When Kathakali meets Dante

It was 1985 and Albatros, a street theatre performance from Italy, was playing across many towns in Kerala. No one cared for the story; what left many in the audience awe-struck was watching actors running along the streets in giant stilts, almost as tall as the coconut trees. Albatros was performed at Irinjalakuda in Thrissur, and around the Koothambalam of Kerala Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthy. The play had been brought to India by the Italian theatre company Teatro Tascabile.

A long relationship

Among the actors was Mario Barzaghi, a young theatre practitioner from Italy. Though it was his first visit to Kerala, his tryst with the state had begun even earlier when he began learning Kathakali in Italy, from Kalamandalam John who had been visiting Teatro Tascabile since 1981.

Cut to 34 years later. On a sultry evening in 2019, 65-year-old, Mario is preparing for a lecture-demonstration at Janabheri Cultural Centre, a beautiful cultural space in Shoranur, close to the Kerala Kalamandalam. Unfazed by the sweltering heat, he orders all fans to be switched off, leaving the audience suffocating for the next couple of hours as he presents a series of demanding physical movements. When someone expresses awe at his age, “I don’t care about age, because I just want to do what I’m doing,” he says.

When Kathakali meets Dante

Age is not the only barrier that Mario Bargazhi had to battle. In 2002, he suffered a severe injury to the Achilles’ tendon during a workshop. It took him a year to get back to normal. From 2002 to 2014, he tried to continue working without putting much strain upon the joints, as doctors had advised him to stop performing Kathakali and dance. When he put on weight and became depressed, his wife advised him to return to Kerala and start practising Kathakali again. And so he returned in 2014. “It was tough,” he remembers, “and painful but, afterwards, you don’t remember the pain; only the joy created by the work.”

Earlier in his career, Mario had worked with Teatro Tascabile. In 1999, he founded Teatro dell’Arbero,’ along with Rosalba Genovese. For the past 35 years, he has been practicing Kathakali, performing with his master, Kalamandalam KM John in India and abroad. He also trained under the great guru Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, in 1985 and 1999, who also conducted his arangetram.

Kathakali performances

That evening, he presented fragments of Kathakali performances and recited some fragments of the seven cantos of Dante’s Hell. “It was a field of application to transpose what I’d learned by practising Kathakali,” said Mario. He was also demonstrating the differences in the use of voice while reciting the text. “The vision is in the text, not only in the body,” he pointed out. “The etymology of the word is very important because it gives a lot of information about the word,” he adds. Mario, who has returned to Italy, hopes to come back to Kerala next January.


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