Koodiyattam artist Margi Madhu says food plays an important part in this traditional stage art

New Delhi’s Mandi House area swarms with artists big and small, established and aspiring. When not performing or auditioning, they tend to cluster in cosy corners to discuss issues that occupy them, to trade ideas, plan or dream — depending on the tightness of their schedules. One of those cosy corners is the café at Triveni Kala Sangam. To old-timers it’s just the Triveni canteen, but it is also called the Triveni Tea Terrace. That’s where we decide to take Margi Madhu, the eminent Koodiyattam artist, one evening when he is on a short visit to the Capital.

The canteen has for decades been a favourite haunt of artists and art students. In the 1980s, its steaming paranthas were famous, as also the kadhi and the frothy coffee that provided, if not exactly a caffeine kick, at least a shot of sugar for a body exhausted by rehearsals. As times moved on and Delhi’s taste buds travelled beyond Hindi belt staples, momos became all the rage. We, however, decide on the tried and tested vegetable pakoras and cutlets.

Crunchy and becoming in their plain saucers, the snacks nevertheless can’t break Madhu’s resolve not to indulge. He is careful with what he eats, he says, to maintain his physique. It is easy to gain excess weight in middle age, he notes.

Happy with his mug of tea, Madhu reveals an interesting facet of the ancient Kerala theatre art he practises — one recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity: “Food is very important in Koodiyattam.” In the section known as Purushartha Koothu (this is a humorous take on the four goals of human life, dharm, arth, kaam and moksha — righteous action, earning wealth, fulfilling desires and gaining deliverance — as eating, serving the royal patron, sensual pleasure and turning the mind away from mere physical pleasure), the actor talks at length about food. “He explains the different types of food and how to make it,” says Madhu. There may be descriptions of different kinds of payasam, the sweet made in a variety of ways in Kerala, its major ingredient ranging from milk to jackfruit or lentils. This purushartha is called ashanam, explains Madhu. Apart from delving into just about every component of the Kerala sadya (traditional feast), such as banana types, kinds of curries, chips, ghee, etc., he says, the performer might also talk about different types of eaters — “like some people don’t offer food to guests.”

“Last time I performed it, Indu (Madhu’s wife, also a Koodiyattam artist) wrote two new shlokas for pachadi (a tangy condiment),” relates Madhu.

Heads don’t usually turn at Triveni — either the management’s or the customers’ — when celebrities walk in, since it is such an ‘adda’ for artists anyway, but in the case of Madhu, those who have seen him on stage might not necessarily recognise him as he sits here without the elaborate costume, headgear and make-up of Koodiyattam.

The attire, facial colours and accessories that make up the aharya (costume and ornamentation aspect) of Koodiyattam are steeped in ritual and tradition, so much so that a student doesn’t have the right to practise in the costume until the debut performance (arangetram). Also, on the arangetram day, the young artist fasts until after the performance. The arangetram is usually held in the morning hours in the temple precincts. Madhu’s school-going son Sreehari, who has been learning the art since childhood, recently performed his arangetram in Kerala. Now that it is over, says his father and guru, Sreehari practices with the costume every day so as to be better prepared for roles in future. Coming up in April is a trip to Yale University in the U.S., where 13 artists from Nepathya, the troupe run by Madhu and Indu, will give a performance and a 6-day workshop will be conducted.

His art may be a niche one, and just barely out of oblivion as far as the common audience is concerned, but, says Madhu, if one has had the benefit of good training — as he did, under the legendary Ammanoor Madhava Chakkiar, Moozhikkulam Kochukuttan Chakkiar and others — then “it is not easy, (but) possible to stick to the profession.” Madhu is employed at the Sreesankaracharya University of Sanskrit, but he says with opportunities coming up within and outside the country, one need not be completely dependent on a job. There was a time when performance opportunities came largely from abroad, but now the Indian scenario is slowly changing too, he says.

Madhu, also known for collaborative theatre projects, says these days he doesn’t have time for these since he is busy with his group. And last year the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi asked him to take abhinaya workshops for young classical dancers.

Madhu doesn’t have too much time on his hands (and neither, incidentally does the Triveni staff). He has a flight to catch back to Kerala in the morning, and preparations for performances. As we part, one wouldn’t venture to predict that Triveni’s pakoras and cutlets would ever make it to a performance of ashanam — but it’s food for thought all the same.

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