A student's reflections on Noh training

25 March 2019 | Journal

Ramith Noh

Year 2 student R Ramith, a trained Kutiyattam performer, reflects on his experience of Noh training, and the similarities and differences he encountered between the forms.

Being a practitioner of Kutiyattam, a form that imbibes all the glories of Indian culture, and stepping into this institute which celebrates the vivacity of different cultures, it is true that I was faced with many questions. These questions found a place within me as well as in the minds of people observing me. It is from this premise that I encountered Noh theatre. A subject of knowledge that you are completely blind to invokes a lot of fear. Noh put me in a similar state. While a Kutiyattam actor like me who is denied the possibility of expressing through the face, wouldn’t it be too strenuous an affair? I constantly asked myself as Noh theatre masks the face.

I stepped into Noh without having enough understanding of the form. Like a little child who enters the world of letters for the first time, many doubts kept knocking the doors within me. The readings on the form helped gather some understanding of the form later on. These readings opened me up to a whole new world of Japanese aesthetics. I was able to draw many parallels when I compared this with Indian aesthetics. At the same time, there were many oppositions too. The key difference that being the control of emotions to the absolute precision of necessity. In Indian aesthetics, each emotion is required to reach its peak while here we are required to contain it. That is where things got difficult. I had to set new measures for my emotional expression.

This furthered my doubts and confusion. I contemplated: “Am I deviating from my duty and responsibility as an actor/performer? Are my dedication and sincerity being compromised? I questioned myself. The reason being, initially movements in Noh came to me easily. I relentlessly critiqued and analysed myself. I also figured out the answers timely. I understood that training of all Asian traditional forms begins in a similar way. And that my previous training in other forms has been so intensive that it had prepared my body for the practice of Noh.

I was transcended to a space and experience beyond words. Each day these experiences and states evolved and transformed. It was also unpredictable at times. Sasikomi, Hiraki, and other movement vocabularies of Noh became new languages in my movement vocabulary. I, who was so proud of my ability to remember movements found me failing to remember the choreographies with each new dance being taught. This was because of the close similarities in these choreographies. Even though the differences were small, these created a huge difference in the performing of it.

After one week of training, I had started to challenge myself. When the Japanese chanting was included in the training, I felt more connected and engrossed with the form itself. I became more inquisitive and curious to enter the depths of the form and discover newer details. I also felt that the melody of the chanting was very close to the Indian ritual music. I felt that I could connect this to the chants of Muthapan, one of the Theyyam (ritual form from Kerala) gods. As a child, I grew up watching and experiencing Theyyam and hence it exists as an emotion or feeling within me. These might be the reasons why I grew immensely close to the form.

Another mystery for me was the calculated measured movements of Noh. When reaching the corners (Sumi, Josa, wakisa, daisomai), which leg to stop with, how many steps, at what distance- when I indulged in all these technicalities I became more inquisitive.

With some inquiries, we start questioning ourselves? I did the same. I asked myself these questions. As a result, I went more into my own self. I discovered a new world through these conversations with the self. I, an extremely social person, found myself retracting more into the self and more silent. I even became detached to the people I love. This might have been a result of these internal journeys. I was experiencing a state of Shantham/ peace at a personal level. As a Kutiyattam performer, Shantham is one of the most difficult states to embody. It compared to the state of the dead in Kutiyattam. Even though I started verbalising after a week of Noh training. I gained some understanding by engaging with the masters. I was still not able to fully understand all of it as a student. However, I realised that these experiences and interactions had started sowing seeds of an alien culture within me.

When I entered the next phase a result of inquiry and learning, I was encountered with the element of the costume. Even though the costume was for the purpose of training, I felt transported to another state of space and time. These costumes were a symbol of Japanese culture as I imagined them. When I adorned them, I constantly wondered, “Where am I?”
I wore the Tabi in the mornings to train the extremely rigorous Suzuki Method. Then, when I wore the same Tabi for Noh training it was to step a movement of different nature. The greatest challenge for me was the fact that I am a Kutiyattam performer because, the forms demand an elaborate, illustrative, and intensive form of expression. But in Noh, we are required to convey the motives in a subtle but with similar grandeur.

The next stage was the use of the masks. The respect with which the masks were treated conveyed the purity and significance of it. The small holes in the masks didn’t help in terms of vision. But these small holes became a part of me once I wore the mask. In that dark state, I saw a small light and I embraced the emotions internally in that atmosphere. My experience was beyond my ability to express it through words. I had started to understand myself and had started to think about what I have within. I was amazed at how a mask could take me to such intense states. I also felt that the reason behind calculated movements in Noh was due to limits set by the mask.

I had expected moving with the mask would be difficult. But on the first day, I didn’t feel the difficulty as I was too excited to have it on. I was like a kid who had gotten a toy he had waiting for. As the days passed, I passed through the above mentioned states.

In Kantan, I found my physic posing a challenge for me. I, being a tall person, and the Kantan Shite which is often performed by people of a smaller body frame, was anxious about whether I can portray it successfully. It took me time to embrace the character. The days that followed were a struggle to embody the character to my best ability. Slowly, the character and I found consensus. And days passed and I met the mask again.

I cannot explain my state of being the mask again. I had a shiver run down my spine when I put I put it on. Since the ritual was done in front of a mirror, I saw a completely different person after wearing it. I was another person. I couldn’t resist my thoughts that rushed through my mind. On one side I was me, on the reflection I was someone else. My mind was in conflict and I lost control of myself. I was on the verge of breaking down. At this moment I asked myself — what do I have? What does my body have? What can I do?

After that day’s training, I wished to isolate myself from others. Maybe it was because my ego was hurt as an artist. At that time, Kuwata Sensei praised the performance. He said if you can continue in a similar way the performance will excel. Once again seeds of doubt were sown within. I thought, at the moment when I had thought I had failed, appreciation was granted. This untimely appreciation is something I treasure. Because I understood that an empty mind is an open book, and if you try to write beautifully in that book, the contents will be appealing and attractive. Even though I had understood this, it was very hard to repeat it. Finding that empty state was hard. I started searching for the emptiness and I failed to find it.

Then I started trusting in the practice. I tried to stop thinking. This reminded me of the duty as a performer. When all had started to settle in, the live music came in. This was the next challenge. This upset me again. I started to be conscious. I must rather say, attentive. I started to plan how to deliver smaller actions and changes. This made me realise how these subtle changes are actually revealing big changes. I had finally found an answer to a question I previously asked. From this point, I started finding answers to my many questions during the training process.

During the dress rehearsal, the costumes were worn in a rush. This resulted in a few costume glitches. Even the hair wig was also tried on that day. I was in a state of discomfort. Firstly, the costumes were new, my body wasn’t familiar with it. This disturbed me. Secondly, the two holes of the mask were covered by the wig as the length was too long. I wasn’t able to connect with the outside world. It felt like someone who was blindfolded and sent to the stage to perform. How would I finish my performance? I feared. But this blind state was a blessing in disguise. I lifted my confidence which helped me in the performance. That performance happened in a space of complete emptiness. These experiences prepared me for the final performance and I performed with zeal devoid any distraction of the mind.

The last few months were like a roller coaster across many centuries. But I now realise, how valuable a journey it has been. It was a journey of meeting the self. Where I encountered the I within me. I realised how can one create a whole new world through emptiness. Those were moments where I realised how can an art form influence one at a personal level. In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, he invites you to have a conversation with the self. I felt like I have been doing these past days with Noh. It is beyond words. To decorate it a bit, I would conclude by saying that I was in a state of eternal happiness amidst all the chaos and conflicts.

Translated by Pooja Mohanraj

Originally posted here