Drama and Devotion
Prayer meets performance in the classic art of Koodiyattam, which combines nuanced storytelling and dexterous dance expressions into a compelling act
Mythical protagonists that defy time and space, fantastical music and scenery beyond articulation, a marvel magical as majestic in its animated manifestation. Koodiyattam (often spelled as ‘kutiyattam’), an ancient Sanskrit form of theatre from Kerala that has been listed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, is an experience to behold. Literally meaning ‘acting together’, the performing art’s unassuming name is a paradox unto its intricacies.
With theatrical makeup, larger-than-life headgear, vivid costumes, powerful props and percussion, each artiste is a carrier of stories from a time when humans, gods and demons are believed to have co-existed and mingled freely.
The plots are drawn from the works of illustrious Sanskrit playwrights that featured in ancient Indian scriptures. It is interesting to note how the living dance form was also responsible for a remarkable discovery in literary history – in the early 1900s, 13 plays ascribed to Bhasa, believed to be of the earliest Sanskrit playwrights, were revealed through the koodiyattam tradition. Till then, the works of this dramatist were thought to have been lost. While these plays remain in the Koodiyattam repertoire, they are now also produced by contemporary theatre groups.
The highlight of the cultural spectacle is its abhinaya, or stylised acting method, which employs an expansive vocabulary of hand gestures, a variety of postures and movements, facial and eye expressions, and breathing practices. The percussionists, although placed behind the performers, are experts at anticipating each finger movement and every flicker of their eyes, thus conjuring a deftly choreographed soundscape. Decorative representations of nature, alongside character delineations indicative of meticulous psychological research, make the form a forceful and immersive treat for the audience and actors alike.
Another distinctive feature of the show is the nirvahana, the opening section prior to the play. A narrator recalls, as in a spoken memoir, past actions and situations in the character’s life and arrives at their present, where the act begins. The artiste is free to improvise within the technique, using other texts to enhance the portrayal.
Formerly conducted exclusively in Koothambalams (dance arenas in the temples of Kerala), a Koodiyattam oeuvre brims with sacred reverence. The traditional opening involves the lighting of a lamp at the front of the stage, purification of the stage by sprinkling water, and spoken and sung introductions to the play as well as the leading character. Some gestures are performed by an actor behind a handheld curtain. The fact that some rituals are thus hidden from the audience foregrounds the art’s sanctity.
The mizhavu, a copper drum shaped like a spherical vessel, is the major accompanying instrument. Two players strike their drums with both hands to produce a series of drum syllables, decibels and patterns. Supplementary instruments include the edakka, an hourglass-shaped drum played with a small stick, and small metal cymbals. The voiced element involves a highly stylised, rhythmic recital of the verses, emphatic in long syllables.
Many believe that the tradition is over 2,000 years old, even as concrete evidence through sources and literature supports 1,000 years of its existence. A king of the Chera dynasty, Kulasekhara Varman, believed to have ruled during the 9th century, is credited with giving Koodiyattam a new lease of life, introducing elements such as the vidushaka or jester, who spoke in Malayalam, made fun of powerful patrons and pointed out society’s flaws. The introduction of parody, witty commentary and local dialect made for interesting new adaptations.
By the 20th century, although still selectively recognized, it was propagated by, and evolved under masters such as late Mani Madhava Chakyar, Ammanur Madhava Chakyar and Painkulam Rama Chakyar. Gradually, the flamboyance moved out of temple wings and emerged on the global stage.
The performance was customarily presented over several nights — a single act could take over a month. This was because of the highly elaborative style of the mime, which depended on the expressional expertise of the highly trained actors. Today, enactments have been shortened, artists often perform extracts and necessity has led to new developments. For instance, nangiar koothu — a part performed by Nambiar women — is an important ingredient of a Koodiyattam performance. Its focal point is to enact the nirvahana. Nonetheless, from the late 20th century, this act is often executed as an individual performance, and artistes have developed adaptations around revered female characters such as Draupadi, Sita and Parvati. Renowned nangiar koothu artists include Usha Nangiar, Indu G and Kapila Venu, who are redefining the future of Koodiyattam that today stands as one of the few Indian performing art forms to have been acknowledged by UNESCO.