My innovations are not anything new per se, rather they are a re-working, a revitalisation of the old.
Margi Madhu is the scion and a torchbearer of a family of illustrious Koodiyattam artistes, which includes his father, Moozhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar, and his uncle – the legendary Ammannur Madhava Chakyar – both of whom were his gurus at Margi, Thiruvananthapuram. Without resting on the laurels of his forefathers, Margi Madhu has carved a niche for himself as an innovator and experimentalist in an art form that is steeped in tradition and has written the acting manual for four plays namely, ‘Doothaghatothkacham,’ ‘Kanchukeeyam,’ ‘Karnabharam,’ and ‘Macbeth.’ Today Margi Madhu is one of the most sought-after Koodiyattam artistes and is also a lecturer in theatre at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. Together with his wife, Indu G., herself a dancer and Koodiyattam artiste, and brother, Margi Narayanan, he runs Nepathya – a centre for Koodiyattam in Moozhikulam, complete with its own Koothambalam, with the aim of preserving the ancient traditions of the art form. Excerpts from an interview…
Influence of gurus
My father, Moozhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar, was the resident guru at Margi and my ‘valiachan’ (father’s elder brother) Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was the visiting professor who came to teach us for five days every month. There were only three students, including myself, at Margi. Valiachan would teach us a piece and then we would practise it under my father. When valiachan returned for the next class, he would correct mistakes and this process would go on for about four months until we perfected it. Both of them were hard task masters but with entirely different styles of teaching with regards to their method and approach. Valiachan was a strict disciplinarian and used to continuously challenge us and provoke us and had no qualms in criticising everything from the basic processes to the acting and even pronunciation until we got it right. My father, on the other hand, was much mellower but was equally taxing. I believe both of them balanced each other as teachers and balanced me as performer and teacher because, naturally, I imbibed a lot of their characteristics.
I joined Margi in 1981 at the age of 15. The next six to seven years of my life were some of the most intense in terms of the training. It was often so taxing that I even fantasised about quitting the course. But D. Appukuttan Nair, the founder of Margi, kept me grounded. It was all about Koodiyattam day in and day out. Classes would begin at around 4 a.m. and go on till about 8.30 p.m. with an hour or so in between to rest. We even had to cook for ourselves and our guru. We had daily classes on basic postures, voice projection of slokas, cholliyattams, Sanskrit (by Madhavan Unni) and percussion too. It was only in my sixth year in 1986 at Margi that I gave a full-fledged solo performance, which lasted for about six hours.
As a guru
Currently I have four students. I take care to teach my students that the kalari (practice stage) and the arangu (performance stage) are not the same. What is taught in the kalari is not what is performed on stage. In the kalari, there is a frame to be kept – a sort of uniformity, whereas in the arangu there is unlimited scope to explore emotions and individuality.
Innovation in Koodiyattam and the challenges faced
There is definitely a tradition in the training of Koodiyattam but the performance aspect has always changed with the times with new influences and new outlook. So there is no such thing as a permanent tradition. My aim is to give a contemporary almost human touch to traditional stories that are mostly full of divine characters. My innovations are not anything new per se, rather they are a re-working, a revitalisation of the old. The challenge then is to change the mindset. It is not easy considering everything is a spectacle these days. All that the viewers want is the edited cream and not the essence so to speak.
Not so long ago there was a time when a Koodiyattam performance lasted anything from five to 41 days, which now has been curtailed to a few hours at the most. And because it was a temple art form, there were only a limited number of stories that could be performed. Those are the stories from Koodiyattam’s vast repertoire that survived.
Not many of the new generation artistes are used to or know of the age-old way. Besides in the kalaris of the past there was a strict delineation between the guru and the disciple and it was not at all democratic. I started Nepathya, which means behind-the-scenes in Sanskrit, with the aim of creating a democratic work space where the traditions of training are intact but with a whole new outlook, which I feel is necessary for the survival of Koodiyattam. It took me almost seven years to get the koothambalam up and running.NITA SATHYENDRAN