Kutiyattam: The 2000 years old last surviving Sanskrit Theatre
Not many are aware that there exists an ancient theatre art form in India which has been able to survive for more than 2000 years. And what better place to discover it than in God’s own country – Kerela. Kutiyattam, or Koodiyattam as it is more traditionally known, literally translates to ‘acting together’, and is a temple theatre form played out in Sanskrit in Hindu temples in Kerala. This unique theatre format has the distinction of being the last surviving Sanskrit Theatre in India.
What makes it Unique?
Nothing about this art form is business as usual. Till the 1950s Kutiyattam had never been performed outside Kerala. It was only ever performed inside theatres called Kuttambalams – permanent structures attached to major temples in the state. It was customary for the actors to belong to either the Chakyars or the Nambiar Hindu castes in Kerala. Traditionally, the Chakyars would take up the male roles in the dramas while the female ones were enacted by the Nambiars. The Vidushaka or the jester plays his role where he criticizes anyone without fear. The protagonist would always be a Chakyar who would start with two introductory acts to set the tone and convey the mood of the main character. The third act would be the actual drama where any number of characters could participate. As can be gauged from the elaborate nature of the acts, a single drama can easily last upto 20 days. Musical instruments used are just as peculiar – one group beats the kuzhithalam (cymbal) reciting verses in Sanskrit while another group plays the Mizhavu, a large copper drum played in accompaniment.
A Historical Art Form
The origin of the art form is still shrouded in mystery as experts struggle to understand the reason behind specific castes being chosen to portray the characters. The themes in Kutiyattam have always been based on ancient Sanskrit epics. Resembling other traditional dance dramas, Kutiyattam employs the concept of Navarasas or facial expressions to convey the moods and emotions of a character. Netra Abhinaya (eye expressions) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) are prominent facets of the art. The Koodal Manikyam temple at Irinjalakkuda and the Vadakkumnatha temple at Thrissur are where annual Kutiyattam performances are held.
Kutiyattam has always been an art form for exclusive audiences, be it the upper caste Hindus in temple audiences in olden times or the intellectual elites of today. The act can sometimes be so complex that it requires an audience with the prerequisite knowledge to fully appreciate it.
It took bold initiatives from noted guru and maestro Maani Maadhava Chakyar to market the art form to the world. It was only in the 1950s that he gave the first Kutiyattam performance outside a temple. Maani Maadhava Chakyar had mastered Rasa Abhinaya and gave spellbounding performances arousing great interest in the art. He first travelled all over India with his troupe – even performing at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on the behest of then president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Maani Maadhava Chakyar went on to give lectures all over the country in various institutes of performing arts thus further popularizing Kutiyattam.
Another noted exponent of Kutiyattam was Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. He was most active in the 80s and 90s when he performed all over the world and finally opened up Kutiyattam to foreign audiences. He was also a teacher and continued teaching Kutiyattam at his institute in Thrissur during his later years.
An Endangered Theatre Form?
Kutiyattam has always been viewed by exclusive audiences. Add to this the length of a single act which can last many days, it simply seems unsustainable in this day and age. Even the number of families who would participate and organize performances is already on the decline. The artists and groups face financial difficulties as it is tough to find an understanding and engaged audience. However, efforts by stage veterans and encouragement from government institutions like the Sangeet Natya Academy are helping keep this heritage alive. Kutiyattam has also been recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a recognistion that has done wonders in gaining international exposure. Many institutes have also begun training programs on Kutiyattam which attract both foreign and Indian students. Regular theatre performances are still organized in most parts of Kerela.
Interests in The Current Generation and Hope
This exclusive art form may still survive, thanks to dedicated proponents from the current generation. Kapila Venu, one of the foremost names in Kutiyattam today, had her life’s calling decided early on. A disciple of the maestro Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, Venu sets fire to the stage in her famed Nangiar Koothu and Mohiniyattam performances – female solo performances in this ancient dance form. Dappling in both the traditional as well as experimental, Venu breathes life into the theatre form. She emphasizes the dedicated practice and labour needed to master the Netra Abhinaya, as well as the arduous eye makeup process before each recital.
It is heartening to see the current crop take to the beautiful and demanding art forms of the Indian heritage – a hark back to the roots.
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