The iron brute hardens his grip on Hannah’s throat and slams her against the wall.
The blood vessels in her head throb under the increased pressure. She starts to turn purple.
I rely on my reactions and steady my hand. Take aim…Breathe…Shoot.
Walking the boards
The atmosphere clings to our skin in Kochin. It’s still the height of one of the hottest summers to record and we are now at sea level. The mountains offer us no protection here.
By evening the humidity is still with us. We seek solace at in the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
The centre is a big tourist attraction. Burning a bright light to keep alive the traditional Keralan folk arts. As we eat Masala Dosas in the restaurant next door coach loads of western tourists begin to arrive for a night of entertainment.
Inside, the theatre is aged wood and cobwebs. Years of performance and stories are held in these walls. An air-conditioning unit breathes cool air into us. Our minds become clearer.
On the small stage three large Malayalam men lay on the floor applying thick layers of make-up. There is soft music in the background.
A compere takes up a mic and gives us a brief history of Kathakali. It’s Keralan roots, strict training schedules, over the top facial gestures, linkage with music (particularly drumming) and ostentatious costume design.
The paint that the performers are using on their faces is a mixture of special stones and coconut oil. Red, blue, black, orange and green prevail and each performer is set a different colour palate depending on whether they represent good or evil.
Dry rice is placed in the eyes of the actors whilst their make-up is applied. When the rice is removed and the performance begins the eyes are bloodshot red and menacing.
Soon we are into it. Two men with drums stand on the left of the stage creating a tribal rhythm.
Now in full costume, two actors are swiping their arms and moving with precision timing to the beat, riffing with the musicians. The compare has turned narrator and is singing the story as their is no vocal communication between the actors.
Our story is a short tale of godly heroism in the face of an oppressive evil taken from the ancient Mahbharata.
Mine and Hannah’s mouths open wide as the colour and spectacle rolls out before us. Phones and devices rise high in the air to capture the moment. We can’t resist either.
After an hour evil is sleighed and good has prevailed. The 80 or so people in the audience erupt with applause, delight and like us a little confusion.
The next day we are back at the centre for some martial arts.
Kalaripayuttu originated in Kerela and like Kathakali is steeped in history and tradition. Our compere is back on the stage but the crowd is much smaller. Only around 10 tourists join us for the show.
Our host is flanked by two athletic men. Boring holes into the back of the room with their fixed gazes.
After a few words the action begins. The men are at each other with fists, sweat and fury. Although the scene is choreographed, real intent exists. Feet and hands whip in a blur of blocks and evasion. Weapons of skin and bones.
Jagged knives enter the mix. Sparks fly as the show continues.
The danger is realised as one of the fighters miscalculates an attack. His knife is flung from his hand onto the floor at our feet. He bows and leaves the stage holding his arm. The injury was not serious.
After the demonstration we are asked if we would like to learn some basic locks and defence. I shrink into my chair as Hannah jumps out of hers headed for the stage.
Her partner is a sturdy, handsome warrior. Wild and free.
He quickly has Hannah up against the wall and I rush for the camera (not a sentence I’m totally comfortable with).
He grabs her by the throat and teaches her a quick lock release technique which puts the evader on the floor. Hannah laughs awkwardly at first and this only tightens his grip. Her choice becomes learn or choke.
Thankfully she is a fast learner and her teacher crumbles to his knees. The victorious warrior queen, triumphant in her glory.
We leave the theatre and Hannah is buzzing. We spend the next hour putting each other in choke holds and sipping beer on the roof of our homestay.
We head back to the centre in the evening as a night of traditional dance is scheduled. We sit alone in the theatre eagerly waiting. After half an hour we are apologetically asked to leave.
There is not enough interest so the show cannot happen tonight. Keeping the arts alive is hard here too.