Taking it easy in Northern Kerala...the dry, sweaty leg!
This weeks' account of Keralan events is about relaxing, detoxing after the excesses of Varkala and houseboating and generally coching in Cochin.
Cochin is made up of a gaggle of islands and peninsulas, including mainland Ernakulam, where we arrived into after our departure from Alleppey; the islands of Willingdon, Bolgatty and Gundu in the harbour; Fort Cochin and Matancherry on the Southern peninsula; and Vypeen and Vallarpadam Islands; north of Fort Cochin. Cochin remains a living homage to its varied colonial past: giant fishing nets influenced by Chinese merchants, a sixteenth century synagogue, ancient mosques, Portugese houses built half a millennia ago and the crumbling residuum of the British Raj. The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar coast. It's proved to be an interesting a delightful place to spend some time, soak in the history, experience the rich cultural arts and dance scene and practice some yoga, for the first time!
We stayed in Ernakulam, the busy, hot, traffic-ridden town that acts as a central point for transport routes to the north and south, for one night, before heading off to Fort Cochin where we stayed for the majority of our time in the area. We found a home-stay to reside in for a few nights, which was literally a room in a house of a family of four. The father and the only one who we could communicate with, Mukesh Anthony, was a kind and hospitable man, obviously keen to ensure we were content with his service at all times. This did become a slightly claustrophobic and harassing element to our stay however, as as soon as he knew we were awake he would be knocking at the door, asking if we wanted breakfast, dinner, washing, air conditioning, a trip to watch Kathakali dancing... You name it, he asked whether we wanted it (Crude jokes may be added here). All the while he would be vigorously wagging his head from side to side - the most characteristic of Indian gestures and one that can mean one of many things: Yes, I agree with you, I would like that, I understand... A truly universal expression that makes me smile every time someone uses it for my purpose. And he would prance about from foot to foot as if engaging in some kind of folkish dance at our door, his dutiful wifey standing at his side smiling rigidly and clearly not understanding a word we were saying! Quite bizarre!
Fort Cochin boasts many spectacular churches, basilicas, museums and cemeteries, all regaling the tales of its' extensive colonial past. Because of its' harbour, Fort Cochin has historically been the landing and settling point for people from many different nationalities and origins. Settlers from the Middle East and Far East came in the 1300's, before the Portugese stumbled across the gem in 1500, setting up their headquarters in Fort Cochin itself. The establishment of their base was possible on account of the understanding between them and the local Lords and Rajah's of Cochin. Dissimilar to the imperialist state in Kolkata, in Cochin everyone benefited from the trading of spices. Sally and I spent the first days in F.C. meandering around the town, absorbing the main sights of interest and enjoying the occasional breeze down at the waterfront. Majestic, towering Chinese fishing nets line the murky, green edge of the water, their nets swooping down like bowing net capes, honouring the sea as they levitate above the rippling liquid. The nets are lowered into the water and then lifted to reveal their bounty of squirming, bulbous bodies. Fisherman sit in their bamboo and leaved shacks, patiently waiting for their time to pounce. Men stand below the huts, gathering the reams of fishing nets, preparing for the next attack. There must have been about ten nets in total along the waterfront, standing in line like dancers ready for a performance across the sea, posed in their stances of graceful grandiosity. We walked to the eastern side of Fort Cochin, in the relentlessly heavy and sweaty heat that prevails in this part of the world, and to Jew Town and the synagogue that lies in the centre. The walk there was full of brow-mopping, the narrow streets were thick with the smell of the past. Jew Town is the centre of the Cochin spice trade and the surrounding areas reflect the popular trade that exudes from the area. Scores of small firms huddle together in the old, dilapidated buildings and the air is filled with the biting aromas of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, and cloves. Sacks of chillies, onions, garlic and spices pile high to the ceilings of the various tiny shops, with a handful of men sitting at a table guarding the shop, authoritatively tapping away on calculators and meticulously sifting through their valuable wares. Men lug their loads onto carts, ready for removal to another part of town. Goats wander through the quiet streets, nibbling on barely-opened sacks, standing idly as rickshaws occasionally zoom past, dodging precariously to avoid the bleeting blighters. All this activity takes place under the watch of the colonial Portuguese architecture - quaint houses painted vibrant blues and yellows, the slatted wooden windows open to allow the precious sporadic breeze in; haggard buildings lying in disrepair, boarded up and left to rot after devoted tenants have departed; antiquated bicycles leaning against faded painted walls. A fascinating place that keeps the eyes darting despite the stream of sweat pouring into them!
