Interview Professor David Shulman on his passion for Koodiyattam. ANJANA RAJAN

Great art touches the practitioner and the viewer in ways beyond the rational and tangible. Perhaps it is a question of opening the heart, as the ancient Indian concept of ‘sahridaya’ reminds us — the true connoisseur or rasika is ‘with the heart’ of the artiste. Dr. David Shulman, well known Indologist with a deep knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and other languages, is one such. The Israeli scholar, a Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, loves Indian arts such as Carnatic music and admires Bombay Jayashree and TM Krishna among others. It is to Koodiyattam, though, that he lost his heart a number of years ago. He has been instrumental in getting Hebrew University to partially fund full-fledged Koodiyattam performances (expanding a text over nights at a stretch) at Nepathya, the institution led by Koodiyattam exponent Margi Madhu. Not surprisingly, Shulman is a noted peace activist and a catalyst for change in the troubled region where he lives. While he is no impractical romantic, his work exemplifies the transforming power of art. After the recent Koodiyattam festival at Nepathya where a single act (“Anguliyankam”) of the Sanskrit play “Ascharya Choodamani” was enacted over a stupendous 29 nights, Shulman described the art as “a profound probing into the nature of reality.” In this email interview the author gives glimpses of his approach to Indian arts and philosophy. Edited excerpts:

How did you become interested in Indology, particularly Koodiyattam?

I became interested in Indology by pure chance, if there is such a thing. I had been studying Arabic and Persian and Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; my great love was Persian poetry. I went to Iran on pilgrimage to the graves of Hafez and Sa’adi. It was my Persian teacher, Professor Yohanan Friedmann, who gently suggested to me that I might think about studying something Indian (he himself is an Urdu specialist). Through a complicated process, I slowly became fascinated by ancient India and, in particular, by Tamil poetry, which I first met in the translations of A. K. Ramanujan. Eventually, I looked for a place where I could do a Ph.D. in Tamil, and the best option by far was the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where I had the great privilege of studying with Dr. John Marr, in the guru parampara of U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer.

As to Koodiyattam: I had seen performances several times, but it was not until the spring of 2006, when I was living in Rajahmundry but came on a short visit to Kerala, that a performance (of Nangyarkuttu, by Indu G.) truly overwhelmed me. I thought it was the most beautiful “thing” I had ever seen. The next day I went with my colleagues to visit Indu in Muzhikkulam, and we heard the familiar story — that nowadays it is almost impossible for Koodiyattam artistes to put on full-scale performances, and they find themselves mostly compelled to give short, one-night performances that are but a tiny fragment of the whole performance “text”. We felt we had to find a way to make it possible for the Nepathya troupe to put on full-scale performances, and the President of the Hebrew University, Prof. Menachem Magidor, helped with a small grant that enabled the 60-hour performance of “Asokavanikangam” in 2008. We were later able to come back to see other complete performances, including this year’s “Anguliyankam”. By now we — my Sanskrit and Malayalam students and I myself as well as my son Misha, an actor and playwright, and my wife Eileen — are completely addicted to Koodiyattam. We have learned something of the vast technical erudition needed to understand a performance completely, including the language of abhinaya. I hope to write a book about the performances we have seen.

Artists can usually rise above political boundaries and work together on a different plane. However, such examples seem sometimes mere platitudes in view of the violence everywhere in the name of religion, motherland, culture. Do the arts have a significant role in this context?

Great art embodies truth and makes truth accessible to human beings who are open enough to see and hear it. It also transcends the petty boundaries and self-seeking, often violent tendencies of short-sighted politicians, like the present leadership in Israel, for example. Great art, like Koodiyattam, allows us to achieve our full humanity, in which there is no room for hatred and oppression. It also allays the primitive fear that so often lies at the bottom of foolish policies, wars, and the attempt to hurt another people. But sadly this does not mean that great art alone will suffice to redeem us. We need to elect leaders who are a little wise, if we can discover any.

What has been your students’ reaction to the Koodiyattam performances?

Each of the four times we have come to Kerala for the long Koodiyattam performances, a group of some eight to ten students was with me. These are advanced students in Sanskrit, and some also have studied Malayalam (two of them are now fluent in Malayalam). For a Sanskrit student to observe a Koodiyattam performance of one of the great Sanskrit plays is a profound, even life-changing experience. We study the text before coming to India, and the students usually know the verses by heart and spent the days in Kerala reviewing them before the evening’s performance. So by now a group of Koodiyattam connoisseurs has evolved in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, and I have students working on Koodiyattam for their MA and Ph.D. degrees. In general, there is now intense interest in Kerala, classical and modern Malayalam, Kerala Sanskrit literature, and Kerala history at the Hebrew University. When we offered an intensive introductory class in Malayalam two years ago in the summer, we had over 20 students — a huge number for us.

  • Shulman on the 29 nights of “Anguliyankam”

  • “The totality of the performance matters. You cannot begin to understand a complex work like Anguliyankam unless you see the whole….

    Anguliyankam is a work of dazzling complexity, a tremendous challenge to and strain upon any artiste. It is also a profoundly engaging challenge to any spectator who is open, curious, and patient enough to see it through. All of the Ramayana story, and much else, including the origin of the Ganges, the Vamana avatar, and the origin of the monkeys, is present in this work (though… never in the standard narrative sequence). The Ramayana itself, as a story with its own clear integrity, is enacted several times as samksepam , a deeply embedded sequence that is followed up to whatever point the play, or the internal listener on stage, has reached — as if the story must tell itself to itself from time to time. Intricate elaborations, vistara , unfold night after night, bringing in material from many sources, enriching and deepening the story and unpacking the lyrical verses of the Sanskrit text in always surprising ways…. The actor sculpts or paints or shapes or kneads with his hands and body, in open, empty space, the visions arising in the imagination, in all their diversity and palpability. Nothing is ever as real as what we imagine and thereby create. Such imagined beings may also be the only existing entities that we can intimately and truly know.

    The result is an experience of vast depth, a profound probing into the nature of reality itself….

    As it moved toward climax and conclusion, I felt strongly, believe it or not, that this play-in-full-performance was actually far too short.”