Kutiyattam: The Heritage Theatre of India, is the first major book on this vibrant theatre tradition that existed in India from the times of the Matye Sastra. It traces the history and evolution of Kutiyattam through different ages, its aesthetics and theatre grammar as well as the challenges in its transmission to a new generation of artists and viewers.
Kutiyattam is widely acknowledged as the only living link to India’s ancient theatrical tradition. While its origins are hazy, it is said to have an unbroken history of around two thousand years, combining old Sanskrit theatre with the regional forms of Kerala. It has its own distinctive theatrical conventions and improvisations, with highly sophisticated facial expressions and a fluent vocabulary of gestures. Kutiyattam elaborates action by extending the performance score to heights of imaginative fancy. Ever since it ventured outside Kerala’s temple-theatres in the l95Os, it has been appreciated by a wider circle of connoisseurs, and challenged by shifting systems of patronage.
This book discusses the theory and practice of the art form and aims to introduce Kutiyattam to a larger readership. It includes the translation of the performance manual of ‘Asokavanikanakam’, from Saktibhadra’s play Ascharyachudamani, as an illustrative example.
Sudha Gopalakrishnan has studied India’s traditional arts forms for three decades, especially the performing arts of Kerala. Her books include From the Comic to the Comedic (a comparative analysis of the comic mode in Bhasa and Shakespeare), Krishnagiti (a translation of the source text of Krishnattam with C.R. Swaminathan), Nalacharitam (a translation 0f the Kathakali text and performance manual) and Kaikottikkalippattukai (a compilation of the oral tradition of Kaikottikkali songs, which was in collaboration with Radha Madhavan).
Sudha is a trained dancer of Kathakali and was the Vice President of Margi (Thiruvananthapuram). She was also the Founder Director of the National Mission for Manuscripts, which has led India’s effort to source and place information on one million manuscripts on www.namami.org. She has been associated with UNESCO’s intangible heritage stream as an expert, and has steered three successful nomination dossiers for India to UNESCO. This resulted in the proclamation of Kutiyattam, Vedic Chanting and Ramlila as ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Currently, Sudha is President of the non-profit SAHA (Stirring Action on Heritage and the Arts). She is working to create Sahapedia, an online repository on Indian knowledge systems. She lives in New Delhi.
This book took a long time coming. It is the result of years of conversations with Kutiyattam performers and experts, visits to repertories and watching scores of performances all over Kerala. Considered a complex, inflexible and ancient art form requiring considerable patience and time at your disposal for a fair understanding, Kutiyattam has a way of growing on you. It is addictive enough to never to let you out of its spell for life. In early 1970, a Kutiyattam performance was held in Thiruvananthapuram by a troupe consisting of Paimkulam Rama Chakyar and a few young students who were being trained by the Chakyar at Kerala Kalamandalam. The Kutiyattam School at Kerala Kalamandalam was started in 1965 under the leadership of Rama Chakyar who had trained a group of talented young students. One of them gave a spellbinding performance of ‘Sikhini Salabham’ to a limited group of art enthusiasts; it was an instant success with discerning audiences in Thiruvananthapuram. This became the inspiration for the establishment of Margi, an institution devoted to the revitalisation of classical arts in Kerala. Founded in 1970, by a group of art aficionados including Appukkuttan Nair, Ky. Kochaniyan and my father T.N.N. Bhattathiripad, as a Society for the revival of classical arts, Margi began with a limited agenda. It brought several classical Indian dances and music styles to perform in Thiruvananthapuram. The first Kutiyattam festival was organised by Margi in 1970 followed by several others. In 1974, a Kathakali School was started and subsequently, the mandate was enlarged to include Kutiyattam, with the establishment of the Kutiyattam School in 1981. In the initial years, with the association of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar as the first Guru along with Moozhikkulam Kochukuttan Chakyar as resident teacher, a new generation of performers began shaping up in Margi.
I discovered Kutiyattam by chance. Unlike Kathakali, Kutiyattam was not well known even in Kerala during the seventies. Those days, I was a student of Kathakali, being trained under Guru Mamkulam Vishnu Namboothiri and not willing to miss an opportunity to attend every performance I could manage to reach. My parents, given their own love for the traditional arts, actively encouraged me in my pursuit. The establishment of Margi gave me an opportunity to watch several Kutiyattam performances, opening a capacious wonderland of experience. My involvement with Kutiyattam at this stage in Margi ranged from sitting through long hours of training schedules, persisting through performance after performance and trying my hand at writing/editing articles for the Margi
Journal, all of which cumulatively honed my understanding of the intricacies of Kutiyattam. Appukkuttan Nair whom I consider as my mentor fostered my interest with parental care. The topic of our daily discussions over the telephone those days would range from an appreciation of the performance of the Kutiyattam we watched the previous day, to his theoretical analysis of the subtleties of Bharata’s Natya Sastra.
