Skip to main content

Hot in a cold climate

The coming Festival of India's South shows a culture richer and more varied than is usually known. Naseem Khan reports. There is something about the words "the south": they have a special ring to them. "Oh, for a beaker of the warm south", wrote Keats longingly, and a picture of languor and fecundity floats gently into the mind. Ah, this is not the bustling raw and nervy north, you think. Relax - this is the south.

The Festival of India's South, taking place throughout London, starts off with a verbal advantage. It sounds rich - far more than the plodding "Festival of South India" would have done. But it's not just empty seductive words. There is the culture to back it all up. South India does not enjoy as high a profile as it should, but it is nevertheless true that it is a cradle that has rocked and nurtured a series of extraordinary cultural forms that have grown up, gone out and colonised the world.

Look in Denver, Toronto, Melbourne, London and Singapore and there they are, well dug in - the music, the dance, rituals of the South. They can be in small packages, such as the Tamil Saturday schools in Britain, or imposing ones, such as Rathna Kumar's 250-strong dance school in Houston, Texas, but they have in common their ability to travel well, stay intact and influence people.

But the strange thing is that the role of the South has been so little noted. Tourist images that stick tend to be overwhelmingly those of the North - the lake palace of Udaipur, the wonderful desert palaces of Rajasthan and the unmissable pi ce de resistance, the Taj Mahal. If you think of India, it will probably be in terms of vaguely oriental Kismet-y buildings - curved cupolas, elegant, fluted archways: all signs of the North. It is less likely you will think of the huge temple complexes of South India with their elaborate wealth of sculptors and carvings.

The Festival, presented by World Circuit Arts, beginning next Thursday and running till June 28, should at the very least correct some misconceptions. The range of arts it will present is imaginative and varied - surprisingly so. You would, for instance, expect a good chunk of Bharat Natyam since the dance form had its genesis in the South. But the Festival has just one night of it (though danced by Alarmel Vallie, one of its finest exponents). Instead the focus has gone on the more difficult task of recreating the spread, contradictions and diversity of the arts of South India.

Films at the National Film Theatre make the point that more films come out of the South than the more famous Bollywood. (I recommend the heart-wrenching Bombay, a film that uses popular film techniques to talk about religious bigotry). Outside, a signboard painter will be working away at a huge movie advertisement in all the vivid flesh tones that the punters know and love.

Galleries such as the Delfina, Bermondsey, and Kapil Jariwalla. W1, demonstrate that the contemporary and the historical can co-exist. Optimistically, two outdoor events are planned. Covent Garden kicks off with five free days from next Thursday, to be followed by a South Indian fair or mela on May 27 that promises to bring together crafts, stalls, storytelling, food and folk performers in the grounds of the Horniman Museum, Forest Hill.

The general scene is so busy that it is quite hard to stop and catch just exactly what is in all this that makes the South so different. In fact the reasons for distinctness are clear and quite simple. They all go back to geography. The South was simply harder to reach by the conquerors and invaders that periodically set their sights on India - from Alexander the Great to Tamberlane and the later Moghuls. They had entered from the North and the route down to the South was long, hot and hazardous. It faced them with obstacles like the jagged Vindjya Mountains and perilously extended supply lines.

Even the most important wave of colonisers, the Aryans, who have given the North its base population and culture and arrived in the sub-continent around 1500 BC, left the Dravidian South with its racially distinct peoples largely untouched. So, in the South, the cultures and civilisations grew in a relatively homogenous way. Empires like that of the Cholas (from the first century AD) thrived and left behind marvellous bronzes. Outside influences came in from the Far East along the maritime trade routes; and, later, new invaders - the Dutch, Danish, British, Portuguese and French - came and left their marks.

It would not be right to paint it all as a peaceful Happy Valley devoid of aggression, but it is true to say that the South suffered nothing like the major upheavals of the North, and that Hinduism has held a stronger sway. Travel round the South today and the primacy of temples and the religious life cannot fail to strike you. This is where you find the major temples - some vast and covered with statuary like the one at Chidambaram where the god Siva is popularly supposed to have danced; some little and local - busy neighbourhood temples teeming with brightly Disney-painted statues - snakes and lions, many-armed bold-eyed goddesses, elephant-headed Ganapati, the monkey god Hanuman. And in the streets each morning, you find the housewives at work drawing a new auspicious pattern in the dust with rice-flour paste, reciting the daily puja and tending the pots of sacred tulsi plants.

