Let there be dance

The dances I know from India are the upbeat, colorful routines in flashy Bollywood movies. But Karnataka state has a rich history of classical Indian dance that combines bells, beautiful make-up, expressive faces and colorful costumes in amazing theatre performances.

We have had the opportunity to witness three well known dance traditions.

Yakshagana is a kind of theatre performance that is put on primarily by men dressed in ornate robes, heavy gold head pieces and layers of thick make-up that they apply themselves. They dance and act out classic epics while a group of musicians play drums and pipes.

The production lasts hours into the night. In Mangalore, a small stage was set up in front of dozens of plastic chairs for the audience. Behind the stage is a long, canvas tent where men prepare for their appearance. Dozens of actors sit on the ground in two rows along a string of dim lightbulbs.

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A performer finishes getting ready in the tent.

They use the light to apply thick, dramatic make-up in front of small wooden mirrors that rest on the ground. Some men dress as demons, using make-up to create spikes on their cases and plump, round noses. Others dress as women, wrapping saris around their chests that they paid with fabric to create the illusion of breasts.

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A performer poses before he takes the stage. His outfit includes hip padding, ornate shoulder armor and a metal headdress that can be quite heavy.

Half of the art is the costume and make-up application, which is done by the performer himself. One performer quickly dipped his hands into white paint, then yellow, rubbing the two together in his palms to create a skin tone he applied up and down his arms. Another leaned close into his mirror to draw on thick eyebrows with a brush. A third, who had just left the stage, pulled off his costume and dipped a rag in oil before rubbing it over his face and body to remove all the paint.

Another popular dance in Karnataka is the Bharatanatyam dance, which is typically performed by women and is known by its elaborate hand and facial gestures. We got to see two sisters — who won a medal for their skills — perform in Mangalore. The girls, age 17 and 21, had layers of bells tied to each ankle, which helped them make their own music throughout the performance. Each step in time with the rhythm provided a beat. The pair used facial expressions to help tell the story, one about an elephant and another about the Hindu god Krishna. Their every movement was so deliberate and sharp and they used their wrists and hands to make to elaborate gestures.

The costumes are especially ornate and include lots of gold jewelry, including nose piercings and mang, long chains draped over the top of the head.

After the dance the sisters told us they have been practicing for 12 years. They had to take an exam to be qualified dancers.

We also got the opportunity to see a famed dance troupe perform. Nirupama and Rajendra are husband and wife and known for their classical Indian dance performances, including Kathak dance. At a conference in Ooty we saw them perform this style, which again includes strands of bells on their ankles. With flat, bare feet, the pair lift and move their legs very quickly, creating a song out of the tinkling bells.

The pair choreographed several dances that told stories about lord Krishna, war and love. Their faces are so expressive, and dance movements are almost like theatre acting.

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