The resonating sound of the percussion instruments at the Kozhimamparambu Bhagavathy Temple in Cheruthuruthy and the rituals waft into the house, located just a stone’s throw away. In this house, which is replete with a nadimuttam and provisions on two sides to teach choliyattom to students with colourful Kathakali costumes all around, live the couple— Kathakali actor Kalamandalam Vijayakumar and his wife Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar, Kathakali chutti artist and costume specialist.
Barbara and her husband now live only for two to three months during winter in Cheruthuruthy and reside in the UK during the rest of the year by taking Kathakali to every nook and corner of Britain.
The couple is currently engaged in making films and documenting how to display and care for the costumes which, after their demise, they will donate to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum has the largest collection of costumes in the world, including Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.
“The Kathakali costumes collected over more than four decades will become a part of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, which will enable people to access them for centuries to come. I asked if the museum wanted the costumes and the costume department, dance department and the Asian Department all wanted them. Some of the Kathakali costumes are older than the museum so they will be a valuable part of their collection,” says Barbara.
Jane Pritchard, the curator of dance at the museum, came to see the costumes at their home in Southampton. “The museum is grateful that the Kathakali costumes are being documented on how the costumes should be displayed as they often get costumes and have no knowledge of their use or background,” she adds.
Kalamandalam Vijayakumar is happy with the step taken to preserve the heritage. He says, “We are delighted as the costumes will be preserved for future generations in a safe environment. Films, interviews and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair’s book about the technique of Kathakali will also be displayed with the costumes so that people can understand how they were used in performances. The first digital record of Kathakali mudras created by me will also be added to the collection.”
Interestingly, Barbara who has done more than 5,000 chutties came to India as an 18-year-old. She got off at the wrong train stop, Valathol Nagar, instead of Shoranur, in 1972. As she walked along the road, someone told her to go and see the Kerala Kalamandalam. Barbara, who had trained at the Rochdale College of Art and Winchester School of Art, successfully completed a course in chutti (makeup used in Kathakali) under the guidance of Govinda Warrier Asan.
She later married Vijayakumar. “I remember when I came to study chutti, people were shocked and asked why I didn’t study acting instead,” she adds. Talking about her work Kalamandalam Gopi Asan says, “Barbara is dedicated and a perfectionist. She never compromises on her work.” Adding praises, Kalamandalam Nelliode Asan says, “Her Guru-Bhakti is unparalleled. She would apply chutti only after placing a portrait of her guru, Govinda Warrier Asan. Even at her house in Cheruthuruthy, the portrait of her guru is lighted every day.”
Forty-four years later, Barbara and her husband have conducted 26 three-month tours, 23 exhibitions of Kathakali costumes, 3,500 solo performances and 4,000 workshops. Kathakali has become popular in the UK and other European countries. “We conduct tours annually and this year the theme is ‘Kathakali and Bharatanatyam costumes’,” says Vijayakumar.
This year there will be performances and displays in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Maritime Museum, The Halley Academy, Asnet, and MAUK. The BBC World News will be filming the performances at the Victoria and Albert Museum—funded by the National Lottery.