Indigenous Sanskrit theatre form

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KUTIYATTAM THEATRE — The Earliest Living Tradition: K. G. Paulose; DC Books, DC Kizhekemuri Edam, Good Shepherd Street, Kottayam-686001. Rs. 950.

An excerpt from the last chapter captures the subtlety of ‘Abhinaya’ in Kutiyattam. “Mani Madhava Chakyar was performing sikhinisalabha... Butterflies fly all around. Some of them fell into the fire below. The anguish was reflected in the actor’s eyes. Ha! There they come out without a burn! What a relief! They came again. The actor continued the performance. Only his eyes move… The audience was spellbound. They did not know that an hour has passed!”

This is a mere sample of an ancient tradition — the only surviving testimony to the 2000-year-old Sanskrit theatre. In recognition of this illustrious legacy, the UNESCO recognised Kutiyattam as “an intangible heritage of humanity” in 2001. With the backing of UNESCO, Paulose has published his work on the origin and evolution of Sanskrit theatre with particular reference to Kutiyattam. He begins right at the beginning from Bharata’s Natya Sastra dated about 200 A.D. or earlier. The journey is painstakingly researched from available dramatic texts of Bhasa, Kalidasa, from the Puranas, and from historical records.


There is excitement in reconstructing the past and he does it with relish. Bharata’s stylisation of the then existing populist style makes for an absorbing read as does the author’s hypothesis on the acting techniques of yore. There are also comparisons with Greek theatre — while the latter emphasised external action, its Indian counterpart gave importance to internal emotions.

The scene moves to Kerala and the influence of the 11th century Chera king Kulasekhara on Sanskrit drama. The author is careful to put things in perspective. He declares that Kutiyattam had not come into being by then. It was formed only two centuries later, but Kulasekhara’s recommendations of a “recapitulation” module for every actor during his first entry and an additional layer of “imaginative acting” of sub-texts had a lasting impact on Sanskrit theatre in that region. With time the role of the “vidusaka” or the jester grew and the language of narration changed from Prakrit to Malayalam. Besides, the techniques of “netrabhinaya” and multi-level acting — solo for retrospection and multiple character for textual portions were introduced as well.

Micro analysis

The author moves from a macro to a micro analysis and is occasionally sidetracked by other literary or historical discussions. The language is lucid but the content can be heavy for the uninitiated. After the meticulous research on Sanskrit theatre, one looks forward to a detailed discussion on Kutiyattam. But the book disappoints here because it is not visual enough. There is information about “abhinaya”, music, rhythm and temple theatres but it is too clinical. Another problem with the book is the overlapping of information that can be tedious. The work would have remained at an academic level, if it were not for inclusion of some delectable texts. Contemporary Kutiyattam and the contributions of stalwarts like Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Mani Madhava Chakyar and Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar form the last section of the book. This is an earnest work from a scholar that will serve as a record and a reference for future generations. The accompanying VCD gives a brief glimpse into Kutiyattam.



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