At a time when the worst tomfoolery on television channels passes off as Chakyar Koothu, Margi Madhu's seven-day ‘Kiratham' Chakyar Koothu at Ernakulathappan temple came as a whiff of fresh air as it depicted the ancient oral art of Kerala in all its authenticity and spontaneity.

A stickler for rules, Madhu adhered to the traditional practices of Koothu presentation, but he also struck a strong rapport with his regular audiences, taking them along as he dwelled on current social and political issues with aplomb and characteristic ease.

After the percussion artiste on stage did the ‘Mizhavanakkal' (drumming on the Mizhavu to announce the performance), Madhu entered the ‘Kootharangu' and performed the ‘Kriya' of Vidushaka in the traditional fashion. He invoked the God (in this case, Ernakulathappan or Lord Shiva, who is seated adjoining the Koothambalam) before getting down to colourfully narrating the story of Kiratham, in Sanskrit slokas interspersed with impulsive interpretative commentary in chaste Malayalam.

Chakyar Koothu, it is believed, has its origins in the puranic ‘soothavruthy', the act of storytelling, as in ancient Hindu texts where a ‘sootha' (storyteller) is shown as relating tales to rishis (Vedic saints) at ‘Naimisharanya'. The challenge before the Chakyar is to embark on an incessant monologue and make it captivating all the same. This, Madhu, scion of a family of illustrious Koothu and Koodiyattom artistes, has done to near perfection.

“In ancient times, Koothu used to be performed continuously for 41 days, which has come down to 7 days now. The challenge before the modern Chakyar, however, is to effortlessly tell the tale in Malayalam without employing even a single English word. This requires enormous meditative strength, verbal prowess, presence of mind and constant practice. “‘Words would spin (like wheels) as if on a baton,' Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar (Madhu's uncle) used to tell us,” says Madhu. He resents that the so-called advocates of Malayalam language fail to see the significance of Koothu.

‘Kiratham' Prabandham, fashioned by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, has bhakti (piety) as its main rasa. However, when the Chakyar delineates the story of Arjuna's trials and tribulations in his bid to earn the coveted Pashupatha arrow from Lord Shiva (who along with his wife goddess Parvathi appears before Arjuna in tribal attire and later defeats him in a duel), the storytelling acquires numerous dimensions wherein even bhakti is called to question.

As Madhu took his audience through the story, he alluded to many social and political issues of currency. Sample this: while describing a scene where Lord Shiva and Parvathi agree on rewarding Arjuna for his piety, but decide to dent his inflated ego before that, Madhu employed the synonym “Vijayan' to describe Arjuna and remarked: “And, we all know that Vijayan's pokerfaced expression and self-importance require some beating,” the political innuendo and sarcasm unmistakable in his words.

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