Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Fire of Kerala

Here I am sitting in an Arambol cybercafe following a 2 week journey with my father starting in Kochi, Kerala and traveling up through Thrissur and Kannur, crossing the Karnataka border into the Coorg mountains and finally making the final leap back up to Goa, which has been my home in seasons past. Arriving in Kochi, specificially the Fort Cochin area, was the first culture shock for my father-- the streets peppered with little restaurants claiming to specialize in Indian, Chinese, and Italian to boot and international tourists with varying levels of lobster red to tan skin. After a week in Hyderabad without seeing a single foreigner, this was definitely an adjustment. Well, we got over that one quickly and booked ourselves on a backwaters cruise where we hung out with some lovely folks from Germany, Holland, and NY. I immediately took to Shelley, an eccentric, vivacious lady from NY who works with masks-- transformative theater art. She had traveled in her 20s to Bali, fallen in love with the Balinese masks, and subsequently made it her profession. Guess I can relate. We enjoyed a beautiful, Keralan lunch on a banana leaf consisting of cocunut chutney, mixed veggies, yummy sambar, and had some Kingfishers. Okay, this lounging around is something a bit new for me-- as my last journey was primarily focused on studying yoga and healing modalities. I decide I can handle a little R&R.--hehe.

So, before you start yawning, let's fast forward to Thrissur where we went straight to Kerala Kalamandalam, the premiere school for South Indian traditional arts of Kathikali, Mohiniyattam, Bharatnatyam, and others. The government funds this school to train highly talented youth in the traditional arts here in the Gurukul system (meaning the student and teacher both live on-site). Students have a rigorous regimen they must adhere to starting with a 4 am kalaripatyu (martial arts and strecthing) program followed by training in their particular specialty and typical subjects as well. Youngsters must begin this program at the age of 8 and follow through until 20 just to get their basic degree. We were mesmerized as we walked by the small classrooms where students of varying ages drummed, danced, and sang with an amazing presence already in their eyes which bulged in expression the 9 Rasas. (emotions) The Kottabalum, or sacred theater, was similar to Japanese open-air temples. So beautiful and peaceful, with sacred sculptures of various asanas and mudras on the pillars, I felt inspired to dance in a place like this. Later that evening, we stayed on for a performance there which was unusually all-female. Pops was a good sport sitting cross-legged on the granite floor for hours with me while I sat intoxicated by the dexterity, focus, and beauty of these dancers.

Okay, okay-- maybe some of you need a bit more stimulation than this... let's move on to Kannur, father north where we went on a wild goose chase for theyyams, a ritualistic dance in which one actor takes on the form of the local devi for that evening and the next morning. We stayed at a sub-par overpriced place just outside of town-- usually the more they claim the worse they are! But regardless, I found a buddy named Peter from the UK that was willing to share the rather harrowing job of actually finding out the details of theyyams in the area. Not an easy task, as many of them were in small villages in the surrounding areas where folks spoke little English or Hindi. We finally made it out to our first theyyam which blew me away. The character is first painted in full body paint of red, black, while, and yellow. Then, he is slowly dressed in elaborate costume with very wide skirts, and tops, huge headpieces, thick jewelry, wide beard fringe, and tall headpiece. Every small temple or kavu has a unique devi that is enacted, with its own ceremony usually involving the character to circle around the altar with various implements like swords, fire, weapons, etc. Some "theyyams," literally translated as god, will dance with another character while some of the temple priests will continue to bless them with more paint, implements, and fire circling.
While I was amazed at the first theyyam I went to, the second one was truly breathtaking. Getting up at 3 am to walk to the local kavu, we went not knowing exactly what we would get into. We arrived to see a crew finishing up with the costume which was woven by hand the day before in preparation for the ceremony. In addition to the trappings that I had seen previously, this character also had four HUGE fire spokes protruding from his waist, and a full halo of smaller spokes on his headpiece. This time the crew smeared a reddish mud on his chest and arms, I imagine to keep him cool as the fire burned around him. As he danced, they occasionally splashed his arms with water to cool him down while at the same time, adding more fuel to continue the fire on his body. The transformative power of this art was very powerful for me. The combination of sacred history with this ritualistic dance was a potent inspiration for me, as I could sense the potential in my own creative journey to create ritual related to the needs/hopes/prayers of a community. These few days were enough to know that I will return again, hopefully with more time and with someone who can explain the details of this amazing ritual.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our journey starts in Hyderabad

