Fifty-year-old Chavittunatakam exponent Britto Vincent has been awarded the Kalashri 2013 by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi. A former foreman in a stevedoring firm, he has been practising the art form for over three decades in the face of dwindling support and audience. A stickler for the old style of performance, Britto continues to teach and practise the song and dance style, which has now morphed into dance and recorded music. Britto runs the Cochin Chavittunatakam Kalari, which he established seven years ago. He teaches the art to troupes from across the State. “The award comes as an impetus for this folk art form,” says the dedicated practitioner. Excerpts from a chat…
Initiation into Chavittunatakam
Even before I joined the St. Sebastian Chavittunatakam Kalari in Fort Kochi, in 1980, I used to go to all the rehearsal camps and watch the dance-drama keenly. As a young boy, I was charmed by it. In those days, there were plenty of Chavittunatakam troupes and it was performed regularly. My teacher was Josy Vadakeveedan. I am the only one from my team who is still performing.
On writing plays
I wrote my first play ‘Rejitha simhan’, as an 18-year-old in 1982. That makes me the youngest playwright in this field. The play was not Biblical or historical but it was based on Indian culture. All the characters in the play were Hindus. This is rare in Chavittunatakam. There might be other such plays with Hindu characters… but I am not sure. The main thing I aimed at introducing was variety. Till then most plays were built around stories from the Bible or history, but I brought in family stories. That made them popular and topical. In 1985, I scripted ‘Yakobum Panthrandu Puthranmarum’, followed by ‘Julius Caesar’ in 1988. My next play was on St. Paul – ‘The story of Saul’ (1998). Some of my other plays are ‘Chattavar’, ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘Mar Alesh’. I’ve also made a 20-minute play on Mahabali. My last play was ‘Judas Enna Manushan’ (2012).
Changes in the art form
The biggest threat to Chavittunatakam is the lack of interest shown by the younger generation. With the art form being introduced as part of school festivals it has become popular. However, once the festivals are done, we hardly find students continuing with it. It is the same with every art form. Earlier, dance dramas like Kathakali used to be staged over many days but now it has been reduced to a few hours and even abridged versions. The biggest change in Chavittunatakam is in the traditional style of performance where the actors sing and dance. Recorded music is now played and the actors don’t sing anymore. The earlier scripts were in a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam, mainly Tamil. Now they are all in Malayalam. The themes too have changed. More plays are being inspired by Shakespeare and Greek plays. The costumes have remained the same – bright and fancy. The orchestra too is the same with clarinet, kettle drums and bass drums.
The role of women
There are a few women practitioners but only those in in my age group, between 40 and 45 years of age.
The dance steps
There are 14 basic steps that every performer has to learn. Once a student masters them he or she is taught others steps according to the character or role they will be playing. There is the adantha (thalam beat) and specialised steps like Edakalasham and aachil.