Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mistress

From Sri Lanka, I didn't travel too far to get to the next country in my Orbis Terrarum Challenge. My next stop was India. The book - The Mistress by Anita Nair.

If i start writing about India I can on and on about it. I love so many things about my county. But if there i just one thing that I have to pick that makes India so special, it is its diversity. India has 28 states and 7 union territories. But the fascinating thing about this, is that there is so much diversity among the states. There are 22 official languages in India but there are about 150 languages totally spoken by at least 10,000 people each. And these languages are vastly different from each other beacause they belong to four linguistic families. The cultures followed in different parts of the country as completely different as well. In this book, we zoom into one of the states in India - Kerala. It is on the peninsular part of India. Kerala is a very beautiful state - lush green thanks to the maritime climate and is fondly referred to as "God's own country" by the Keralites. The cultural speciality of Kerala is the Kathakali dance ("Katha" - story, "kali" - Performance). As the name suggests, it is nothing but the recital of stories from Indian mythology in dance form. In a way, it can be called a religious dance drama. Kathakali was traditionally performed only the men. Female characters were performed by men dressed in female costumes. A performance started in the night, and went all the way till dawn. The performace is accompnied by a live band of musicians. There are 101 traditional stories that are usually performed. Nowadays shortened versions of the stories are performed that last for no more than 3 hours. The following is a picture of a typical kathakali dancer.

Make-up is a very integral part of the Kathakali dance. The make up has profound under tones of feeling and mood and it is a very elaborate process. It goes on for several hours before the start of a performance. During this time, the actor gets into the shoes of the character he is playing during the show. Also, the naunaces of the make up differentiate between the different characters. Different colors are used for the villian ( the lead negative role) and the hero. The heavy costumes are also significantly different for the hero, the villian and the women. Hence, by just looking at the costumes and the make up, you can recognize the characters.

As it might be evident from the picture, two of the most important elements is this dance are the expressions and the hand movements. According to kathakali, there are nine different expressions (Navarasas) - Sringaaram (Love, Amour), Haasyam (Ridicule, Humor), Bhayam (Fear), Karunam (Pathos, Sadness), Rowthram (Anger, Wrath), Veeram (valor), Beebhatsam (disgust), Adbhutham (Wonder, Amazement), and finally Shantham (Peace, Tranquility). These expressions involve complex muscle movements in the face and hence, kathakali training is very intensive. The dancers spend hours everyday just sitting and practising the complex muscular movements. Also, since the costumes and the head gear are very heavy, they have to strength train to gain the ability to dance gracefully while carrying so much weight on them.

So, why so muh about kathakali, you might wonder. Well, the beautiful thing about "The Mistress" is that the the story line is weaved in with the dance form. The whole novel follows the sequence of a typical kathakali performance - a prologue, the body, and a conclusion.
The body of the novel is divided into 9 chapters. Each chapter is named after one of the navarasas (expressions). At the beginning of the chapter, there is an explanation of how this expression is portrayed in kathakali and an example from nature to portray the expression (the wrath of the monsoon rains, etc). This is the most beautiful part of the book. This is followed by the actual story. The story is not a single person narration. As in the dance, each character tells us his/her side of the story.

The beauty of the book, however, ends with its structure. The storyline lacks in depth and reason. Though the central character of the novel is Koman (a famous kathakali dancer), the character doesn't grip you with its story. The other characters in the book are Radha (Koman's niece), Shyam (Radha's husband) and Chris (the foreigner radha has an extra marital affair with). The characters are not very well defined and the I didn't feel that the story was very substantial.

But nevertheless, Anita Nair brings the dying art form of kathakali to life. That is what made me pick this book up to read as part of the challenge. It seemed very relevant. I would totally recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading about kathakali. Someone who would appreciate the effort gone into researching the dance and weaving it into the story line.


Meera said...

I havent read Mistress, but another book by Anita Nair. Infact there was a time when i read a book by Shobha De and vowed never to pick up a book by her again. It was so full of trash :)
Have you read The Red Carpet - a good collection of stories and i really liked that book. Kudos on keeping up the challenge and good luck with the rest :)

Ramya said...

oh yeah.. i read a shobha de long time ago too.. it was sooo trashy! anita nair is much much better.. i read ladies coupe by her too..i kinda liked that one.. thought it was very intuitive..
shall add "The Red Carpet" to my to-read list..:)are you doing the orbis terrarum challenge as well? you should.. it is soo much fun!:)

bethany said...

this book sounds great! Would a non-indian understand it, is there enough explanation of the dance and rituals?? Great review! I love the pictures!

Ramya said...

bethany, you must give it a shot.. i felt that the author had explained the dance and the dancer's lives pretty well. But i am curious to see how you would see it.. i am warning you here, the story line isn't that great.. but you should read it just for the idea of merging dance with a story.. i liked that:)

Amrutha said...

Just finished this one. While I appreciate Nair's effort to portray the art so intricately (feels as if one is actually watching a performance), I felt the story was not strong enough to hold the threads together.