Veteran Koothu artistes kept audiences spellbound with their wit and mastery over the spoken word at Purushaarthakoothu fete in Thiruvananthapuram

Koothu is a unique classical performing art, used to be held only in koothambalams (literally, ‘dance-temple’; a sacred performance space) on the premises of select temples in Kerala. In the late 1960s, after the inception of the department of Koodiyattam at Kerala Kalamandalam, Koothu, a by-product of the art form, also began to be performed in public places.

The actor-dancers who don the male roles on the Koodiyattam stage are mostly Chakyars. They trace their tradition to Suta, the proverbial narrator who recited the Bhaagavata before an audience of sages in Naimisa forest.

From mere storytelling, the Chakyar’s narration developed, in due course, into a full-fledged art form. A single narrator presents in great detail stories from Hindu mythology, embellishing them with suitable gestures and mono-acts, humour and bitter social criticism, appropriately linking the narration to incidents of topical interest, and also to any relevant aspect of the immediate context relating to audience response.

The Chakyar’s koothu evolved from Koodiyattam originally as the nirvahanam (elaborate self-introduction) of the royal clown or Vidushaka in the act concerned of plays such as ‘Subhadraadhananjayam’, ‘Tapatiisamvaranam’ and ‘Naagaanandam’.

The Vidushaka’s make-up and costume are interesting in themselves: following the dictum in Bharata’s Natyasastra that white is the colour congenial to the sentiment of haasya (laughter), he adorns his face, chest, arms and legs with rice paste. The right tip of his moustache turns downwards and the left one upwards. His ear ornaments consist of a red ball of thread hanging from the right ear and a rolled betel leaf in the left ear lobe!

The ‘vaachika’ (spoken word) aspect of the all embracive acting in Koodiyattam finds its culmination in Koothu. The Vidushaka’s most important aims in life are ‘vinodam’ (amusement or entertainment with women), ‘vanchanam’ (cheating the woman with whom one had a good time), ‘asanam’ (enjoying the choicest food) and ‘rajaseva’ (serving the king).

In toto they constitute a parody on the concept of the purushaarthas, namely kama (lust), moksha (liberation), dharma (duty) and artha (wealth), the morally recognised paramount aims in life of religiously-minded Hindus.

Accordingly the Vidushaka’s elaborate nirvahanam came to be called Purushaarthakkoothu.

In olden times, the Chakyars used to take about six hours to narrate each purushaartha, ensuring the sustained attention of the audience, by pressing into service almost all aspects of voice modulation and improvisations involving the listeners. No wonder the folk etymology of ‘Chakyar’ as ‘slaaghyavaak', meaning ‘one who excels in speech’ became popular. Subsequently, in tune with the change in sensibility, vinodam lost its popular appeal, and when presented, an extremely abridged version only of vanchanam used to be appended to it. The total performance time was also cut short, considerably.

Five-day festival

In the five-day-long fete of Purushaarthakoothu organised recently in the Museum Auditorium in Thiruvananthapuram by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Kutiyattam Kendra, vinodam was prefixed by what is known as ‘vaadu tiirkkal’. Literally the term means ‘reconciliation of an argument’. The contestants were two bigwigs, Meykaanthala and Keezhkaanthala, among the authorities of the temple in the village of Anadhiitimamgalam (literally, ‘a place sans education’); their prolonged dispute on a relatively silly matter, as to who should follow whom. Finally, through timely intervention by a good-hearted wayfarer they decide to eschew mutual bitterness and walk holding each other’s hands.

‘Vaadu thiirkkal’, ‘vinodam’ and ‘vanchanam’ were presented dexterously by the doyen in the field, Guru Kalamandalam (Painkulam) Ramachakyar, who proved, beyond doubt, his unparalleled mastery over the spoken word, supported impressively by his body language. His introductory episode itself, concerning the rivalry between Parvati and Ganga, captured the attention of the rasikas.

Presenting vinodam is often a tight-rope walk, since lack of adequate attention even for a fraction of a second may result in the narration falling into depths of obscenity. The veteran artiste, however, came out with flying colours.

Guru Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar’s presentation of ‘asanam’ in eight hours spread over two evenings was superb. His presentation of Lord Ganapati’s breakfast as a prologue to asanam proper was enjoyed by one and all. Humour and satire sprinkled with scathing social criticism made his narration scintillating.

The finale of the festival was Margi Sajeev Narayana Chakyar’s presentation of ‘rajaseva’, which overshot the prescribed performance time. Narayanan’s presentation stood out for it’s abundance of humorous allusions to topical incidents and by the sharpness of his tongue, while ensuring sustained attention of the audience.