Utsavam has created opportunities for forgotten folk art forms across Kerala
Parichamuttukali. Thidambunrutham. Parunthattam. Add to these another 80 quaint names and quainter art forms. That is what ‘Utsavam’, an initiative of the State Tourism Department, offers; a taste of folk dances, local theatre, puppetry, rituals and prayers that were part of life for generations before us, but are struggling to breathe today. Weekends till January 19 in the 14 districts of the State will be dedicated to re-kindling interest in these art forms and introducing them to newer people. Utsavam, in its seventh year, brings under its umbrella temple rituals, forms practised by specific communities, tribal celebrations and those confined to some families. With opportunities, these forms rich in legends and myths that were mere accessories to religious festivities earlier, are now traversing the journey to being art forms by themselves. For the performers, after years on the downslide, things are beginning to look up. Government support has not only pulled them out of shadows but opened new windows as well, they say.
“When you think of Kerala, you think Kathakali, Mohiniyattom and Kalaripayattu. Never Arjunanrutham or Mudiyettu,” says S. Harikishore, Director, Department of Tourism. Utsavam was meant to re-vitalise folk forms that were facing extinction, he says. The director vouches, seven years ago, quite a few among the 84 forms being performed this year were facing slow death. With performances being held mostly in open public spaces — beaches and parks — Harikishore says they are showcasing the forms to a cross-section of people. December-January, when the festival is held, is also the prime tourist season, he says, emphasising the possibility of international and domestic travellers getting to watch these art forms otherwise confined to villages and hamlets. “We are contemplating taking Utsavam outside Kerala from next year,” adds the director.
For those like Lakshmana Pulavar and a few other families in Palakkad who perform Tholpavakoothu (puppetry), festivals like Utsavam led them to new performance opportunities. “Tholpavakoothu is usually performed as an offering and prayer (vazhipadu) in temples in Palakkad and some in Malappuram and Thrissur,” says Lakshmana. The puppet theatre that draws its storyline from Kamba Ramayana was performed over seven, 14 or 21 days during festivals. “People do the booking as an offering and their turn would come two or three years later,” says Lakshmana. As an offering at temples, Tholpavakoothu never promised steady income to its practitioners, says Lakshmana. But being part of mainstream festivals has given them more opportunities on stage. “I have now performed Tholpavakoothu in Germany, Sweden and Greece,” he says. Stage shows take care of Tholpavakoothu artists during the season. “We are farmers and after June, when the season ends, we go back to agriculture,” says Lakshmana.
However, Lakshmana says adapting a form performed over days in specially built Koothumadangal to the stage for just over an hour has its challenges. “We perform a capsule format beginning with Ganapati Vandana,” he says. Tholpavakoothu banks on ceremonious presentations beginning with the dolls that were earlier made of deer skin. “Now only a few of us know how to make dolls. But now with government scholarships in place, the younger generation is showing interest. My family has been performing Tholpavakoothu for the past 8-10 generations and I started when I was 10,” says Lakshmana.
Surendran Panickar is also keenly aware of his family’s long link with Ninabali. “I know that my immediate ancestors performed it,” he says. Ninabali, performed by the Malaya community, is particularly popular in Kannur. Ninabali is a visual presentation of the battle between Bhadrakali and Dharikan. “It hardly has dialogues. It is mostly dance movements and demoniac laughter accompanied by percussion, cymbals and wind instruments,” says Surendran. An atmosphere of fear is cultivated with costumes and body paint too. “If performed taking care of all nitty-gritties, it takes about an hour and half. For festivals, we perform half an hour modules,” he says. If there was a time when the form did not have many takers, Surendran says, youngsters are now showing interest. “We are getting a lot of opportunities and the audience is encouraging. By being part of festivals it is now moving to being an art form,” says Surendran.
Rajeevan Kallan is among the younger generation of men who have taken up Chimmanakkali. A form of theatre, it narrates stories of subjugation of the lower caste by the upper caste men and women. “It is centred on the agrarian way of life and I learnt it from the seniors in my community,” he says. Rajeevan is a construction worker and also a theyyam performer. He says now there is a small group of people in his town in Kannur who perform Chimmanakkali. He and his friends have taken it across the country and are enthused by audience response. “When we performed in Kozhikode recently, lot of people turned up,” he says.
While a majority of performers have accepted stage performances, a few refuse. “Some theyyam performers are unwilling to be part of these festivals as it is usually performed on temple premises,” says Harikishore. Yet mostly officials have much to cheer about. P.G. Rajeev, Secretary, District Tourism Promotion Council, Kozhikode, for instance, remembers Paru, among the oldest artistes at the festival, directing youngsters for a performance of Mangalamkali which is confined to a tribe in Kasargod.
Utsavam – Kozhikode ( 6 p.m.)
Ninabali, Yakshaganam – Kozhikode Beach
Vattappattu/Oppana and Ballikkala/Malayankettu – Sarovaram Bio Park
Karakanritham/Mayilattam and Charadupinnikali – Kozhikode Beach
Chavittukali and Kolkali – Kappad Beach
Vilppattu and Velakali – Kozhikode Beach
Mangalamkali and Tholppavakoothu – Iringal Craft Village
Nokkupavakali and Daffmuttu/Arabana muttu – Kozhikode Beach
Ashtapadi and Kanyarkali – Iringal Craft Village
Theyyam and Mudiyettu - Kozhikode Beach