A little Peek into Keralan Culture

We spent one day heading over to the less touristy Enarkulem, but apart from a new pair of jeans for Aidan (Hotels had started refusing us a room due to the scruffy appearance of his torn Kevlar ones) and a great rusty old Enfield, we didn’t find anything much, that we liked in that crowded, dirty, construction work ridden part of town. Munki loved the boat ride across though and even made a soldier smile that stood at one of the ports.

Separate Ques for Men and Women to avoid inappropriate physical Contact in the usual Push-Shuffle

Separate Ques for Men and Women to avoid inappropriate physical Contact in the usual Push-Shuffle

Fort Kochi is much prettier, with its low, scruffy old buildings (high-rise development is prohibited), wickid graffiti and the awesome fishing nets they have inherited from the Chinese.

And of course we had to try the fabled Kathkali Theatre, a typically Keralan thing and went to see The Killing of Baka. “Katha” means “story” and “kali” is “play”. It was developed mainly from one of the oldest Keralan dance forms known as “Ramanattam” and was performed only at royal palaces. The stories are mostly taken from the Hindu myths, played by actors who study eight to ten years to become a Kathkali artist. A real performance would last all night. Theatres now have decided to revive the culture by offering shorter versions with an explanatory introduction for tourists.

There are several venues to choose from and we ended up at the Kerala Kathkali Centre. Paintings on the wall along the pathway to the entrance and photos at the back of the intimate theatre set the mood for what’s in store.

Makeup is very important and can take up to an hour. If you get there early, you are allowed to watch. The actors use natural colours from various ground stones and paper is glued on using a rice-and-water paste. Each colour means something: red is evil, green is good, red and green is schizophrenic or an anti-hero, yellow a female or passive (neither good nor evil).

Kathkali is very spiritual and so the stage is duly prepared with oil lamps lit and little shrines and the stage edge are decorated with flowers and little white powder kolams. Each actor, musician and singer goes through a little blessing routine to the various shrines when they first enter the stage, even if that is during the play (the curtain lifted by the helpers during their entrance jut gets held up as long as it takes).

Kathkali actors don’t speak. They communicate using twenty four different hand symbols, their eyes, mouth and even their entire body in dance like gestures. Every movement they make is exact and means something. The music from the two drums (the drumsticks are bent at one end), cymbals and box harmonium is also very specific, conveying the moods and feelings of the characters. Then there is a singer, who may sing part of the story that is not acted, as a sort of explanation or to set the next scene. So in total it is like an awesome secret language. The actors gave a little demonstration of various words such as “father” or “snake” as well as different ways of saying the same thing, for example “please go” versus “Go! Now!”

Of course we still had no idea of what was said once the actual play began and at times it can seem a little long (imagine how long it takes to say one sentence if you have to gesture and dance each word). So they had given us a little sheet of paper explaining what was going on and together with that we had loads of fun deciphering the story.

Baka (red face), a murderous forest dwelling demon keeps forcing Brahmin (yellow face), a high caste member of a village community, to feed him every day. The village is haunted by Baka. Bhima (green face), second and most powerful of the Pandava Princes, is chosen by his mother to go kill Baka.

In the fist scene Bhima and Brahmin discuss the plot and Bhima boasts how he is suited for the job. Then they load the cart of food and Bhima sets off.


A cloth is held up to allow for the change of actors and the blessings. Baka starts shaking the sheet and slowly but violently shows himself causing anticipation and fear of his character.

Bhima sits on the forest floor, eating Baka’s food, provoking him some more. Bhima calmly explains why he will kill the evil Baka. Then he gets to his feet and a frantic and highly symbolic fight ensues.



Bhima slays Baka (milking the death scene for what feels like an eternity). Then the body is removed and Bhima finishes with a little victory dance, thanking the gods.


Aidan and I loved it so much, we decided to go with Kerry once she’d arrived. This time was even better. After a while you start picking up the meaning of some gestures and the eye makeup of the villain really allowed us to see his suggestive eyebrows when he approached the lady.

But I am jumping ahead… This time the story is called The Killing of Kichaka. Bhima is involved again, but this time disguised as the palace chef (so yellow face). Draupadi-Malini, the wife of the five Pandava Princes (yes, of all five of them), has disguised herself as the queen’s lady in waiting, Malini. Kichaka, the commander-in-chief of the army and the queen’s brother (an anti-hero, so red and green) wants to seduce Malini. So to shut her brother up, the queen sends Malini over to the palace, where Kichaka tries to first seduce, then rape her.

The girl escapes and runs to Bhima in the palace kitchens. He consoles her and promises to kill Kichaka. So, on his request, Malini invites Kichaka to meet her in the dance hall of the palace at night.

When Kichaka gets there, it is dark of course, and he gropes around what he thinks is Malini. He realises his mistake too late. Bhima jumps out from under the cloth and kills Kichaka. And then he performs the due victory dance blessing the gods of course.

We all loved it and I’d go again and again. But is all a bit strange, so we went to the pub to balance things out. The beer s served in coffee mugs of course, since the place has no license. Too much fun for Munki to pass up, so it was her first ever beer 🙂

One response to “A little Peek into Keralan Culture

  1. Pingback: What day is it?!? | followingtarmac·

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