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Revolution in dance

Amid strong opposition, Guru Paimkulam Rama Chakyar brought Koodiyattam and Chakyar Koothu outside the temple precincts. K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN remembers this great reformer on his birth centenary on July 20.


KOODIYATTAM is considered one of the oldest of the Indian performing arts. The UNESCO recently recognised this ancient Sanskrit theatre as an oral and intangible heritage.

Both Koodiyattam and Koothu (also known as Chakyar Koothu) are the kulathozhil (traditional profession) of the Chakyars. The community is a minority among other minorities of Kerala, limited to about 200 in seven families.

Both Koodiyattam and Koothu were performed in the Koothambalam, the temple-theatre and the audience was restricted to the upper class Hindus.

Both forms use the percussion instrument Mizhavu, as background music. Members of the Nambiar caste of central Kerala accompanied the Chakyars on the percussion. The women from the Nambiar family played the female roles and were known as Nangiars.

Now Koothu and Koodiyattam are performed everywhere. Members of other castes and religions also learn and practise these art forms. Yet, Koodiyattam is alarmingly marginalised even in Kerala.

It was the late Guru Paimkulam Rama Chakyar who took these art forms outside the temple and taught them to members of other communities, amid strong opposition and protests. He was also the first to take them outside Kerala and even India. The literary giant and former Minister of Education, late Professor Joseph Mundassery, inspired him. Prof. Mundassery always lamented the fact that those unable to enter into temples (lower caste Hindus and non-Hindus) were forbidden from appreciating the traditional art forms.

In 1949, Rama Chakyar first performed Koothu at Thekkekara Illam (a local Namboodiri house) in Kottarakkara, Kollam district. Suspecting his guru, Parameswara Chakyar, would be displeased, Rama Chakyar composed an impromptu sloka praising both Lord Parameswara and Guru Parameswara to begin the performance.

Rama Chakyar was subjected to much criticism and humiliation for his "progressive views". Some of his cousins would not perform with him and secret calls were given to stop him from entering any Koothambalam. The Mizhavu maestro, Chathakudam Krishnan Nambiar, supported Rama Chakyar and accompanied him.

To reduce the intensity of criticism, Rama Chakyar designed a slightly different costume for the Koothu when presented outside the temple. This only served to aggravate his opposition.

In 1956, he carried Koodiyattam too outside the temple walls. At a function arranged by All India Radio, he presented Koodiyattam in Kozhikode.

Rama Chakyar was highly regarded as a teacher too. Poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon wanted to start the Koodiyattam department at the Kerala Kalamandalam with Rama Chakyar at the helm. Fiscal constraints and other reasons stopped him from fulfilling his dream. But seven years after his death, when Koodiyattam was included in the curriculum of Kalamandalam in 1965, the administrators of Kalamandalam had no doubts in assigning the task to Rama Chakyar.

This brought him another rare distinction: the first Guru of Koodiyattam who started institutionalised training of the art form.

At Kalamandalam, he began teaching non-Chakyars too. Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri was the first non-Chakyar to learn Koodiyattam. Today rated as the best among contemporary talents and a senior member of the Kalamandalam faculty, Sivan Namboodiri was also initially subjected to insults and humiliation.

During the early 1970s, at a temple in Manjeri, Malappuram district, Sivan Namboodiri was not allowed to perform. Rama Chakyar who was also there boycotted the performance. "If my disciple is not acceptable, you are not acceptable to me," was his only comment.

Rama Chakyar also initiated teaching Koodiyattam's female roles to communities other than the Nangiars at Kalamandalam. Kalamandalam Girija is the first non-Nangiar exponent of Koodiyattam and Nangiar Koothu.

As a teacher, he was conservative and upheld the traditional techniques of teaching. During his 15-year term at the Kalamandalam, he admitted about 15 students; not all completed the course successfully. But the graduates of the period became known artistes of the form.

He was also a choreographer of new stories. The aesthetic editor in him was pivotal in trimming stories to about three hours, in tune with changing times.

Many of the Koodiyattam stories were choreographed, re-choreographed or edited by him, like "Naganandam" (third act), "Sakuntalam" (second act), "Kalyanasougandigam" and "Bhagavatjukeeyam".

Rama Chakyar emphasised the theatrical characterisation of Ravana with the enactment of the famous Sanskrit sloka "naham bandhura gatri..." while kidnapping Sita and brought "Jatayuvadham" back to the stage. His reworking of "Balivadham", brought all the characters to stage and gave a symbolic visual appeal to the death of Bali.

Along with late chutti (make-up) maestro Guru Govinda Warriar, Rama Chakyar re-designed the costumes of Nangiar, now generally followed by all Koodiyattam schools. He felt that all artistes should be socially committed and insisted that all his disciples read the daily newspapers to be aware of world events. He encouraged them to see and appreciate other art forms too — traditionally performing Chakyars were strictly forbidden from seeing any performing arts.

Through Koothu performances and as Vidushaka (the fool) of Koodiyattam, Rama Chakyar opened new paths in hasya abhinaya (theatrical jokes) too. Most of the jokes in Koodiyattam and Koothu originated from him.

Rama Chakyar carried Koodiyattam outside India too. In June 1980, he led the Kalamandalam troupe of Koodiyattam to Poland and France. The one-month tour aggravated his diabetes. On July 3, 1980, he died, leaving a great legacy behind.

He was the recipient of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1972. The Kalamandalam award was given soon after his return from his foreign trip. These were the only honours bestowed on this legendary maestro during his lifetime.

Today Rama Chakyar is an almost forgotten name. July 20 marks the birth centenary of this maestro. The ideal tribute would be to revive the art form that he propagated.

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