K.G. Paulose explains why Vyangyavyakhya: The Aesthetics of Dhvani in Theatre, a book on theatre edited by him, is important to understand theatre forms of Kerala.

A Sanskrit scholar of repute, K.G. Paulose has authored 20 books and edited more than 50, over the past four decades. Comparative aesthetics, Natyasastra and Koodiyattam have been the mainstay of his research. Among them Natankusa (1993), a critique of dramaturgy, and Koodiyattom Theatre: The Earliest Living Tradition (2006) have been epoch making. Vyangyavyakhya: The Aesthetics of Dhvani in Theatre (2013), recently edited by him, is perhaps, his magnum opus, since the ninth century work in Kerala has appeared in print for the first time. More striking is the import of the book – the end-product of his assiduous efforts over two decades – which could serve as a guide to practitioners of performing arts of all genres. Essays penned by K.D. Tripathi, coordinator of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Varanasi, Radhavallabh Tripathi, Vice-Chancellor of Rashtriya Sanskrit Sanstahn, New Delhi, N.P. Unni, former Vice-Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, Kalady, and Kavalam Narayana Panicker, renowned theatre celebrity, provide a panoramic view of Indian theatre from the days of Natyasastra. The book was released recently in New Delhi.In an interview, Dr. Paulose, presently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advance Study, Shimla, talks about the book and its place in the cultural scenario of India. Excerpts ...

Why do you consider the book as a landmark in theatre?

It’s true that Bharata’s Natyasastra was well known in Kerala since long. At the same time it may appear paradoxical that the grammar of art forms of Kerala origin such as Koodiyattam, Krishnanattam and Kathakali was not in sync with Bharata’s concept. The intrinsic traits of these theatre forms could be explained only on the basis of a tradition esoteric to Kerala. And Vyangyavyakhya, I believe, is the answer.

Would you elaborate how the Vyangyavyakhya goes beyond Natyasastra in explaining theatre forms of Kerala?

Bharata’s theatre was very much on the lines of Aristotle’s, which entailed staging of the text as it is. The actor is simply an imitator. But in the theatre forms of Kerala, we find that the actor transgresses the text through transformation of roles (Pakarnnattam) and also by creating his own text (Manodharma). This is a contribution of Vyangyavyakhya. The playwright Kulasekhara of the Chera dynasty was the ruler of Mahodayapuram ( Kodungallur) during the 9th century. A renowned scholar of his times, he never wanted his two plays, ‘Subhadradhananjayam’ and ‘Tapatisamvaranam’, to be staged in the conventional Bharata format. What influenced him was the doctrine of Dhvani in poetry propounded by Anandavardhana in Kashmir during the same period through his work Dhvanyaloka and the commentary to the same, Lochana, by Abhinavagupta. Dhvani implied suggestion and dwelt on what the poet was silent. Kulasekhara made history by applying the concept of Dhvani to theatre.

How was it realised?

The royal dramatist’s court was rich in scholars, astronomers, poets and pundits of Natyasastra. He summoned a Brahmin scholar of Natyasastra from Parameswaramangalam (North Parur) to his court and enacted the play himself in the new concept. The Brahmin was asked to record the whole performance. This was a defining moment because a performance text was being born for the first time in the history of Sanskrit theatre, that too 1,000 years after the Natyasastra. The manuals were ‘Samvaranadhvani’ and ‘Dhananjayadhvani’. Together they were named as Vyangyavyakhya.

Can you illustrate how the Dhvani works?

The technique demands both imagination and multiple impersonation on the part of the actor. This process of elaboration lengthened the duration of the play. Only one Act could be presented in one night as against the practice of completing the whole play in the same time. But this underwent further changes during the post-Chera period beginning from 11th century that witnessed the growth of Malayalam and emergence of Koodiyattam, the Kerala version of presenting Sanskrit plays. While the actors anchored on thematic elaboration, Dhvani was reflected in the verbal uttering of Vidushaka in Malayalam. I have given the dramatic text according to Vyangyavyakhya and also the traditional one followed in Koodiyattam separately to highlight this development.

How far has the Vyangyavyakhya technique influenced theatre during later years?

You can see how a single play leads to innumerable off-shoots that are complete by themselves thanks to the ingenious technique of Vyangyavyakhya. The entry of Subhadra’s maid Kalpalathika and her retrospective narration giving rise to Nangiarkoothu; the retrospection of Chamberlain blossoming into a full performance text of ‘Kanchukiyam’; reconstruction of the entry of Kaatyaayani and recapitulation of Subhadra also attaining the status of a complete performance –all are striking paradigms. The pan-Indian appeal of the book in the contemporary times is reflected in the way in which the same play is interpreted in different ways by anchoring only on a few verses from the original text. This implies essentially upstaging the playwright by the actor/director.