INTERVIEW Kapila Venu on practising Koodiyattam, an art she was born to. NITA VIDYARTHI

You watch her sitting still with imposing grace, solemn, with eyes in stark intensity in front of a traditional lamp, the performance joining the grandeur of a ritual. The 30-year-old talented Koodiyattam artiste Kapila Venu is performing ‘Sita Parithyagam’ (Nangiarkoothu), transformed from her quiet, gentle self to a furiously pained Sita. Born to Mohiniyattam exponent Nirmala Paniker and Koodiyattam exponent G. Venu, Kapila started learning Koodiyattam at the age of seven from the legendary guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, her father’s guru, spending some initial years with Madhava Chakyar’s senior disciple Usha Nangiar. She has worked several years under the renowned farmer /dancer Min Tanaka in Japan. Conferred with the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar and the Sanskriti award, among others, Kapila is currently the director of Natanakairali Research and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts, visiting faculty member at the National School of Drama and Intercultural Theatre Institute, Singapore. She was on the panel of Sita and performed at the Epic Women Conference/Performance Conclave in Chennai. Excerpts from a chat with the devoted practitioner:

How easy or difficult was learning for you?

I was born into an environment of Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam but got exposure to other traditional rituals and performing arts as a child. Learning is never an easy process, especially when it comes to training in an art form that has a very long history, rich repertoire and complex language and technique. Guruji was at once very strict, compassionate and generous. Being able to train under his guidance for a few years and then later on having the mentorship of my father in all my performance work is certainly the biggest blessing that I have received.

But you were in a boarding school. How did you manage?

I spent eight months a year in Tamil Nadu with my mother because she was teaching at a school there, and the other four months at the gurukulam in Irinjalakuda. Life was divided between the two places until I finished my Plus-Two (class 12) after which I gave up my formal education and started to concentrate solely on my training in Koodiyattam. The years that I spent in Tamil Nadu, I continued to train with my mother in Mohiniyattam dance.

Why did you not pursue Mohiniyattam?

Even though Mohiniyattam is a very beautiful and poetic dance, I very soon realised that a choice had to be made between the two since the concentration would be much deeper if I could put it all in one direction. I felt closer to Koodiyattam. Koodiyattam is an ‘apoorva vidya’ – a rare and special stream of knowledge – that I was fortunate enough to be born into and grow up with. There is no question of devoting my life to anything else other than the study/practice of this art. We have a different training system in Koodiyattam as compared to other Indian classical dances. A debut is seen more like an initiation into the practice rather than a full-fledged performance, after several years of perfecting the art, once the first ‘purappad’ (an invocatory ritual performance) is learnt well. Then slowly the student begins to learn part by part and grows as a member of the ensemble. I have strong memories of my debut. I was very excited, nervous and restless for several days before the day of my arangetram. I still remember how after the first few minutes of the performance I felt my whole body becoming very warm and breaking into a sweat.

What mental preparation do you need to emote so intensely?

The main preparation is the lifelong intense training that we go through. Whatever was very carefully passed on to us, we try most sincerely to continue to practise and then when time comes, pass it on to a new generation.

I am specially curious to know of your bloodshot eyes in Sita Parityagam

Eyes play a very central role in the abhinaya in Koodiyattam. The eye training is very laborious and so is the process of putting on the eye make-up before the performance. We also use chundapoo , the ovary of a special flower, to put into the eye before the performance in order to make them bloodshot and strong.

You are a transformed personality on stage…

The transformation comes from good training in all sense and aspects.

As an artiste what is your responsibility to the art form?

My biggest responsibility, of course, is to be as sincere as I can in practising and preserving and nurturing this rare vidya. Traditions/practices have to evolve constantly and simultaneously grow deeper roots. The growth of the tradition has to go both ways simultaneously. I am not comfortable with excluding the traditional practices for being contemporary. If an art touches/moves a person living in today’s world, if a person living in the contemporary world feels passionate about the practise of a tradition, the tradition is already contemporary.

Your favourite or dream role?

I have lots of ideas in my mind that I would love to translate into performances, but I also believe that when working with new performances, whatever one does has to be done carefully after deep study, thought and reflection on the subject. I am especially interested in Tamil poetry at the moment.

You mentioned at the conference that you prefer not to play Sita. Why? And finally why did you play it?

In the beginning I was not aware enough about Sita. I had not read or studied enough to be interested in her as a character. It was a miniature painting of the episode of ‘Agnipravesha’ that was my starting point to think of evolving a performance around it that got me to studying, understanding and eventually trying to reinterpret Sita through fresh perspectives that led to the performance of ‘Sita Parityagam’.

There is no question of devoting my life to anything else.