The Margi Natyagriham in Thiruvananthapuram was shaped by a group of visionaries and dedicated performers-gurus who trained a new generation of artistes in the exacting art form. The renovated premises was recently inaugurated.

As I walked the winding way to the Margi Natyagriham to experience the new ambience, my memory went on rewind to the very first time I had gone there in the mid-nineties to interview the late Guru Moozhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar. A small old tiled house merged with the performing space, the mossy laterite walls indicating the era it belonged to. The smell of the burnt out oil wick lamp, fragrance of incense and the subdued daylight together created the atmosphere of a traditional Kerala home. Why here, was a question that rushed to my mind.

It was on a recent visit that I got the answer to my question. Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar who was a visiting professor at the Natyagriham since its founding had set a precondition – if he were to come to Margi in Thiruvananthapuram the place must have a pond accessible to him. Thus it was that the Nambi Madam of the Sri Mahadevar Temple in Valiyasala in the capital city fit the bill and became the seat of Koodiyattam in the capital city.

Way back in 1981 when Guru Kochukuttan Chakyar with his sons Madhu and Sajeev Narayana relocated to Thiruvananthapuram it was a transplantation of sorts.

“We had finished our SSLC and were in that undecided state when D. Appukuttan Nair Sir [the visionary who worked dedicatedly to nurture Koodiyattam and establish Margi] asked us to come over. The beginnings of a ‘kalari’ and an ‘arangu’ under the same roof thus materialised in Margi,” says Sajeev Narayana Chakyar about the early days.

The regimen for the student was quite unlike what is followed in the present: no time-table, no syllabus – it was practice till it passed muster before a tough taskmaster like Appukuttan Nair, and the watchful eyes of Kochukuttan Chakyar and Ammanur Madhava Chakyar. There was no compromise or short cuts to perfection.

“The day began at four with nityakriya and sadhakam. Only after six years of unquestioned continuous practice did the opportunity to present a performance piece arise. Today we understand how beneficial the rigour was in our grooming as artistes.”

Over the three decades Margi has attained that hallmark of excellence and it is a matter of pride for those associated with the institution that the repertoire it has built up is the most exhaustive.

Elaborating on this aspect P. Venugopalan, vice-president of Margi, explains: “The ‘Ascharyachudamani’ attaprakaram for 128 days’ performance is unmatched. The talented team of exemplary artistes from Margi – Madhu, Sathi, Sajeev Narayana, Unnikrishnan (mizhavu), Usha – have to be given their due as a team for enriching Koodiyattam repertoire.”

The routine that was adopted in Margi ensured quality. When the kalari transformed into an arangu every Friday, with young actors performing before a discerning viewer, the chiselling of the performer took place simultaneously.

When Guru Kochukuttan Chakyar took on the responsibility of heading Margi, it was on a meagre remuneration of Rs. 150, a decision he took more in keeping with his dedication and commitment to Koodiyattam.

Over the years, funding from the government bodies, both at the State and Centre, improved conditions; the Friday performances saw honorariums for those who participated. The Ford Foundation offered support for the production of ‘Parnashalankam’, ‘Mayaseethankam’ and ‘Agnipraveshaankam’.

The absence of a female artiste was strongly felt when they worked on particular performance pieces.

With the arrival of Margi Sathi in 1989 this vacuum was filled. Initially it was the slokam and talam that was left to her during the Koodiyattam performance.

“Beginning with that solitary book by P.K. Narayanan Nambiar Asan as the guide, we built up, bit by bit, attaprakarams for ‘Srikrishna Leela’, ‘Poothanamoksham’ and ‘Kamsavadam’ in Nangiarkoothu. Appukuttan Nair Sir sat with me all through the process. My very first introduction to writing these manuals would not ever have taken off but for Appukuttan Nair Sir hand holding my hand and leading me like a guide into the complexities of the art,” says Margi Sathi.

The Margi team was growing. With the arrival of Margi Unnikrishnan Nambiar, a trained hand for the mizhavu had arrived, thus completing the team to some extent.

Margi Madhu, one among the leading names in Koodiyattam today, has earned plaudits for his performances. His recollections of the alma mater are nostalgia tinted. “It was the select group of viewers who came to Margi that contributed majorly to our growth as performers. There was Dr. Ayyappa Pannikar, Dr. S Guptan Nair, K.B. Kochaniyan, Dr. V.S. Sarma, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ganesha Iyer and Rama Iyer whose keen interest in the performance demanded the best from us. We were before persons from diverse backgrounds who set their benchmarks for a fine performance, we could not have got a better group to assess us.”

He adds: “Moving to Sree Sankara University created the physical distance, but when I came to Margi to perform on the occasion of the inauguration after the renovation it was a very emotional moment for me. The very first performance in the Margi arangu decades ago was mine. Again, after the natyagriham was done up I felt it was predestined that the responsibility fell on me. Old memories came crowding back, and it was as if I could feel the presence of Achan and Valiachan ( Guru Kochukuttan Chakyar and Ammanur Madhava Chakyar) while I performed.”

The spirit of his words were expressed by every artiste at Margi: the natyagriham was their source of energy, confidence in the protective mantle of the gurus and elders who have watched them grow as part of Margi.

D. APPUKUTTAN NAIR AND I

Margi received its energy and drive from the trio who put the institution on the tracks – D. Appukuttan Nair, Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar and Guru Kochukuttan Chakyar. Senior students of Margi go down memory lane…

Sajeev Narayana Chakyar

“None who could not abide by the exacting demands of the gurukula tradition was welcome as a student of Koodiyattam, but he/she could come and watch the performance. There was no question of packaging the training into capsule form to create a group of learners with a wishy-washy knowledge of the form according to Sir.

The first arangetram at Margi was for the mizhavu and not for Koodiyattam, recalls Sajeev. “When Unnikrishnaettan arrived I expressed my desire to learn the percussion to which Appukuttan Nair Sir said, ‘Yes, Yes, you can take up training for the mizhavu and also continue with your Koodiyattam training. After all it is one more input to the art form'. He just would not let go any opportunity to improve standards of Koodiyattam. The individual’s needs were subsumed by the demands of the art form. So, there I was, learning both and also taking care of the kitchen. Exhausted after class, most often it was kanji.”

Margi Sathi

“The singular presence of Appukuttan Nair Sir to watch us perform gave the feeling of a full house – his body language would reflect his satisfaction or otherwise with us. In a corner, resting against the wall he would sit. When he lightly stroked his sage like beard it meant I was performing well. But, on days when he gripped his beard, restlessly twining the whole bunch, I knew fireworks awaited me at the end of the performance,” recalls Margi Sathi fondly, in a voice tinged with respect and gratitude.

Margi Usha

“Appukuttan Nair Sir and Kochukuttan Asan in their own ways extracted the best from us. Asan’s was a mellow presence. He rarely took his seat while teaching, but would be walking up and down this verandah while we practised in the kalari, never losing composure. No other arangu gives us the energy that we derive from Margi, we feel their presence here. They are here,” says Margi Usha, reflecting the respect, awe, obedience, warmth and affection that come with the traditional guru-shishya bonding.

NEW LOOK

The Natyagriham has been spruced up even if means being shorn of the old world charm. The kalari and the arangu have resumed. According to Dr. Venugopalan, “With the support of the Devaswom Board the maintenance work of the kalari was taken up. When Madhu and Sathi moved to Sree Sankara University and Kerala Kalamandalam respectively, there seemed to be a dip in the activities. Now the Friday performances are back on the schedule and students training here will be given certificates on completion of the course.”