Shadows Under the Banyan Tree

Shortly after plonking my backpack on the sofa and gulping my sweet tea, Pulavar and his son informed me of their gig in Fort Kochi. They had been booked to perform an abridged Ramayana that evening. I was quite relieved to peel myself out of the car after 8 hours wedged in between a troupe of puppeteers on the hectic roads of Kerala. I was positively delighted to find we had landed in Fort Kochi, a pretty little resort looking out on to the Arabian Sea. We pulled into a large plaza, by the sea and Chinese fishing nets, and swarming with Indian and European tourists. I sat and watched the team set their stage. Efficient and silent.

A quick walk round the town, a samosa at sunset, a cup of tea, and we headed back to the stage, where several rows of red plastic chairs had now appeared. When the sun set the performance began. Headed by Chenda (Keralan percussion), the play starts with the ceremonial first lighting of the fire -usually performed in a grand ritual by an Oracle of Kali and her followers. (In this case the first fire was passed-on by a local government agent working for the cultural sector, not quite with the whirls and twirls of Kali’s oracle, but with meaning all the same.)

How incredibly exciting, my first shadow play in India, in fact, the first traditional shadow theatre I’ve ever seen. And it was pretty special.

The lamps are slowly lit (all 21 of them) and the puppetry began with song and drum, setting the scene for the story of love and war we are about to embark on. First on is Ganesh, and the troupe say a puja for the God, as is tradition when starting their Hindu story. The puppets were beautiful, so much more than I had imagined. Ganesh looked quite small in the centre of the wide screen, but was soon joined by the four Brahmins and Rama and Sita. And they floated about the flickering deep amber stage under the Banyan tree with the light breeze from the Arabian Sea (sounds pretty idyllic doesn’t it!). Wonderful detail, floating chariots, woodland creatures, dancing women, Rama, Sita, tusked  elephants, warriors. It was epic (and all in one hour!).