The taxi drops me in front of a quiet tea stall and speeds away in a jiffy. The driver, who has been regaling me with stories of the Middle East, is suddenly in a hurry. He offers to come and pick me up at a local temple a couple of hours later and leaves, even before I can mutter my thanks.
It has been a rather uneventful journey from Kochi to Tripunithura, but the town itself is wrapped in a deep afternoon stupor. Shops are closed, the temple is silent and the autos are parked in a corner with loud snoring drivers lounging on their seats. I am at the crossroads, alone, and the only sound in the town comes from the gongs of a clock. I look up to see a little puppet peering at me from a tall, imposing clock tower.
Bright and sparkling in its fresh coat of paint, the 19th century Manimalika stands rather tall in the sleepy town. As the clock’s hands announce the top of the hour, I see the neatly dressed soldier, a puppet, looking out of the window saluting as the clock strikes. The Manimalika, built by Cochin Maharaja Rama Varma, is my second brush with royalty in the erstwhile capital Tripunithura, the first being the touristy Hill Palace, which now houses a museum.
It is not often that you brush against royalty on the road. In Tripunithura you can, for almost everyone in this town has a royal connection and every house is a small palace. Walking round Tripunithura, I realize why the guidebooks call it a palace town. There is Palace No 13 on my left, then I cross Kalikota Palace and enter the portals of Bungalow Palace. Most palaces don’t even have a name – they are just known by a number. These old mansions still bear a stamp of royalty and many house descendants of past royals. Wooden panels on roofs and windows, archaic staircases, majestic door handles, antiques and some memorabilia – these add the royal flourish. A townsman looks at me in amusement and adds that there are close to 41 palaces, most old and not renovated, while some have been turned into marriage halls and flats. I wonder if he is royalty as well.
Parvati and Radhika take me to another old hall, part of a palace where another chenda class is on and where the students are sweating it out, creating a rhythm on stone. Soon their guru FACT Padmanabha, a renowned Kathakali exponent, walks in and a rehearsal for a Kathakali show begins. The artistes are all women and they are performing Nizhal Kuthu, a show based on the Mahabharata. Hari Priya, an artiste, narrates the story where the central theme revolves around a black magician and his family when he is forced to kill the Pandavas.
“We are the only all-women’s Kathakali group here,” explains Parvati but her guru adds that he hardly sees any difference between male and female performers. “The bhasha is all about mudra,” he adds, breaking into a dance, his eyes conveying a range of emotions.
Most of the performers here are passionate about Kathakali as they juggle home, jobs, family and arts. Radhika jokes that she has played every role including the dark characters, but has never donned a woman’s role. They perform more than 20 shows a year, not just in temples but also in other cities and abroad.” In Tripunithura, culture seeps down to every family and you can see women, children all performing the arts,” adds the guru.
As he finishes speaking, the beat of the chenda hits a high as Parvati’s eyes harden. She is now the cold and ruthless Duryodhana wishing for the death of the Pandavas. There are no masks or costumes, but the character comes alive in her eyes. The mood changes as the women transform into the characters. Jaws harden, fists are clenched, and eyes widen and I suddenly see them breathing fire and passions take over. I quietly make an exit and walk back to the Manimalika to see the soldier smile down at me as I leave the town.