters and Complete Joy

I wonder if any of my friends would believe me if I told them that I was Shatrughna one time. And Dusshaasana too. Both male roles, all bravado and swagger, no feminine graces or smiles. As Shatrughna, I was destined to be defeated at the hands of my young nephews. But I gave that fight my all, ultimately getting routed by the two youngsters who chased me away. As Dusshaasana, I was the bigmouth, shouting insults at decent folks, strutting around the stage, intimidating people with my sheer size and big walk. Of course, at the end of the show, I was downed by Bhima (played by Chitra, a fellow dancer), mad with rage. I put up a tough fight. We went on for a long time, circling each other, mocking each other… taking out our clubs, finally using our bare knuckles and going all out. But I was killed, nay slaughtered. Had my guts ripped out, blood and gore pouring forth… Bhima was happy.

The magic of Kathakali is irresistible. A classical dance form of such finesse and refinement… to the uninitiated, it appears like an incomprehensible mix of intricate hand gestures, deft eye/hand movements, strong footwork, massively resounding drums, cymbals and conches, huge performers wearing elaborate costumes and makeup and more. However, to the crazy and devout few, Kathakali is absolute beauty, unfolding on stage with grace, power, strength and style! It is only love for this classical art that makes fans sit through nights and nights of performances, braving the heat and humidity, battling the relentless mosquitoes, fighting sleep. Only to rise in the morning, go home, catch a few hours of sleep, and then head back the following evening for the next performance.

Kathakali performers (male characters) are larger than life, literally. As Dusshaasana, I was a virtual giant on stage. My crown was a majestic white-red affair, towering over my head in sheer splendor. Every other character cowered before my bravado. Who'd think that underneath the starched cloths, velvet shirt, fearsome red face paint and long silver nails was a meek college-going girl?

I have had such a good time learning and performing Kathakali…. I could never express completely how much I love this dance form. After learning for a few years, I thought that I must learn a more feminine style of dance, so I began to learn Mohiniattam. Now this is an utterly feminine dance, almost the polar opposite of the masculine strength that Kathakali embodies. I realized soon after, that I liked the masculine grace of Kathakali a whole lot more than the feminine sweetness of Mohiniattam!

Fun times, such fun times. Getting to the venue early in the day, lying supine on the floor getting my face painted and make up done, having countless starched cotton cloth bits tied to my waist (praying all the time that I wouldn't need to pee… for the next 5-6 hours!), donning the velvet shirt, burnished gold ornaments, long silver nails… and then finally wearing the giant crown, the one that established my character… A nice guy on the side of justice, a villain disrobing women or anyone else. Then walking to the stage, touching the musical instruments in obeisance, praying for stamina, courage and grace so I could pay my respects to the stage and my art in the best way possible.

Oh such fun I have had… Wonder if I will have the fortune of inhabiting those characters ever again.

Krishna, Purappadu

Charm of the Artist

It is so easy to fall in love with a spirited dancer. Or a passionate artist. Or a devoted musician. One who loves her craft gains in charm, attractiveness, beauty.

Enchanted Snow White

Enchanted Snow White

Parinayam illustrates this point beautifully. A young widow meets a Kathakali artist, is charmed by his affections. Then she sees him perform on stage, falls in love. One night, he is the valorous Arjuna. The next night, he is the charming Nala, then Bheema. Each character mightier than the last, glorious and resplendent in warrior finery, commanding the stage and the audience with his mighty presence. How can one not fall in love?

Zakir Hussain was voted the sexiest man in India. It may be speculated that his boyish charm, curly locks and playful genius are probably the reasons why he got the highest number of votes. I think it’s something else. I think it’s the passion he brings to his performance, the joy that courses through his fingers and tickles the audience, and his obvious devotion to his art.

As a dancer ascends to the stage, one step after another, a transformation takes place. She is no longer Lakshmi, a thin girl with straight hair and a gummy smile. She is something bigger, grander, magnificent. As she dances, hardly anyone recognizes her. For she is something else entirely. A confluence has happened between the artist and the craft, and what fuels this union is passion, devotion, commitment.

The whole world loves a lover and what unfolds on stage is pure love. For nothing else can result in such artistry, such beauty… a true lover is devoted, dedicated, tireless. And only when one is in love with one’s art can such magical moments emerge. So magical that even the onlookers are transformed beyond words. And everyone walks away, a little changed, a little unsure about what happened. Yet no one can deny that that was an act of love they had just witnessed.



To me, Kathakali is the quintessential example of artist metamorphosing into the Divine. I learned Kathakali for a number of years, performed on stage. I played the role of Shatrughna, the brave prince who challenges his own nephews, unaware of their identity. I played the angry Dusshasana who dies at the hands of Bheema, a warrior who gains superhuman powers and avenges his wife’s dishonor. Then there have been other roles… And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I stepped into each role knowing that I was walking into something much larger than I could imagine. And I walked away from each one feeling a sense of awe. Like I was in the presence of something spectacular, magnificent. Like I had touched the soul of the Divine, experienced such oneness and totality in my character. Like I had lost sight of little me and became the One. If that isn’t love, what is? And if that isn’t meditation, what is?

An old post about Parinayam –