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A culturally rich outing

Kathakali meets nautanki in Japan

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Kabuki, traditional Japanese theatre, is struggling to find young audiences, but it makes for a culturally rich outing.

The perpetually weepy mother is forced to give away her first born. Her second son grows up to become a policeman;meanwhile the first son has become a goodhearted badie. The policeman then falls in love with a courtesan and makes an honest woman of her. Soon after, he is called upon to arrest his long lost brother. He is torn between family and duty. The mother wrings her hands in despair, begs for her son to be spared but finally stands up for righteousness.

Brotherly love, wifely devotion, filial piety, motherly love - it is all there in kabuki. Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki (Two Butterflies and a Tale of the Pleasure Quarters) seems like a cross between Deewar and Mahabharata. I'm perfectly at home watching the play at the Sihimbashi Embujo Theatre in Ginza - this is like a familiar production number where kathakali meets nautanki.

If you love heavily stylised and very aesthetically staged dramas with a lot of melodrama, a day at the theatre in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto can turn out to be a riveting experience. Only men act in kabuki and they do female characters as well, using a keening, exaggeratedly feminine voice to say their lines. This means a lot of over-the-top weeping, wailing, sniffling and rolling of eyes in women characters. The men for most part stride around being strong, brave and macho. Kabuki is a remarkable mix of the outlandish and the subtle, very much like kathakali. The make up, the costumes, the moves border on the bizarre but there is nothing coarse about the art. Every small act is measured, embellished and protracted almost as if in slow motion - the idea is that if you were to freeze any kabuki frame it will be picture perfect. Then it does not matter if you are an old woman staggering on the stage or a young woman folding a handkerchief, the choreography is immaculate. Kabuki watching is something of an all-day outing. The plays start at around 11 am and often go on till as late as 5 pm. The same play might run in two or more parts, two or more different plays might be tagged on to it, some could be fantastical stuff about ghosts and spirits, love stories or sagas from the long gone world of caricaturish geishas, good/bad sumo wrestlers, simpering wives, scheming samurais and righteous heroes.

Like many other antique art forms that require time, attention and interest, kabuki too is finding fewer younger audiences. (Noh, an even more dense art has even less popular following). My fellow traveller Vandana is looking for a wonderful puppet art called bunraku around Tokyo and I am in search of kabuki but the even city guides, profusely apologetic of course, tell you they have no clue about the venues. Vandana has no luck with bunraku, this is not the season, but I find an ongoing show at Sihimbashi.

Kabuki certainly has a strong if niche fan following and almost all cheaper tickets are sold out at Sihimbashi (the lovely Kabukiza Theatre also in Ginza and built in 1889 is undergoing renovation).

The hall is full, many old folks, some ardent kabuki fans and a sprinkling of tourists like me. There are neat bento boxes selling outside, both at the theatre cafes and on the street outside where women in kimonos are hawking homemade lunches. If you are set for a daylong venture make sure to pick up some food, the Japanese sit in orderly lines on benches at the theatre and finish off their meal with admirable precision and neatness that only the chopstick can achieve (the plastic bag becomes the napkin). Some eat on their seats at the theatre, catch a quick nap between acts (a few during the act!). This is no quick two-hour culture outing, it is about leisurely and loving connoisseurship of a great drama.

Kabuki's roots go back to the edo period starting 17th century (interestingly the same time that kathakali evolved in Kerala). Pay special attention to some of the quirky aspects of kabuki because this is a evolved, ritualised and painstaking art form that needs a high degree of training. Note the revolving platforms where the musicians are seated, now visible now not to viewers;the clever props to indicate day and night;and the footbridge that connects the stage to the audience which actors often use to enter or leave the scene.

Suddenly you might see a figure clad in black onstage, lurking behind the actors, and pretending generally to be invisible. Their job is to play handmaiden to the actors. There is also the somewhat alarming practice of audiences shouting out to the actors on stage in the middle of an intense scene - this is the Japanese equivalent of our shabash! or wah!

A kabuki show is by no means a cheap outing. A seat up in the balcony is the cheapest at 3000 yen (Rs 1, 860) and the price steadily climbs up to 14, 000 yen the closer you get to the stage. But if you can afford it and are patient enough, kabuki makes for a really rich cultural experience.

malini. nair@timesgroup. com

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