The challenge is to be expressive in spite of the rigidity of the form, says Kootiyattam exponent Usha Nangiar

At a workshop, Kootiyattam exponent Usha Nangiar and her husband-percussionist Kalamandalam Hariharan demonstrated the rich tradition of this Sanskrit theatre.

“This art is recognised as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It is also recognised as one of the oldest surviving examples of performance art,” starts Usha. “Nangiarkoothu, is the solo dance style of the form performed by the Nangiars,” says Usha, who belongs to the traditional community of Nangiars. It was her father, the late Chathakudam Krishnan Nambiar, a renowned Mizhavu (the traditional drum) player, who initiated her to this art form when she was a child.

“Practising this art form is a tradition in the family. It was performed more in the temples. It teaches you more about acting and emotions,” explains Usha, speaking about this classical theatre form. Usha has grown up studying Kalidasa along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata. “When I started out not much importance was given to female characters. Only two or three female characters were performed in the temple premises. But today we bring over 20 female characters into our performances. That was also the time when the solo act came in. This form is more like narrating a story. Earlier only tales of Krishna were narrated but now we narrate stories of Draupadi, Mandodari, Ahalya, Sita and so on.”

Hariharan came into the form when “most artistes left in search of greener pastures. When the Kerala Kalamandalam started, teachers had no students. That’s when they opened the doors to people from other communities,” says the percussionist.

“We are making this art form more accessible to the crowds. It’s our aim to popularise this art. In our effort to keep it alive we have started a small institution in our home town and we look forward to more collaborations,” observes Usha.

Usha prefers solo performances as it gives her more freedom. “Even the costume has so many knots. Yet I feel that these are the very knots from which I want my emotions to come forth. Even the form is rigid. It’s like a tight frame, yet the challenge is to be expressive in spite of its rigidity.”

Ranga Shankara and Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, Bangalore, present, Nangiar Koothu on May 8, 7.30 p.m.

The cast includes, Usha Nangiar, Mizhavu: VKK Hariharan, Kalamandalam: Rajeev, Edakka: Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan, Thalam and Recitation: Athira. For details, visit bookmyshow.com