Kathkali to chaos: a week in South India

My first glimpse of Kochi in daylight didn’t dissappoint. It was hot, it was green. Kochi is unusual in what I’ve seen of India in that it has much less litter and comparatively more artyness. The street art and posters for festivals and events would look equally at home in Berlin, Glasgow, London or Prague as they do among the palm trees, tuk tuks and ambling livestock of Kochi.

I’m afraid that yet again, you’re going to have to check Facebook for pictures because I still haven’t found an internet cafe where I can put pictures up! It’s a pity because this is such a visual place.

On our second evening in Kochi we enjoyed a performance of Kathkali at a cultural centre called Greenix Village. Kathkali is a traditional Keralan dance style. On a scale of showmanship from Zen garden to Baroque ball, Kathkali scores pretty high. The makeup takes hours to put on and the costumes make Dame Edna Everidge look plain. For all the bold aesthetics, the dancing itself is pretty subtle; student dancers learn a number of hand gestures and facial expressions, which go together to express anything from love, to go away, to bees sucking honey (Nope I didn’t make them up — those are all examples we were shown as part of the performance!) The makeup and costume, of course, wildly exaggerates these gestures so it’s a fascinating, expressive and loud performance! The advantage of going to a tourist-oriented performance was that we had all this explained to us before we saw a short dance from a mythical story. Basically, a demon disguises herself as a beautiful woman and tries to flirt with the hero, and he’s having none of it like. The she-demon is pretty persistent so this goes on for some time until her patience wears thin and she goes full demon mode on the hero, who erm, chops off her ears, nose and breasts. So, you know, a nice family show…

Today I’m in Mamallapuram, on the east coast of India in Tamil Nadu. Unless you’re really into your Indian geography, this probably means nothing to you. I just really like saying Tamil Nadu. It’s even more satisfying to say than Kerala, is Tamil Nadu. Go on, try it 🙂

Anyway, what I’ve done so far in Mamallapuram: washed clothes, showered, tossed and turned, slept, started reading ‘The God of Small Things’, which is even more overwritten than Shantaram but, like Shantaram, beautifully and honestly so (how do you describe India without florid descriptions and bouquets of adjectives?!). I’ve had an Indian breakfast and an orange, I’ve sat and written postcards and made notes for things to write poems about and I’ve taken part in a beach clean. I’ve bought two books (oops…) tried on dresses that I didn’t like and now I’m here.

I’ve really cherished our two leisure days on the Southern part of this tour. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great having a guide because you don’t have to waste part of your holiday wonder if you’ve booked the right train tickets, or which bus you need to take to get to this temple. Being on a tour means you get straight to the juicy bits, and you have a group of people to share it with. But sometimes when you’re somewhere that you might never be again, it’s nice to just be, to just live in that place and try it on for a while. Mamallapuram has lots of tourists but also expats I think, some of whom helped to organise the litter pick I took part in today. I hasten to add I only did half an hour, but after nearly a month of living basically a selfish life, it was nice to do something (very, very) small in return for the country that’s given me so many happy memories. And it was nice to be by the sea. It was great, grey and wild, a sea for surfing and fishing in, not lazing by, and what with the hippy-litter-picking types it reminded me of Aberystwyth, where I went to university. It wasn’t swimming weather but I paddled, of course. I almost always paddle when I go to the beach, I can’t help it! In my staunch atheist and agnostic years, going to the sea was the closest I got to praying. By the sea you can practically hear your heartbeat slow down and see the lens of perspective slide over whatever you’re worrying about. It’s been a lovely day so far, my backpack is two books heavier and Mamallapuram beach is a few cigarette butts lighter. I hope wherever you are, you’re having a lovely day, just being 🙂

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