KOCHI: The world of imagination is boundless and so was Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar passion for creativity. The call of the inner self was so strong that she set off from her home in England to explore the world. After a three-month journey crossing forests, deserts and mountains, she landed in Kerala, the arena of art and culture.
It has been 50 years since Barbara fell in love with God’s own country and made it her second home. “More than the rhythmic impulse and the vibrant culture, it was the art of face painting that attracted me. I found Vijayakumar, my life partner and chutty, the facial painting art of Kathakali that changed my destiny. Now, I am a Malayali,” says a proud Barbara.
Born and brought up in Lancashire in England. Her mother was a tailor and she worked as a cook at a school. Her father Frank was a craftsman. Her grandfather Albert Knight was one of the founding members of the British Communist Party and was invited to Russia by Khrushchev.
“My parents had confidence in me and never stopped me from pursuing my passion. They have passed away, but the inspiration provided by them helps me chase my dreams,” says Barbara. And Barabara’s passion was art and wanted to bring her paintings to life.
She believed that art is a manifestation of the soul and wanted her paintings to breathe, and express emotions. After completing training in visual art from Rochdale and Winchester College of Art, she set off on a journey in 1972 to learn face painting art from the Aborigines of Australia. But, born in a working-class family, she didn’t have the resources.
Hitchhiking through Asia
All she had was around 50 pounds, a canvas and determination. She will approach a truck driver seeking a lift and get down at some distance. She took shelter under a blanket in open fields and bus stops and travelled across Europe and crossed the border in Turkey to enter Iran. Trudging through the deserts and climbing the steep mountains she reached Afghanistan.
“From Kabul, I travelled on top of a lorry to Bamiyan. Once, a little boy brought a donkey and asked me to ride it. Another boy lent me a bicycle that I used to ride on the stone-paved roads. I travelled by hitchhiking on lorries. Once, I travelled with three Afghanis in a lorry. It was chilling cold at night and so they invited me to sit inside the cabin with them. It was 11 pm and I was alone with three men, I could have been murdered. But they offered me apples and conversations. They were proud, kind and caring,” reminisces Barabara.
From Afghanistan, she crossed the Khyber Pass and entered Pakistan. Travelling through Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Lahore she reached the Indian border. And from Amritsar, she travelled through Ranchi, Puri, Chennai and Rameswaram to reach Madurai. Finally, she reached Kerala, where she found the answers she was seeking.
“All through my journey, India was colourful. People were wearing bright colours. But once I reached Kerala the colours were gone. People were wearing white. After reaching Kochi, I planned to travel to Bangalore. However, it was sheer destiny that made me get down at Vallathol Nagar in Shornur. There a maddalam artist invited me to Kalamandalam, a visit that changed my life.”
She met writer Sumangala, who introduced her to Bharatanatyam, at Kalamandalam. “I wanted to use the face painting technique for my abstract art. But she informed me that it was a two-year course. My resources were already dried up, so I returned to England to amass funds for my education. It took me three months to reach home overland,” she says.
Tryst with chutty
Two years later she returned to Kerala through the same route after earning money by working as a gardener. In 1974, she joined the two-year course on Chutty, the intricate makeup for Kathakali, at Kalamandalam.
“There were only a few women at Kalamandalam and I was the first woman ever to join the course for Chutty. My Asan, Kalamandalam Govinda Warrier, was a wonderful artist and he was a genius on Kathakali costumes. He didn’t know English and I couldn’t understand Malayalam and so learnt through the sounds he made while applying chutty,” she said.
One night, Govinda Warrier took Barbara to New Kalamandalam for a Kathakali performance, the first time she ever watched the marvellous performance in her life. “Gopi Asan was performing as Bheema and my Asan was applying the chutty. That was when I truly understood what chutty means, it put the face in a frame. It magnified the expressions and was framing the emotions. From that night, I started practising day and night and accompanied my Asan to every performance,” she explains.
After completing her course, Barbara organised a performance spending her own money. The performance comprised three plays Kalyana Sougandhikam, Keechaka Vadham and Dakshayagam — all on the same day. “I worked on the Chutty for all artists and it was a grinding job that took seven hours. None of the chutty fell off and I had graduated.”
She again returned to England with newfound knowledge and enthusiasm, to put all she learnt on canvas. There she formed a theatre group, Center Ocean Stream Performance Art Company and brought living sculptures to life. It was neither dance nor drama. It was a creative work exploring the technique of chutty.
“My first performance was Spirits of Sound, a performance based on my original idea of living colours. With the sunrise, the purity of innocence blooms in the sky and the warmth of colours spreads on stage, by midday it is fire and then darkness spreads at night,” she explains the theme. “Soon we were touring around the UK and I directed five more different abstract art performances.”.
Life with Kathakali
It was on her third trip to Kerala, in 1986, she met Kalamandalam Vijayakumar, a Kathakali artist and a native of Manimala in Kottayam. “I found that many artists were struggling to survive with no work, no opportunity and no money. Along with Vijayakumar, we formed a troupe and arranged a tour of the UK and Canada. We had a team of 15 artists and started arranging Kathakali performances across the world,” she said.
“As people in foreign countries couldn’t connect with the nuances of the art form, we started demonstration classes. I will deliver an introduction and Vijayakumar will perform the mudras and expressions. We started providing a detailed introduction to the story before the performance and organised more than 4,000 solo performances and workshops across the world,” she says.
In 1989, Barbara and Vijayakumar tied the knot. They embarked on their journey to spread Kathakali in foreign places together from South America and North America to Europe, West Asia and SouthEast Asia. “We have been doing it for the past 36 years,” concludes Barbara.
Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar’s life has been a journey in search of art that lives, breathes and emotes. In Kerala, she found chutty and has been creating art inspired by the Kathakali make-up for the past 50 years