The almost forgotten Chavittu-Natakam got a shot in the arm with a documentary.

(Chavittu-Natakam, the 16th century dance-drama tradition, originated in coastal Kerala, and is a the mix of Indo-Western cultural gradations. The Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, recently documented the art form and its artists from the picturesque Gothuruthu, one of the few villages that have played a significant role in preserving the form.)

Chavittu-Natakam (stamping drama) is a sort of an opera. While Chavittu means steps, Natakam stands for drama. The hallmark of the play is the rhythmic steps of the performers while they enact. It is a form neither traditional nor folk in its true sense and in terms of ethnic identities, but stands somewhere in between these with a blend of aesthetics from its region and from the West.

A clear history of Kerala is available from 1498 onwards, the year in which the Portuguese landed in Kerala. The period between the 15th and 17th centuries is considered a golden era in the arts and literature in Kerala. It was during this period that forms such as Ramanattam, which by the 17th century became Kathakali, and Krishnanattam (based on Krishnageeti written in 1654) originated. By the end of the 18th century, Kunchan Nambiar’s Thullal, a semi-classical semi-folk satire form highlighting the rich literary, musical and rhythmic heritage of Kerala, had become popular among both the common man and scholars.

The socio-cultural renaissance of this period resulted in the proliferation of the Vaishnava cult too. The 12th century poet Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda greatly influenced the development of sopana sangeetam and also the evolution of Ashtapadiyattam, the bhakti-oriented dance choreography, that completely vanished about two centuries ago.

Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri’s (1560-1666) Narayaneeyam became popular among scholars and native devotees. Both these inspired the composition of ‘Krishnageeti.’ By the time Koodiyattom, the ancient Sanskrit theatre tradition, had become a strong ritual performing art inside several temples.

Simultaneously, the post 15th century saw flourishing Roman and Portuguese trade settlements and spread of Christianity and conversion under the initiative of the missionaries. When Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala and visited Kochi in 1502, a team of Christian warriors from Kotungalloore went to greet him and offered loyalty to the Portuguese kingdom.

The origin of Chavittu Natakam happened under these circumstances, initiated by missionaries. While focussing on conversion and religious charities, they developed an art tradition of their own mixing both the heritages and using the warriors as dancers. And thus, around the 16 century, was born Chavittu-Natakam in the coastal belts from Kotungalloore to Kollam.

Elements of Kalarippayattu, Koodiyattom and several folk traditions were adapted to display Christian stories in glittering Western attire. Later when Kathakali became popular, its nuances too were imbibed.

Dance segments between verses are described as ‘kalasham’ (derived from the Arabic word ‘Xalasa’, which means ‘conclusion’) in both Kathakali and Chavittu Natakam. The idea was to stop Christians from attending Hindu arts traditions by showcasing before them an art of their own in the native language (then Tamil) and hailing the spirit of Christianity and Western dramatics tailored with ethnic ingredients. Stories were episodes from the Bible or about the adventures of Charlemagne or Alexander, or historical issues. Soon, the form became the evening entertainment of the Christians of the area. By the end of the 18th century, plays based on moral themes too adapted.

The very first Chavittu Natakam was either ‘Carelman Charitham’ (Charlemagne the Great), the story of the great French Emperor of the 8th C, or ‘Brijeena Charitham’ (Life of Queen Brijeena); the dispute still continues.

“Four or five decades ago, it took four to five entire nights to present a play. Today shortened versions are presented for two hours and hence several subtleties are lost,” says Roy Kolath, a well-known performer and trainer. He is the son and disciple of the late Kolath George Asan, ‘an icon of Gothuruthu tradition of the art and groomed by Ambalathi Ouseph Asan and Poulose Asan,” according to octogenarian Inasu, who used to perform.

“It is said that George asan’s gurus were trained by one Varu asan. Beyond that none knew about this lineage,” says Thambi Payappilly, another disciple of George and a trainer. Means, beyond the 20th century, the history of the art is bleak.

“There is hardly any support from the State. So, we all are engaged in other work to survive and take up the art only after 7 p.m.,” says a master who prefers to remain anonymous. True. Thambi is an auto rickshaw driver and Roy, a construction labour. Whenever performance opportunities come their way, they stop work and pursue their passion, even if it means a “loss of wages.”

Since 2012, the State Government has included Chavittu-Natakam as one of the items for competition in school youth festivals. And students are slowly but surely taking it up.

Nevertheless, the form and its productions are fast changing. Earlier musical instruments such as Chenda, Ilathalam and Maddalam were used and the actors themselves rendered the verses. During the past few decades, the instruments have been replaced by the tabla, organ, keyboard and the drums. Yes, the pastoral flavour of the music is lost. Old fashioned classy boots have been replaced by canvas shoes and more often than not, the vigour of the stamp (chavittu) is also missing in performances. Of late plays are presented in Malayalam too.

Perhaps, the most significant loss is the disappearance of Kattiyakkaran, an essential character in Chavittu Natakam.

In ancient Tamil, it means the court jester. With humour as his permanent emotion, Kattiyakkaran is the replica of the vidhushak of Koodiyattam except in costume. His funny head-gear and an extremely large belly are his trademarks. Delivering extempore humour and funny imitations of the verses of other characters, are his mandate. He is completely free on stage and may appear and disappear whenever he wants to. Even the King addresses him as comrade (‘Tozhan’).