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.