Crossing over to the Malayalee Culture
Richard Tremblay is a choregrapher and lives in Montreal, Canada.
I am a dance artist, born and educated in North America. I was not exposed to Kerala and the Malayalee culture before I became an adult. In fact, I knew the culture through the art forms it has nurtured. One would assume that such a late exposure, which occurred after my early formative years, should prevent me from sharing with the Malayalees what they perceive as their “affective values”.
Photo credit : K. K.Gopalakrishnan.*
The desire to experience Indian aesthetics is my primary motivation in dealing with the culture of Kerala. At first, I made Kathakali my target; the culture appearing on the way rather than as a gatekeeper. Much the same way a child first imitates his parents in order to reach out to his food - and later learns more directly from the world outside-, I came to the culture because my aim was to go a step further and reach out to the art form. In the process, I borrowed things that are now part of myself. I must concede that my approach to the culture has less to do with cultural identity than with cultural contact, which, I believe, is one of the most powerful factors of change in the dynamics of human societies.
I have positive memories of my first contact with Kerala. I remember well my arrival aboard the Madras Mail in the mid seventies. Prior to that, I had been living in Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir for two years.
Even at first glance, the hilly countryside appealed to me. The sight of the coconut trees and water channels were delightful. I noticed that, from the peaceful traveller reading his daily newspaper to the busy hawker hustling on the railway platform, most men wore a white shirt and a mundu, or cotton cloth wrapped around the waist, always as clean as if they had never been walking in the dust pervading the dry air around. The women, wearing less gold and relying more on their natural beauty, were very attractive with their jet-black hair glowing in the intense tropical sun.
In my view, Kerala is rural; one cannot characterize the state by its highways or railroads that travellers like us choose on the way to the "star" hotels. Once you leave behind the busy arteries, you take a shower, sit back and realize how peaceful the countryside is. If you are interested in dance or if, like me, you have made it your profession, one day you would find yourselves walking on the mud banks bordering the green paddy fields, among the birds, frogs and bees, taking a short-cut to the next village from where you could hear the drums heralding a Kathakali show. No poster or flyer announces the performance; just the drums that you hear from afar. Instinctively, you know that you are not in a familiar setting. And something like a revelation happens to you when you see for the first time the Duryodhana wadham, the stage slaughter of Duryodhana, a king of the Indian epics. The scene is enacted by skilful dancers stamping on mats laid directly on earth where the crops have been freshly harvested, and unfolds until dawn before your beleaguered eyes, to the powerful sound of cymbals, gongs and drums and the light of a big oil lamp.
“When you arrive at the National Kathakali School,
you enter a world of tales and legends, apprentices
Photo credit : K. K. Gopalakrishnan. **
That there are such wonderful places on earth is astonishing, but only to those not born here. Yet, when you talk to the natives, you realize with no less astonishment that some of them are getting bored with their life, and think only of living their village. Within the beautiful cultural equilibrium of their hamlet, it seems, they lack the contact with other cultures.
Then you find yourself travelling on the passenger train that lets you off at Vallathol Nagar, a small and peaceful hamlet where the stationmaster waters the flowers on the veranda, which also serves as a railway waiting room. All trains pass through the station without stopping except two; one in the morning and the other in the evening. But getting to such a place as Vallathol Nagar makes travelling on the dusty passenger train worthwhile. And you have not yet reached your destination. After a ten-minute walk on a road bursting with cars, lorries, bullock carts and herds of cattle - the road happens to be a national highway - you finally arrive at the National Kathakali School. On your way, in the fresh morning air, you hear the sound of drums, and melodies emanate from a distance in the open cottages where music and dance classes are being held. There you enter a different world of tales and legends, apprentices and masters and, needless to say, obsolete management. When you have gradually penetrated the circle of artists and bureaucrats, and have befriended them, you realize that this, indeed, is a small world; everyone is struggling to cope with the realities of life, and labour unions compel the masters and teachers to negotiate even the gurushishya-paramparyam, the time long master-disciple tradition. Until then, you were soaking in a dream world, and had not learned the basics of day-to-day life, the reality of those stalwarts who sustain the very core of the culture with their blood, sweat and tears.