We arrived in Hyderabad around 4 in the morning, exited the airport, and immediately felt the frenetic energy of any Indian city-- rickshaws beeping, people trying to help us with our luggage, families re-uniting, screaming, smells, morning prayers. This is my father's hometown, the now-bustling capital of Andhra Pradesh, and he and I were welcomed by my Auntie (his sister) and my cousin, Ritu with hugs and tears. I had such a mixed flurry of emotions and memories as we drove back towards my father's house, the sun just beginning to illuminate this land that was for almost two years my home (2005-2007). I feel excited to return to some of the spots here that have inspired me on my path and look forward to exploring new places with eyes of my father as well. I can feel how I myself have changed since I was last here, how my heart has become more open, and can already feel that this will be quite a different trip.

It is such a joy for my Auntie to have my father here, as he has only returned to India three times since he left for the States in his early twenties. We returned to the house where my father grew up and had a little rest before our morning chai. Since I have spent much time here in the past couple of years, my Aunti and I have a mutual understanding and thankfully doesn't freak out if I want to go outside the house on my own, make my own food, etc. Usually, as foreign guests, we are totally showered/overwhelmed with extreme amounts of attention. A little intense, to say the least!

Most of my time in the house is spent in the kitchen, preparing foods, cutting fruits or vegetables, etc. I don't know much Hindi, but have a somewhat decent grasp on the names of foods at least! Pops, Auntie, and I went for a walk this morning, and it was interesting to find out how much things have changed here-- there are only a couple of buildings still standing from his childhood. His family's house is one of the last single-unit family homes on the street, which has totally become crowded and commercialized. While the former houses usually had gardens and some green space, the new construction and apartments leave no room for this, and the road is now extremely dusty and gritty. Like many other Indian cities, Hyderabad is developing faster than the infrastructure necessary to support it. So the roads are overcrowded, garbage in the streets, etc.

It's the little things that occasionally pop up in our conversations, stories of his childhood, a tear as he talks about his father, that truly feed me. As an Indian man, it's difficult for my father to speak much about his feelings, yet over the years, he is slowly more capable of communicating a bit more about his experiences. And this is the nectar for me. To get to know my father more intimately-- and that means constantly remembering not to get caught up in the pervasive doing/planning mindset, but reminding each other what a rare opportunity this is for us to really feel/reflect/see each other outside of the external labels that are usually imposed on us all.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

As I prepare for the coming of the New Year, I feel gratitude pouring throughout my being for 2009: full of beauty, focused work, unexpected adventures, love, heartbreak, new friendship, creative inspiration, and now stepping back into my traveling boots. After spending two wonderful years in Kauai, I will be taking some time away in Asia. I am looking forward to the reflection that comes with spending time in a totally different culture-- the unique perspectives, the way people connect with the environment around them, and particularly I am looking forward to the rituals of India.

Before I left Kauai this December, my dear friend Nikola came to the island to co-facilitate a dance workshop with me called, Making Dance a Prayer. When we put authentic intention into our actions-- our movements, our thoughts, the way we make food, the way we do bodywork-- it becomes a beautiful prayer. Kauai has shared so many gifts with me; she helps me listen to my intuitive abilities and to truly listen to the messages that come through when I am open and receptive. I know that all gifts given are ultimately for the betterment of our global community, and I look forward to sharing this feeling of aloha along the way in my travels. My prayer for the New Year is to open my heart more deeply to the needs of the planet and offer my creative and healing skills along my travels. I know many of you are in resonance with this prayer and together our intention will be magnified. Much aloha and blessings!