An investigation into shared themes and recurrent narrative patterns in Indian and Western theatre gave me the impetus to pursue a doctoral degree. It was a comparative study of the comic mode in Bhasa and Shakespeare under the supervision of the scholar-poet K. Ayyappa Paniker. Though admitting to important differences between the two traditions, the effort was to find common paradigms of experience in engaging with the comic aspect (hasya rasa) in drama) through multiple modes of laughter and adopting an affirmative approach to life, as welt as through embodying a spirit of humane tolerance that could be termed ‘comedic gladness’. Apart from a textual analysis of the plays, my doctoral thesis also traced similarities between classical theatres of India such as Kathakali and Kutiyattam and modern experimental theatre in the West. Professor Paniker, who guided my research, also shared his valuable insights on Kutiyattam with me.
Kutiyattam itself was going through a transformation during this time. Freed from its bondage as a temple-oriented art form, it started receiving the attention of theatre enthusiasts and scholars all over India and abroad. Margi along with Kerala Kalamandalam and subsequently Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam led this change. Kalamandalam, started in 1930 by the great poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and Mukunda Raja for the revival of traditional performing arts, has now become a University. Ammannur Gurukulam, established under the guidance of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, took up the cause of training young students, who have now matured as professional actors of Kutiyattam. By this time, the understanding was getting stronger that Kutiyatram, while it represents a pan. Indian aesthetic tradition represented by the Natya Sastra, was also largely different and independent from that which is revealed in the postulates prescribed in the text. While the Natya Sastra lays more emphasis on a broadly lokadharmi mode of abhinaya, Kutiyattam with its insistence on elaboration in acting and other details of theatric representation, is firmly rooted in natyadharmi. As a theatric tradition that is rooted in Kerala, it evolved as much from the existing aesthetic tradition with shared cultural traits, reflected in its physical aspects such as costume, make-up and stage arrangements, to the introduction of the vidushaka who speaks in Malayalam for the benefit of local audiences.
Kutiyattam was fast moulding to suit the new generation of viewers with keen interest but less time at hand. New experiments with existing choreographic texts led to adaptations. Long, drawn-out abhinaya explicating passages after passages was giving way to tightly edited, dramatically intense shorter episodes that would appeal to an eclectic viewership. Gurus got busy consulting old performance manuals to re-invent vanished plays. Nangiarkoothu, the performance exclusively by women who were marginalised for centuries, started gaining more prominence. The fact that Nangiarkoothu could be presented as distinct, self-contained units of a single narrative (revolving on the story of Krishna) made them more appealing.
Choreographers across the world and within India started realising the potential of Kutiyattam to revitalise their own theatre grammar. With the recognition that traditional theatre can be effectively used to revitalise contemporary theatre, playwrights such as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar have attempted to explore indigenous traditions of theatre. This ‘going back to the roots’ to draw on the indigenous theatrical heritage has, in fact, become a movement in post- colonial Indian theatre that manifested itself as a desire to reject an overarching Western theatre idiom. Kutiyattam schools started getting invitations from all over the world for conducting performances and workshops. As Paimkulam Rama Chakyar put it succinctly, ‘Those days, there was no value for a Chakyar outside the temple complex; now everyone wants Kutiyattam.’ These words were proving prophetic. By the nineties, Kutiyattam artists were travelling all over India and abroad seeking new opportunities and audiences. Fortuitously, Margi got an invitation through Milena Salvini of Mandapa to perform in Paris in late 1999. As Vice-President, Margi, I led the troupe and in Paris, Norika Aikawa, the Director of the newly-constituted Intangible Heritage Section in Unesco, happened to see the performance. At her suggestion, Margi compiled a nomination dossier for the inclusion of Kutiyattam for the proclamation of the newly-announced UNESCO ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. The dossier included a film documentation of Kutiyattam done expertly by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and a compilation of the written document by me with the support of Rama Iyer of Margi. The nomination, field by the Ministry of Culture, was accepted by UNESCO and, along with eighteen cultural expressions from other parts of the world, Kutiyattam was proclaimed by UNESCO as ‘Masterpiece’. It was indeed a proud moment for the Kutiyattam community.
The impact of the UNESCO proclamation was momentous for Kutiyattam. The recognition has brought more visibility and respect for the art in its own site. Kutiyattam, which was once held as being protracted and obscure, has now become more accessible. The Government has come forward with funding support and there is considerable re-awakening of interest; new schools have mushroomed and funding opportunities have increased. New adaptations of old choreographies have served to revitalise Kutiyattam from within and a wider viewership is constantly challenging it to become more accessible.
What does the future hold for Kutiyattam? Unlike in those days, Kutiyattam is not the esoteric domain of just a few people. At this point one can only say that this immense inheritance is certain to get the attention it deserves. There may be reformulations in its format and content and new interpretations in keeping with changed values and needs. Safeguarding the art is a shared responsibility that needs the engagement of the society and government, Kutiyattam enthusiasts, theatre practitioners and academia. Above all, to keep it alive and breathing, we need young people to nurture it with commitment and passion. After the departure of the trio of Mani Madhava Chakyar, Paimkulam Rama Chakyar and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, a new generation of younger gurus and performers have now established themselves. One has only to watch the blooming of the young Kapila, a student of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, redefining the boundaries of the form, to feel reassured that the future of Kutiyattam is safe in the hands of the youth of India. I am happy that my own daughter Aditi is trying to combine her legal profession with her training in Kutiyattam. And many more like her from India and abroad are now taking to the study of Kutiyattam.
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