Tag Archives: culture

A Day with the Masters: Kalamandalam School in Kerala

We had the opportunity to visit Kalamandalam dance school in Kerala.  The school teaches over 20 different disciplines, including several types of dance, theatre, makeup, drumming, and singing.   There are 60 teachers and over 200 students in those 20 disciplines, and several of the current teachers were students themselves.   The school itself is funded by the state government in an attempt to preserve local traditional arts.  Several of them died out before they could be saved, as many artforms were practised only by specific families in certain geographical areas and were not passed on when family members lost interest or died out.

Students take regular school courses in addition to lesson in their given discipline, usually attending for six years.  It takes 8 to earn and undergraduate degree, and several more for a PhD.   The program is residential, with students living together nearby in a dorm-like Spartan atmosphere.  Classes can start as early as 4 in the morning in order to fit in the necessary hours to practice their discipline, attend standard classes like math, and complete their homework.

In another time period, the arts primarily belonged to the upper class, meaning that only those from certain castes could participate.  They also were only performed in certain areas at certain times, and did not tend to be open to the general public.  This modern, public revival and preservation of the arts has democratized this aspect of culture, allowing all Kerala people (as well as foreigners and other Indians) to participate as well as view these arts forms.  Several of these types of performance are  classified as part of the World Heritage by UNESCO.   It’s great to see the government taking an active role in preserving culture and combatting yet another manifestation of the caste system.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Veil Vocabulary

I know it can be overwhelming as an outsider to understand all that is going on with Muslim women’s clothing, so here’s a little glossary to get you started.  If anybody has additional terms or corrections, let me know!


(1)this is the most basic piece, and is a scarf worn around the head.  Accompanying this can be skull caps, pre-style pieces etc., sometimes in ornate styles or coordinatng colors.  The face is fully visible, but the hair and neck are not (if it’s styled correctly).

(2) Hijab is also the concept of overall modesty.  Often you will heasr women refer to their overall modest mode of vestments as “my hijab.”  For men, hijab is the belly button to the knee.  For women, it’s open for debate but is generally considered to the ankles and wrists, with covered hair.


This is the “hood” that covers the whole face and leaves eye-slits.  It often comes down to the middle of the upper arm, and is worn with an abaya.  Another version just covers the front of the face, and can be tied on before a hijab

Chador (sometimes called chador namaz):

This is a one-piece that covers the hair down to the ankles, but leaves the face exposed.

Mantau chalvar:

With mantau coming from the French manteau, this is basically a knee-length coat worn over loose pants and accompanied by a hijab


This is the basic dress-like garment that is warn over clothing.  Depending on the crowd you’re with, many women will take off their various outer garments when alone with each other.


The oft-discussed garment is a head-to-toe covering, often accompanied by elbow-length gloves.  It has a full-face veil built in, often with mesh over the eyes for viewing/protecting purposes.


Many women, regardless of whcih level of modesty and ornamentation they prefer, add other bits as well.  These can include gloves, additional neck/collar bone covering, the skull cap to insure that if a hijab comes loose nothing will show, and little coverings (perhaps tights?) for feet, so that ballet flats may be worn without exposing skin.

In Egypt, I saw many garments that combined a few of these together.  There are also great variations–in some countries or neighborhoods (the Gulf, anywhere that tends to be more conservative and more poor) will feature more covering, and darker garments with little to know ornamentation.  In Egypt on the other hand, there were hijab-friendly bathing suits, sparkles on everything, and skin-tight long-sleeved shirts with revealing shirts over them.  There are also numerous fashion lines and shows for hijab-friendly customers.

Is this African Enough?

Yep, this is Africa, too.

When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa.  When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt.  I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was:

  • too rich
  • too Arab
  • not black enough
  • too developed
  • too wealthy
  • filled with too many people who were fully clothed
  • not hungry enough
  • not in civil strife
  • not “native” enough
  • too educated
A beautiful new university building
A beautiful new university building

If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be.  Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is.  When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry.  Wooden, hand-carved statues.  Or wooden, hand-carved anything.  Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap.  But that’s what the women around us wore.  Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads.

The beautiful game.

Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us?  Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya.  We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us.

Cuba is Not a Spectator Sport

You cannot go to a cajon and sit there, with your arms crossed.  You have to loosen up those shoulders and start dancing.  You have to puff on the cigar and drink some aguadiente.  When someone hands you a cup of green liquid and leave, you eat it.  You eat it because they have so little but invited you into their home and fed you anyway, and you eat it because how else would you know it’s actually the most delicious soup on the planet?

At a rumba show tonight I just wanted to get up and dance.  Rumba is not meant for dressing in an “ethnic” shawl and sitting down in neat rows.  How do you sit up straight and tall, not even a toe tapping to the beat?  It’s meant for that fresh santero who let loose and danced up and down the aisles, and it’s meant for my teacher Falla who kept making eye contact and singing along with different friends and students throughout the night.

When Obsesion had their show, they kept pulling other poets and rappers up on “stage” to join in.  they demanded audience participation, from call and response to getting your hands up to kicking the chairs aside and dancing.

Cubans might be born dancing, but they’re not necessarily born good at it.  They have a certain daring that we gringos lack.  If you spend all your time against a wall lamenting your lack of rhythm, of course you won’t be able to salsa, no matter how much time you spend here.  The ability to dance is not an amoeba; you can’t just pick it up by accident.

I guess this is how I feel about last night’s rumba show, and this trip to Cuba, and the country as a whole.  If you’re not going to live it, you may as well be reading about it in Reading, Massachusetts.  No culture is so high and impressive that you can’t participate.  This is why I write in books–you have a relationship, and active partnership with exchange.  It’s also why the Mona Lisa is boring, but the art of a man who came to my class the other day is exhilarating.

Culture is not for taking pictures of or watching or even writing about.  It’s for living.  Ruminate later, but would you rather have pictures of other people doing things; insights on what you saw?  Or stories of what you did?