Whilst in Fort Cochin we had to indulge in watching some Kathakali, and also in meeting one of the Kathakali actors, Reghu, who a friend of mine and Sally's parents know. Seems like a tenuous link but it was actually really lovely having a tiny little remnant of home in our Indian reality. Fortunately the night on which we wanted to attend the performance was the night that Reghu was carrying out all the demonstrations before the real show began, which he was also acting in. Ideal! So, to explain, Kathakali is a dramatised presentation of a play, usually based on the Hindu epics. Drummers and singers with small cymbals accompany the actors, who tell the story through their precise movements, particularly mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions. Preparation for the performance is lengthy and disciplined. Paint, spectacular costumes, highly decorated headpieces and meditation transform the actors both physically and mentally into the gods, heroes and demons they are about to play. We saw the entire process, as at this Kathakali centre the actors paint their faces on the stage prior to the demonstration and the performance. The paints they use are all derived from natural ingredients, stones and plants. The colours were vivid red, green, yellow, black and white. Reghu, whom we'd briefly met the day before, came on to the stage to work on his make-up and sat for a second, blessing the materials with which he was about to use and holding the mirror to his chest, praying before he embarked on his transformation. Kathakali is a spiritual and holistic art form, the men who participate in it must learn and train for several years, at each of the roles: drumming, singing or acting. Throughout the performance and prior to it, there are many prayers and blessings made, creating, for me, an even more powerful and significant aura around what can be and was a humorous show. Sally and I, with our love of face painting at festivals and beyond, were intrigued and amazed by the make up that thickly coated the four actors' faces. Sharp lines of black and white cut into the red, green and yellow canvases. Contorted and grimacing expressions were generated, even when their faces were blank, the expression would be one of fury, disgust or tyranny. Another man entered the stage at one point and sat with an actor at a time, carefully placing glue in areas and lines on the bright facade and then intricately and expertly sticking white card on to the glue, which he rapidly snipped and chopped to the right size. When the masterpiece was complete the actor stood from his horizontal position to reveal a convex shape, jagged at the tips, contrasting vividly with the bright red of his make-up and framing his face in a bizarre and entrancing manner. Amazing!
After the make up, the singer and speaker introduced the Kathakali, its' roots, the accompaniment, and also introduced Reghu. Reghu proceeded to demonstrate all the finger movements and facial expressions, their meanings and their significance. His face was fantastically fluid and elastic, his eyes jolted and swiveled in their sockets, at times so fast I thought they were sure to pop right out of his head! The finger gestures, or mudras, and larger arm movements that were demonstrated next symbolise and communicate all types of meanings, and they compose, along with the facial expressions the communication and language of the play. And so, the performance began, the hauntingly beautiful tones of the singers' voice drifting over the hypnotic and staccato drumming, becoming more and more energetic and tense as a multi-coloured sheet was brought out onto stage, shrouding the first, fearsome actor to enter the stage: Dussasana. The movements, both upper body and facial, were bewitching, especially Dussasana's who had silver, pointy fingertip jewellery adorning one of his hands, so whenever he moved his fingers a dazzle of silver would flash across the space.
The costumes were unbelievable! Huge hooped skirts covered in reams of vibrant material and glittered with silver and gold trimming. The legs underneath the enormous skirts were covered in tight trousers, and the bare feet curled inwards slightly, stamping and prancing depending on the mood of the moment. The tops were cuffed up the arms with gold bands, chunky and glistening in the stage lights. The arm pieces that Dusassana had were huge, purple, fluffy bits of material, closely imitating some kind of exotic sleeping animal! Dusassana also wore enormous white fluffy pompoms that hung down from strips of material at the waist band of his skirt. The actor would vigorously and humorously lift and shake them around during the performance to convey a feeling or emotion. I found it hilarious! The head-dresses were another story altogether - heavily decorated, brightly coloured, ornate and undoubtedly heavy beasts stood upon each actor's head (apart from Reghu - the lucky one!), a massive disc protruding upright on the back, making it a wonder how they kept their heads up, let alone how they pranced and danced around in them. I suppose that's the years of training coming into play! The finale of the performance was one actor, Bhima, whose face was painted in a permanent horrific gurn, eating the entrails and heart and drinking the blood of the evil Dusassana. Bhima's hugely expressive, contorted face was utterly gruesome covered in blood (red paint) that glistened in the light, with red strips of material (human entrails!) seeping out of his mouth. It really made me cringe, even though it was so ridiculously surreal! All in all, a fantastic and breathtaking performance- an entire and thorough introduction to Kathakali that I would recommend to anyone!
So, now...to the beach! Away from the dryness and into the sea! Gokarna, Hampi and Goa are the next stops on our magical mystery tour...Gokarna first for some yoga, swimming and cheap thali! Yum! Love to you all xxx
Highlights since last blog:
- Wandering the streets of Fort Cochin, taking in the history and the beauty
- Witnessing the amazing Kathakali performance
- Finding familiar faces in amongst the Cochin crowds