This unforced interweaving of religion and public and social life is one of the legacies of relative isolation and a characteristic of the South. The gods are credited with a direct role in some of the institutions. When the rules for classical dance were first drawn up around the second century BC, it was because the gods nudged the writing arm of Bharata Muni. At their instigation he had already set up the first dance-drama, but it had ended in chaos. The demons in the audience took the story - an account of the demons' defeat - personally, and cast a spell on the performers making them unable to move. This inability to separate life out from art was, the gods decided, due to the lack of generally accepted rules. So the Bharata Natya Shastra - a source book for performance in general - was written. It is still in print today.

The gods were also in the list of conference delegates at the first massive gathering of bards and poets in the great temple of Madurai. This first sangam was followed by a second where the first Tamil grammar book was said to have been written. In the third, anthologies were put together that contained more than 2,000 poems. The involvement of gods and humans, and the gods' catalytic power, is a regular theme and appropriately built into the Festival of India's South too.

Most obviously, it is in the season at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. Three companies are due to show three different forms - Kathakali, Yakshgana and Theyam - there under the single banner, "Theatre of the Gods". All have their roots in Hindu mythology and practice, but they differ in substance. Kathakali will be the most familiar to British audiences. A martial art-inspired dance from the state of Kerala, its dramatic powerful dramas are put over by figures whose appearance is extraordinary and a bit frightening. The dancers - men who have trained since early boyhood - wear strange costumes that nobody has satisfactorily explained. They wear layers of full cotton skirts, long swatches of black false hair, and towering papal-like headdresses that turn them into unreal figures. Their make-up - which takes hours to apply - is in surrealistic colours and designs that carry coded messages about the characters they are playing.

Yakshagana is a far less frequent visitor, partly because its existence has been at greater risk in India itself. It has a similar spectacular quality without Kathakali's sense of weighty danger and passion. But previous work seen here has shown very attractive qualities of dash, drama and brio.

The real curiosity however is in the third form. Theyam has only recently emerged from being a private occult ritual to a performance form, and is being played only once in the season. Its name means "pertaining to the gods", and the ritual is just that. The protagonist, dancing himself into a trance, is taken over by the god. In that spirit, he can cast divinations and heal. In some other Kerala cults, he will dash out of the temple, running fast until he reaches the place the god has picked out for his new residence. Theyam, which is semi-improvised, apparently allows some measure of control. The dancer - his face covered in other-worldly make-up and wearing a costume that weighs up to 50 kilos and is 30 feet high - uses choreography and song in his ritual. He is accompanied by the escalating sound of deep-toned chenda drums as the pace and intensity gather.

All these are likely to be striking at the level of sheer spectacle alone. But for those who want to go a bit deeper, World Circuit Arts has organised a series of pre-production talks. After the Riverside performances, directors and pundits will be on hand for questions and answers. They are only a few of the opportunities the Festival offers to learn more directly. Both London's major museums - the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum - are offering lectures and tours to accompany their own exhibitions. The Horniman Museum will show you how to make the floor patterns or kolams and flower garlands. And a two-day conference on South Indian Performing Arts at the School of Oriental and African Studies, WC1, on May 31 and June 1 will follow the themes of the Festival through. If you appreciate more hands-on introductions, West London's Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Institute of Indian Culture) is setting up workshops in Bharat Natyam and South Indian, Karnatic music to accompany the concerts and dance recital the centre itself is hosting.

The sweep is broad and ambitious. Few events - exhibitions excepted - are on for longer than a night or two, so would-be audiences will have to be quick. The Festival tent - more an art work than a marquee, and sponsored by the Taj Group - will stand in Covent Garden until June 9 to provide information and advice. By the time June is over, people should have got the message - India has a South. The South has an extraordinary culture. India, in short, is more than the Taj and tandoori.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you