Well-known Koodiyattam exponent Margi Madhu throws light on the beauty and the challenges of the ancient theatre art form of Kerala
Margi Madhu and Indu G., together with their son Srihari, represent a transitional face of Koodiyattam, the theatre art of Kerala considered among the most ancient expressional traditions of the world. They balance the gurukula tradition with the realities of institutional training; a deep loyalty to the inherited conventions of the art with the experimental bent of a networked world; and the generational transmission of a family art with the curricular demands of Srihari’s primary schooling.
Madhu trained in the art under his father, Moozhikkulam Kochukuttanchakiar, and his paternal uncle, Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar. While he practised Koodiyattam as a boy alongside his school education, he immersed himself full-time into it from the age of 15, becoming, in 1981, the first student at the institution Margi — established by scholar D. Appukkuttan Nair — where Ammanoor Madhava Chakyar was the guru.
Madhu remembers well the day Margi was inaugurated. He had already performed the traditional arangetram (debut). At Margi’s inauguration, he performed some basic steps of Koodiyattam, and a lamp was lit as part of the simple ceremony. Margi Narayanan, Madhu’s brother, and Margi Raman, his cousin, also joined the institute.
Madhu spent over 17 years at Margi, where his guru taught in the traditional manner, without exams, time limitation or syllabus, and expected students to commit themselves completely to learning. He also did not approve of them dividing their time with academic studies beyond basic schooling, and it was only later that Madhu increased his academic qualifications. Currently, he is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre at Sreesankaracharya University of Sanskrit.
Koodiyattam requires immense physical training, stamina and study of hundreds of Sanskrit verses along with hand gestures and postures. On the other hand, it also requires great imagination and improvisational skills. But sometimes a highly codified technique has the effect of discouraging a novice from improvising. Madhu was however, trained under maestros who represented both approaches. Kochukuttanchakiar allowed his students to improvise with their abhinaya, only warning them “not to make mistakes,” while Ammanur was very strict and told them to be careful not even to pick up improvisational ideas from his performances, Madhu recalls. “My father would allow me to improvise, but Ammanur shouted at me, so there was a balance,” he says peaceably.
Ammanur was also convinced that while technique could be taught, bhava had to be picked from experience. “What will I teach these teenagers,” he would ask, “you have to understand it through life.” Also, he was of the view that shastra (theory) should not be taught before learning the practical aspects.
“After learning for 10-12 years, you look into the shastras and examine if it is correct or not,” explains Madhu.
Meanwhile, he taught his students to be keen observers — “look at the crow, look at the elephant” — and at times changed conventional techniques like eye movements associated with them in favour of what was closer to nature. An example was when he recreated “Ajagara Kapalitham”, a section of the story “Kalyana Saugandhikam” (where Bhima goes in search of a particular flower in the forest for Draupadi). Here an elephant is swallowed alive by a python, and while the elephant is struggling, a lion, attracted by its piteous calls, also comes, attacking it from the head. The Koodiyattam actor enacts all three animals and Bhima, who is watching from a distance. The convention had been to show the elephant standing when attacked, says Madhu, but Ammanur could not accept this. “How would the snake be able to swallow a standing elephant,” he asked logically, and thought about it for months before he had an epiphany. Now in his style of enactment, the elephant is shown to slowly nod off, settle down on the ground and sleep. Then the serpent crawls up and begins to swallow it from the back leg.
If this was Ammanur’s commitment to bringing an innate veracity to bhava without which it is empty technique, Madhu too feels that while “angikam (expression using body postures, hand gestures, etc.) is natya dharmi (stylised technique), sattvikam (considered the pinnacle of acting where the line between actor and character blurs) is possible only in lokadharmi (realistic acting).
“But in life I think we use a lot of natya dharmi,” notes Madhu wryly, “like when we smile with colleagues even thought we don’t like them.”
With such strong traditional base, Madhu enjoys doing cross-cultural experiments too. He has done a number of performances with theatre practitioners from across the world. His only stipulation is that in doing experimental work using the technique of Koodiyattam he will not perform in the traditional costume. Similarly, he does not see the sense in non-Koodiyattam actors wearing the traditional costume just for effect in a non-traditional play. “And if I perform Koodiyattam it should only be in Sanskrit,” he says. He has, for example, devised a Koodiyattam performance of Macbeth. “But it becomes a Malayali story,” he notes. The feast, for example, is a Kerala sadya. For this presentation a complete attaprakara (script for enactment) was prepared with Sanskrit verse.
While Madhu and Indu have travelled extensively around India and the world, performing and participating in seminars as well as cross-cultural theatre encounters, they are aware of the delicate position of practitioners of this form — actors, musicians, make-up specialists particularly — whose livelihood depends on performance opportunities that, if not dwindling, are also not flourishing.
When Koodiyattam was recognised by UNESCO as a unique intangible cultural heritage of humankind, one would have thought its exponents got a much needed boost. “Nothing actually happened to the performance and to the form,” explains Madhu. “But funds came for scholarship, documentary films, etc.”
Even UNESCO sent a team to find out whether the ground situation had changed after the formal recognition. While practitioners are still answering those questions, nothing much has changed because the bureaucracy created to handle the funds hardly gets beyond its mundane routines to reach the intangible, which is where performance begins. Bodies like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations too have their limitations. A full Koodiyattam troupe needs a minimum of 10 people, but in sending groups abroad, ICCR limits the number to five. The result is, if the organisers are not able or willing to fund five extra artistes, the performances can only be curtailed and severely edited ones.
Now at Nepathya, the centre run by Madhu and Indu in their village Muzhikkulam, the focus is on reviving and performing the traditional Koodiyattam plays in depth. They are currently preparing for their annual festival that starts July 29, where they would elaborate on Anguliankam, an act from the play “Acharya Churamani” for 29 nights in a row.