A Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu artiste par excellence, Kalamandalam Girija charted out a journey through the portals of a caste-ridden art form with conviction.

An artiste endowed with grace, dignity and compelling presence on stage; a genial and warm personality off stage, Kalamandalam Girija is India's leading performer of Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu. Not an extra flicker of the eyes, not a single unwanted twitch of a muscle; with poise in her carriage and a refined and yet a powerful technique of acting, Girija can cast a spell on the spectator.

Nangiarkoothu originated in the 10-11 century AD as an art form to demonstrate the story of Lord Krishna and was predominantly performed as a solo dance by the Nangiars. The Nangiars are the women members of the Nambiar community (who play the percussion, Mizhavu, for Kutiyattam — the Sanskrit theatre tradition of over 2000 years, sustained only in Kerala) and are traditionally assigned the female roles of Kutiyattam. 

The Nangiarkoothu has a separate entity from that of Kutiyattam, though the costumes, acting methodology and stage are similar to Kutiyattam just as the Chakyarkoothu has a separate entity as an art form though the costumes, acting techniques and stage decorum are similar to the Vidhushaka (court jester) of Kutiyattam.

In 1971, Girija, who is not from the Nangiar community, joined the Kerala Kalamandalam as a student of Kutiyattam and learnt under Guru Paimkulam Rama Chakyar, one of the legendary artistes who took Kutiyattam and the Koothu outside the temple and also for the first time abroad.

“Paimkulam Rama Chakyar asan (guru)told somebody that he is looking for some girls to learn Kutiyattam and that nobody was coming forward; and that person happened to be my father's friend. On his advice my father agreed to send me to Kalamandalam to take up Nangiyar Koothu. I wanted to be an actress. I loved acting. I had never heard about Kutiyattam. I just obeyed my father's wishes and went to Kalamandalam. But once I started learning I fell in love with Kutiyattam,” reminiscences Girija.

Against much opposition from the conservative society, Girija underwent rigorous training. “In the temple it was a mere ritual and perfection of technique was not the focus.

But in Kalamandalam, at the institutional level the training was professional and thorough and readied the performer for a public space. Paimkulam Rama Chakyar taught the traditional way, complete with proper hand and leg movements and technique. He also brought in new elements into the technique and costumes of the form,” recollects Girja of her Guru.

“Now, in Kalamandalam, there are afternoon classes where the epics, Sanskrit, theory, etc. are taught. We were taught how to chant the sloka perfectly. The raga and rhythm structure is strict. A student needs to undergo rigorous training for at least 10 years,” says Girija. She also trained under Kunjippillakutty Nangiaramma of Iranjilakuda to refine the elements of the portrayal of female characters.

“During our times it was hard to learn such an art form. Now many girls are coming forward to learn but they are not prepared to work hard. They learn for 4-5 years and try to assume posts of dance faculty. The first question the parents ask is whether there is a scope for procuring a good job and if there is any future in learning Nangiarkoothu. We do not guarantee anything,” says Girija. She is now the head of the Kutiyattam faculty at the Kerala Kalamandalam. Her daughter Shalini Vijayan is an up coming Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu artiste.

“One has to be careful that dance movements from other forms should not creep into Kutiyattam. Many are performing Nangiyarkoothu now; but they should focus on choreographing and performing Kutiyattam stories also. The experience of portraying different characters and different sequences will help an artiste gradually attain maturity,” asserts Girija who also learnt and performed Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam when she was at Kalamandalam.

She is known for her roles with her guru Paimkulam Rama Chakyar; the farce Bhagavadajjukam holds a special place in the spectator's mind, in which she excels as the courtesan Vasanthasena.