Last night I went to an elaborate performance that started at 11 pm in a temple where my companions and I were the only waking spectators. Kathakali, an ancient Keralan form of religious story-telling, does not require or even necessarily care for an audience; the performers are commissioned by supplicants or those whose prayers have been answered, and they perform for God. The artists spend up to three hours making up their faces in bright ritualized color combinations and climbing into heavy costumes. When they arrive on stage they are accompanied by drums and singers, and they gesticulate their way through a story or series of stories until dawn. Some artists perform every night, earning respect but apparently not much of a salary.

We (six women from the center) arrived at 10 o’clock to find the temple quiet except for a number of people sleeping on the ground (as there usually are at temples). The artists were getting dressed nearby, so we were able to watch them until they ambled onto the stage an hour later. Apparently at this temple (Tiruvalla) there is a Kathakali performance almost every night of the year, which explains the nonchalance of the people who managed to sleep all the way through despite the noise; I had earplugs and still found it loud.

We didn’t stay too long. At midnight the bugs and hard ground and thought of getting up early for class conspired to send us back to the (air-conditioned) car. At breakfast this morning the other women breathily soliloquized about what an amazing experience it had been and how they would happily have stayed until dawn. I’m habitually grouchy in the morning anyway, so I kept my peace. It was an amazing experience, but at the same time I’ll say that Kathakali is an acquired taste: a performance that takes three hours to tell a story that can be summarized in two sentences might not be my cup of tea even if I knew what the singing and hand gestures meant. And while I understand that it takes many years of practice to even learn how to put on the makeup, let alone perform the gestures, I find myself wondering why one would bother. Expressing these thoughts makes me feel like a philistine, which is why I kept quiet this morning. But then I keep quiet a lot when a conversation turns to enlightenment or god or politics.

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