Mesmerising Ottamthullal by Hartmut Schmidt, and Hussein Muhammed’s traditional Egyptian Tanoura left the audience in a tizzy

Two varied art forms staged recently at Greenix Village, a heritage art centre in Fort Kochi, as part of the inauguration of a hospitality service, left the audience spellbound. Ottamthullal presented by National Hartmut Schmidt, a German, and Tanoura, an Egyptian dance, presented by the internationally renowned artiste Hussein Muhammed, was an exotic treat. It was a perfect melange of cross-cultural exchange.

Hartmut Schmidt is perhaps Kalamandalam Prabhakaran’s glittering trophy, one he proudly presents as a feat. His superb presentation of Andhaka Vadham left the viewers amazed at his dexterity and devotion to the art. Hartmut got enamoured by Ottamthullal in 1991. An electrician by profession, from which he “could earn a decent living” Hartmut chose the art over his family profession. He came across Ottamthullal in a book on Indian art in his hometown, Freiburg, Germany. Art is inherent to him, he says, and that’s why even so distant and remote a form from anything that was familiar to him drew him into it. “I like the concept of story telling, of social criticism, of intermingling of elements like satire and humour,” says Hartmut who learnt Thullal under Prabhakaran, and theory from Mohan Kumar, vice-principal, Viswabharathi University.

After a year in Kalamandalam, Hartmut moved to live in his tutor’s house and learnt Malayalam. He studied the nuances diligently. He recalls the consternation among the teachers at Kalamandalam at his choice. “They were completely sure that I had chosen Thullal by mistake but I was convinced about my choice. Even after a year they asked me if I wanted to learn Kathakali instead.” Hartmut knows the 41 stories in Thullal penned by the 18th century artiste Kunjan Nambiar only too well. He has translated five stories into German and performs them in schools, at the Indian embassy, and at cultural festivals in Germany. Hartmut also knows classical ballet and pantomime, art forms that help him in Thullal. He performs the Krishnalila, Poothanamoksham, Gajendramoksham, Kalyanasougandikam and Andhakavadham. Poothanamoksham is his favourite, Gajendramoksham he learnt from his 93-year-old guru, and he took two years to translate 1,300 lines of Kalyanasougandikam into German. Prabhakaran says about his student, “His pronunciation is very good just like his thalam (rhythm). With neat mudras, apt expressions, Hartmut’s interaction with the audience is exemplary and that’s the main aspect of Thullal.” At 47, Hartmut says with maturity of an artiste, that one needs life experience to be a better performer of Thullal. Only experience, he feels, will impart the performer with the right emotion. “You cannot get dukham (grief) right as a 16-year-old,” says Hartmut who learnt to play the mizhavu too. On stage Hartmut explains the tales from Hindu mythology with clarity and joy. He says that there is a belief that Thullal was performed in a different form in Germany. Currently he wishes too write a German story in the Thullal metre.

From the intense Indian mythological tales and its deep set delivery in Thullal, the scene changed completely when the Egyptian Tanoura dancer Muhammed Hussein took to the stage. He brought in a fresh flavour to the evening. His showmanship was bewitching and had the audience join in.

“Tanoura started 470 years ago and is a varied form of Sufi dervish. The dance travelled from Turkey to Syria acquiring different nuances, the Sama, and then came to Egypt where it became plural in colour and form,” says Hussein who is a leading member of Theatre for Children in Australia.

He explains that the Sufi dervish is religious and confined to the mosques, while Tanoura is for the public. With its versatile nature the dance imbibes from different situations and is interactive. Hussein entered the stage swirling and his flowing skirt opened into several whirling layers, one which came off over his head. He then wrapped it into a form of a baby and magically took out a feeding bottle to feed the babe in his arms. The audience broke into thunderous applause. He then performed some magical balancing acts all the while spinning like a top. “I don’t feel dizzy,” he says, breathless and with a wide smile. The only thing that makes him nervous is when he takes the microphone and speaks to the audience, he says. “I feel hot and nervous. Ön stage, I belong to the people but in my mind I talk to myself.” Hussein, who is an acclaimed dance teacher, has performed and teaches the dance around the world, made an emotional appeal to the audience to pray for his country that is currently undergoing a troubled phase.

The crowd responded with cheers, claps and empathy for the talented dancer.