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Updated: October 28, 2010 17:12 IST

Bowled over by Koodiyattam

Suganthy Krishnamachari
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THE SANSKRIT CONNECTION: Dr. heike Moser. Photo: S. Thanthoni
The Hindu
THE SANSKRIT CONNECTION: Dr. heike Moser. Photo: S. Thanthoni

Heike Moser, researcher and the first foreigner to have had her arengetram in Kerala's mimetic theatre form.

While Koodiyattam, Kerala's traditional Sanskrit theatre, has been proclaimed part of the Oral and Intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO, it isn't as popular as Kathakali, admits Dr. Heike Moser, the first foreigner to have had her arangetram in Koodiyattam. She was here to present a lecture on the subject for the National Folklore Centre, Chennai.

Dressed in a Kerala mundu-nerythu, she greets you in chaste Malayalam. When it comes to the Malayalam script, she prefers the old ‘lipi' with its beautiful ligatures.

Heike's interest in India began when she watched a Bharatanatyam performance by Caroline Gerbert Khan in Germany. Charmed by the dance, she became Caroline's student, and every year she came to Chennai to learn from Caroline's guru, Savitri Jagannatha Rao. From Bharatanatyam, it was a short hop to study Indology, and when she discovered that Sanskrit plays were being performed by Koodiyattam artists in Kerala, Heike made a trip to that State.

Bowled over by the mimetic theatre form, she began to take lessons in Koodiyattam from Kalamandalam Girija and Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar.

Heike has given 20 performances, 14 of them outside India. She played the role of Sita in ‘Jatayu Vadam,' which her guru Rama Chakyar performed in Europe. With her radiant smile and good looks, Heike must have made a beautiful Sita!

Heike, who has a PhD in Nangiyar Koothu, is now scientific coordinator at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, Tuebingen University. She trained German school children in Koodiyattam techniques for Kleist's Greek play ‘Penthesilea.' The production won a prize from the German government.

While some of the Koodiyattam tradition have come down to us in the written form through ‘Krama Deepika' and ‘Attaprakaram', a lot of it has also been transmitted orally. Much of the oral tradition could have been lost, Heike feels. For example, there is written evidence to show that almost all of the Pallava King Mahendra Varma's ‘Matha Vilasa Prahasana' was performed in Koodiyattam. But these days only the drunken Kapali bit is done, she says.

On plays and Bhasa

What about Bhasa's plays? “You mean the plays attributed to Bhasa,” Heike corrects me. While doing her Ph.D at the Wuerzberg University, she was part of a project to photograph all available manuscripts of Bhasa's plays. Manuscripts found at libraries in Lahore, Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram and those in the possession of the Chakyar and Nangiyar families, were photographed. But the Bhasa problem still remains unsolved, says Heike.

When Ganapathy Sastri found the Thiruvananthapuram collection in the early 20{+t}{+h} century, he came across ‘Swapnavasavadutta', a play supposed to have been written by Bhasa. Since there were similarities in style between the plays in the collection, Sastri concluded that all of them were by Bhasa. “But they could have been written by different authors, all of whom might have been from the same school, which could account for the similarity in style”, says Heike.

But it does seem that the Sanskrit plays ascribed to Bhasa were perhaps written by an author or authors from South India, for of all the manuscripts in the Wuerzberg collection, only one is in the Grantha script. The rest are in Malayalam, and none in Devanagiri, she points out.

Heike talks of epigraphical evidences that show the use of the word ‘Nangiyar' for women performers in temples. But she hastens to add that there is no proof that what they performed in the temples was the present-day Nangiyar koothu. The earliest epigraphical evidence of use of the word ‘Nangiyar' dates back to 898 A.D. There are references to ‘Nangiyar' in the Thiruvengavasal temple and also in the copper plates found in Thiruvalla.

Chakkai koothu

As for ‘Chakkai koothu', the words appear in inscriptions in temples such as those at Kizhapazhuvur and Viranarayanapuram, in Tamil Nadu. “There is a legend among the Chakyars that a chakkai koothu exponent was among the retinue of a visiting king from Tamil Nadu. So, chakkai koothu must have made its way from Tamil Nadu to Kerala. It's my guess that it might have then melded with the local tradition and the amalgam is what we now know as Koodiyattam,” says Heike.

‘Koodi' (meaning ‘together') is interpreted by Heike as suggesting the fusing of two traditional art forms. “This is just a hunch, not a proven theory,” admits Heike.

Koodiyattam now finds a place in more contemporary settings. “Margi Madhu, for example, did a Koodiyattam rendering of Othello in Theatre Works' play ‘Desdemona', which had Indonesian dancers, a Burmese puppeteer and Korean drummers.”

Is it right to take such liberties with a traditional art? “Nothing should be taken as good or acceptable merely because it is old. Nothing is bad merely because it is new. Great men accept the one or the other after examination and deliberation. Only a fool has his mind led by the beliefs of others,” Heike declares rather dramatically, and then adds with a smile, “Those are not my words. That was a translation of Kalidasa's ‘Malavikagnimitra', Act I, verse 2!”

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