THE story of the “kid from a council estate in Rochdale in Lancashire” becoming the world’s first female makeup artist and costumer in the Indian classical dance drama kathakali involves an incredible one-woman journey from Europe to India.

Barbara Vijayakumar travelled on a donkey, a bike and the top of a lorry through Afghanistan, buses though Turkey and Iran, and via the Khyber Pass into Pakistan before arriving in India, where she accidentally got off a train at the wrong stop and later discovered kathakali.

For the past 30 years, she has been bringing the colourful ancient South Indian dance with her husband Kalamandalam Vijayakumar to audiences across Britain and in October their Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, which includes major world class artists from Kerala in India, is coming to Brighton for two performances.

“As soon as I crossed into India, I felt as if I had come home,” says Barbara. “I grew up on a council estate in Rochdale but I was not good academically. However, I could draw and that saved me. I got grade A in art and went to the Rochdale College of Art to do a five-year foundation course.

“Art was all I had, apart from my imagination. I lived in other worlds.”

Later, Barbara won a place at Winchester School of Art, where she arrived in a horse box and was homeless, living in a bus shelter for a few months.

“I loved it, though,” says Barbara in her broad Lancashire accent. “I had complete freedom – and there was nowhere else I could live.

“I used to go into college early in the morning to work. I was into flowers and I thought, ‘What’s wrong with my work?’ The flowers are alive and my work is not. I felt the colours expand and contract and felt that they had feelings and they were communicating in a kind of vibration. Then I thought colour had soul and it knocked me for six. How can I make it come alive, I wondered.”

Barbara used some unorthodox techniques to achieve the Living Colour effect she was looking for until, after experimenting with living surfaces including wind, trees and rivers, she realised the ideal living surface was a human face and began learning about makeup.

“I thought I would go to find Aboriginal people to ask them about it,” Barbara explains. “It was the inner person I was interested in.”

It was after college that Barbara travelled to India, where she was trained in chutti, the art of applying rice paste to the actors’ faces. “I am the first and only woman to apply chutti on major actors’ faces,” says Barbara, who has the title Kalamandalam. “I had to prove I was good enough to apply chutti on the actors’ faces, know all the chuttis, apply them in time and have the experience to manage the chuttis alone. To be accepted took many years, and for top artists such as Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi to allow me to do their chuttis is indeed a great honour.”

It was when Barbara returned to Kerala two years after her first journey that she was first introduced to her ashan, the great master Giving Varier Ashan, and finally saw kathakali for the first time. “It took my breath away,” recalls Barbara. “The stunning visual impact of the costumes and makeup was an immediate attraction and the images were exciting, inspiring and vibrating.

“Kathakali is a feast for the eyes and a gateway into another world where the imagination is free to expand and unite with characters, colours, music, movement in an atmosphere that emerged from a life established centuries ago.

“The stories are about how we as human beings relate to each other and the world we live in. Our dreams, aspirations, fears and failures roll into one experience of how society develops and resolves problems.”

Barbara met husband Kalamandalam, a kathakali actor, in 1986 and a year later she was “buzzing with the dream” of bringing kathakali to this country. The couple,  who have an adult son and four grandchildren, set about designing workshops, demonstrations and methods of making the art form as accessible as possible and since then have brought kathakali to 250,000 people across the UK.

Next year, the couple, who live in Kerala and Southampton, hope to document their costumes. “When we die, the costumes will go to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to be part of their collection and represent 20th century performance art,” says Barbara. “Just think: I’m a kid from a council estate in Rochdale and my work will be in the V&A.”

Kathakali is at Hangleton Community Centre, Harmsworth Crescent, Hove, at 1pm on Wednesday October 4 and at The Old Courtroom, 118 Church Street, Brighton, at 4pm on Sunday October 15. Both events are pay-what-you-feel and are suitable for children.

For other dates, visit kathakali.net/whatson.

Above: Barbara in 1974 applying the makeup for her Arungattum [the name given to the first show] “with my wonderful ashan [guru] Kalamandalam Govinda Varier Ashan – the greatest Kathakali costume and make up master that has ever lived”

Below: Barbara earlier this year repairing the costumes for a recent exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery

Above: Barbara applies the makeup on Kalamandalam Udayakumar in Kerala, India, this year