If Kerala is rural in some of its most enjoyable features, it has in some places all the characteristics of noisy urban sites. Find yourself in Calicut, Vasco de Gama’s first stop in India, or even in the city-centre of a smaller urban agglomeration such as Thrissur, the city of poorams or temple festivals with elephants, drum concerts, dance presentations, and offerings of fireworks. Here, it seems, all the countryside suddenly invades the market place packed with autorikshas, carts, as well as local and state buses ranging in categories from ordinary "passenger" to the "fast", "super-fast", "express", "limited-stop", and more. You will hear all kinds of horns and trumpets and even the jingle bell of an electronic device someone fixed on his car to get a distinct sound. Or find yourself in the extreme heat of Cochin where, by early January, you will get sticky air and the disturbing 35-Celsius at midnight. I could not enjoy a walk those days; I just wanted to sit or lie down under the fan.
There are beaches in Kerala where the contact of cultures occurs, giving way to all kinds of commercial adaptations. That is where the tourists carry their preconceived ideas along with the culture of sun bathing. Local traders adapt to the situation according to their own ideas and sense of entrepreneurship. Some will never mix with the culture of strangers, carrying on with their local business of dosas and idlis (steam cakes), others will dive deep into it, eyes closed, ready to cook ham and potted head cheese.
The list goes on. One day you come home late, walking at night along a village road or a paddy field with no light and only a stick to ward off the snakes; you are the videshi (foreigner) who rented an isolated house somewhere in the vicinity and live there on the bare minimum. However stressful such a walk in the dark could be, you suspect that this is not the kind of urban stress that would end up in a lung cancer. When you go out the next day, if you feel like exploring, there is the peaceful bicycle ride on the panchayat road, a path that goes deep into the countryside.
If you were not brought up in the culture, you would have to cope with the local language, desperately trying to pick up Malayalam, figuring out the accent, the colloquial, attempting to pronounce the unfamiliar apicals as well and as fast as everyone does; you want to make the man of the street forget that you are a videshi or a vellakaran (white man). You soon understand that you will most probably never stand at the height of your ambitions when you realize that you cannot even eat the wadas (doughnuts) and idlis without being stared at - as if you were wearing your shirt inside out. Some day, however, after the exhausting rehearsal with a team of fellow artists, you move along with the flock and find yourself in a hut, the only restaurant of the place. Less analytic, you are having your lunch and actually enjoying it. Yet another time, in the unbearable heat, you politely sip your tea in a glass or, less commonly in Kerala, on the rim of a saucer.
“I found myself enjoying my lunch in the hut with
fellow artists – what I was actually enjoying was
perhaps the difference, the otherness, or maybe
just a delightful flash of surrender”
Discovering cultures, it seems, is like learning a second language; you always have the tendency to compare new words to those familiar ones you find in your native language until, at some point, you abandon yourself to the new ones, at least to the point of enjoying naming things differently. How does this happen and what for? In my experience, and for reasons I have not yet fully understood, the answer to this question is concealed in the fact that the recognition of others cultural difference opens the gates to a deep insight into the dynamics of cultures, and ... Into you. Just like I found myself enjoying my lunch in the hut with fellow artists - what I was actually enjoying was perhaps the difference, the otherness, or maybe just a delightful flash of surrender.
Not just that. Even when you are thus ready to make the switch in terms of food, living habits, and language, one question arises: how far and how deep are you prepared to go into the culture? You realize that what you have experienced so far could be only the tip of the iceberg - to be exotic! What about the culture deep values?
For instance, while travelling the country, I hardly met anyone from the West who knew anything about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Yoga Aphorisms) or even had heard of it. In any case, and even when they say they have heard of it, not all Indians will care much about the famous treatise, which has so deeply influenced national figures, such as Gandhi, for example. By and large, the subject matter of the Kama Sutras may be easier to commercialize. The philosophy behind the Yoga Sutras is likely to remain unknown or misunderstood as long as you do not find such a thing, which Yoga can compare with, in your native culture or more fundamentally within your inner self, which is what Yoga is all about. Most interestingly, at this level, strangers and natives are alike and do have things to share; things that might be labelled “deep values” or “affective values”, be that as it may.
Back home, on one afternoon at the not too old St. Helen’s Island, I saw two Maghrebi women squatting by the riverside. They were busy cracking stones to see if the stone they find here and the one they had at home were the same. Neither less naïve, nor wiser, maybe, is my attempt at dealing with the Kerala culture.
Richard Tremblay, a choreographer from Montreal, Canada, has spent much of the last 30 years living and working in Kerala, one of India’s twenty-eight federated states. He studied the famous Kathakali Dance Theatre, regularly contributing to this art form in addition to his more common work in contemporary dance.
Pottan Theyyam, dance ritual performed in Northern Kerala, India.
The Thrissur Pooram, Kerala, India. Gold decorated elephants line up before the crowd to the thunder sound of drums and cymbals.