South Indian dance in Chichester

Barbara in 1974 in Kerala, south India
Barbara in 1974 in Kerala, south India

Barbara Vijayakumar was supposed to be travelling overland to Australia back in 1972. But she got off at the wrong stop in India – and the result all these years later is a Chichester date for her Kala Chethena Kathakali Company.

Bringing the ancient South Indian art of Kathakali to the Guildhall in Priory Park on September 30, they offer open access to see the make-up from 11.30am-1pm and a full-company performance from 2pm-3.30pm.

Barbara is promising a breath-taking blend of theatre, dance, drama, spectacle, music and storytelling – and all because of that train.

“It’s a long story,” she confesses. “But basically, I went to Rochdale College of Art and Winchester College of Art, and I became aware that colours were alive. I could see paintings contract and expand. I felt they had sound. My friends used to complain. They said they were spending pounds to experience the kinds of things I was experiencing!

“But I felt that colours had a soul and that I had to bring that soul alive. I was studying textiles and fashion, and I started by making paintings that opened and closed, by floating paintings on rivers, putting them anywhere but on a wall. Then I took some dye to the water’s edge in Bournemouth and put it at the edge of the waves, and it was just glorious, but I noticed I had coloured half a mile of water – and I couldn’t just go polluting places!

“But the next day I was walking down the corridor at college and noticed a boy and thought ‘That’s it!’ I thought ‘People have got movement and colour and soul! People are the perfect platform for my living colours.’

“I had no link with the theatre at that point. I started making colours and shapes that I put on people as living sculptures, but the problem was that I wanted the face to be the centre of the sculpture and my make-up was so bad. I had no technique. I rang the BBC to see if they would teach me, but I couldn’t get anywhere with them, and so I decided I wanted to go and find the aborigines and see if they would teach me.

“And so I went overland to India in 1972. I went through Europe hitch-hiking and then through Iran and through Afghanistan on a bicycle, on a donkey and on a train and then into Pakistan and into India. And the moment I crossed the border into India, I felt I had come home.

“I started travelling around India, but I got robbed so I couldn’t travel on the express trains. I had to travel on the third-class non-reservation trains that stopped at every station.”

And it was at this point that she got off at the wrong station… and discovered what was effectively the royal ballet school for Kathakali dance.

There she became the first female Kathakali make-up artist in the world, the first female costumer and the first female costume-maker.

“I was trying to go get to Australia…. And I got off the train at the wrong stop… and all this happened!”

Based in Southampton and founded by Barbara and by Keralan Kathakali actor Kalamandalam Vijayakumar, the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company brings artists from Kerala to tour nationally and internationally. The story to be performed in Chichester is a story of love, similar to Snow White and called Hima Sundari, easy to follow and suitable for the whole family.

“The company focuses on making Kathakali as accessible and enjoyable to as many people as possible, and in addition to spectacular performances, there will be a demonstration of how the actor tells a story.”