Chavittunatakam is on the comeback trail much to the joy of practitioners and supporters of the art form.

Chavittunatakam, one of the relatively lesser known art forms in the country, was showcased at India’s first Republic Day Parade on January 26, 1950.

It is said that a delighted Jawaharlal Nehru could not contain himself when the contingent from Kerala went past. After the presentation by the Yuvajana Chavittunatakam Kalasamithy, a troupe from Gothuruthu, formed in 1938, he insisted on congratulating them personally and wearing the plumed helmet worn by the actors. A black and white picture of the informal, out-of-protocol act speaks a lot about the draw of this enchanting form that has as its genesis Morality Plays, European opera, itinerant Tamil dance-drama, and elements of Koodiyattam and Kalaripayuttu.

Since its striking presentation at the maiden national parade and until now, Chavittunatakam has existed on the fringes of our cultural spectrum, never receiving the due it deserves. Today this littoral art form that was once commonly performed in Kollam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and small areas of coastal Kerala exists in just three concentrated pockets of Kalavaur in Alappuzha district, Fort Cochin and Gothuruthu in Ernakulam district.

However, the art form has recently got a fresh lease of life. Last year it was introduced as a form to be presented in competitions at the State Youth Festival. Father V.P. Joseph, a Catholic priest who runs the Kripasanam Chavittunatakam Academy in Alappuzha, has been at the forefront of efforts to revive and popularise this art form. “I have worked towards this for the last 20 years, approaching different governments and presenting the case of Chavittunatakam. In 2008 it was introduced as an item of exhibition at the youth festival in Kollam.”

The art form is a synthesis of varied histories, making it one of the most interesting distillation of our cultural crossovers. JiJo Puthezhath, a journalist from Gothuruthu and a keen follower of the dance-drama, says: “It is a 16th century legacy of the Portuguese colonisers. Because of the travelling nature of the missionaries for evangelical purpose the art imbibed local flavours such as vernacular dialogues, names of characters, some classic and some folk elements. The themes initially were mainly Biblical – stories of the Crusades and the parables. The dialogues are sung and spoken in a mixture of Tamil, old Malayalam and Portuguese. This was influenced by the travelling Tamil dance drama troupes. This is unique to the form and a proof of its cosmopolitan feature. Costumes are loud and in bright colours. The actors wear boots, gowns, gaudy headgears and colorful costumes, with a strong European influence. They sing and deliver dialogues. High foot stamping, almost as high as soldiers marching at the Wagah border, is a feature singular to it.”

Once Chavittunatakam was declared as one of the events for school festival competitions, it has necessitated modifications. That has caused a rift between practitioners – the purists versus the modernists. The original form was elaborate in terms of time and presentation, extending over several days. The famous play ‘Caralman Charithram’, a story of King Charlemagne, stretched for 14 days. Today it is a two-hour drama and edited versions of 20 minutes too are being produced.

Britto Vincent, 49, a performer from Fort Kochi is a die-hard traditionalist and does not support the new mode of using recorded music in the presentation.

“The performer is an actor, singer and dancer. That is the original Chavittuanatakam,” he says adding that from Palithode to Fort Kochi the old style is still performed whereas Alappuzha and Gothuruthu have altered the original style. Britto coaches children in the old style. “The need for the form to remain relevant, and in step with the changing times and also connect with present audiences is only a natural flow,” says Fr. Joseph. Over time many local themes and stories from Indian mythology have been adapted to this form that is mainly practised by performers from the Latin Catholic community. Story of Mahabali, tales from the Mahabharatam, historical tales of Chandragupta Maurya and the likes have been performed in this style.

Britto explains about the evolution of the form. He reasons that because of its elaborate costumes and presentation, Chavittunatakam was not viable economically and hence began losing out to the raw and oft-staged touring Tamil dramas. Kathakali was secluded to the temple and had royal patronage.

At the Udayamperoor sunahadhos(1599), a meeting convened by the church, it was decided to take the art form to the people and make it a forceful evangelical tool. Hence the art turned inclusive in themes, dialogues and content. Jijo feels that the church should have played a bigger role in the development and popularity of the art form, it being a Latin Christian cultural legacy.

“Chavittunatakam did not have intellectual patronage like Kathakali received from Vallathol nor did it have political patronage. It was performed by fisher folk and hence it did not get the required support.”

Today the scene has changed. A five-day festival, Sac Chuvadi Fest, organised by the Kochi Muzuris Biennale, once again trained the lights on it. The response it received was overwhelming, kindling hope and joy among the followers of Chavittunatakam.

Going solo

For the first time in the history of Chavittunatakam a monologue was staged by artiste Antony Kadakath of Gothuruth Arts Club during the Chauvadi fest organised by the Kochi Muzuris Biennale foundation. The experiment, a half an hour performance, comprising the trademark three poetics and a dozen steps of 'Chavittunatakam' was appreciated for its ingenuity and spellbinding rendition.

The story was about Roxilin, a minister's son in the drama ‘Veera vaal’, an amazing character who had qualities of both a hero and a villain. The performance attempted to capture his war heroics, his insatiable greed for power, his love for a princess and his brutal murder. His tale was brought to life by a spirited solo performance.