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Thespian of Koodiyattam

G.S. Paul
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Interview Paimkulam Damodara Chakyar, who has been selected for the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, talks about being heir to a rich cultural legacy, and the changes in Koodiyattam and its performers. G.S. Paul

There was widespread jubilation at Chathakkudam, a remote, sleepy hamlet in Thrissur district, when maestro Paimkulam Damodara Chakyar was selected for the Sangeet Natak Akademi award. A veteran with more than 60 years of experience on stage, Chakyar’s Koothu and Veshams have won him many accolades. At 79, on account of his health, the frequency of his performances in recent years might have come down, but his track record of nearly 200 performances a year, that too four to five shows a day, is a noteworthy achievement indeed. A symbol of humility, he attributes all his achievements to his guru, mentor and uncle, Paimkulam Rama Chakyar, the unrivalled maestro of yesteryear.

True, age has mellowed his voice. But as he agreed for an interview at his residence, one could easily discern his flair for humour and his erudition. Excerpts from the interview.

What was your response to the news about the award?

Naturally, I was happy because it is recognition at the national level. But I was wondering about the criterion for this award as my juniors had been honoured many years ago. That’s all.

You are a protégé of your uncle. How do you remember the long association with him?

From early childhood, I was under his wing. Except for very few years in a school, he was my guru in all branches of knowledge. At the age of 10, my arangettam was over. It was only a recital of a sloka in the vesham of Soothradhara. Upanayanam followed. Quite a few veshams were introduced to me at home itself. Thereafter uncle took me along with him for all performances and very often I acted as his substitute for koothu whenever he was busy. That’s how I honed my skills. I remember how he depended on me for performances in Kalamandalam when the course was introduced in 1965. This was inevitable as his students there were beginners then. I was also a member of his historic tour of France in 1980. I can’t put it in words to explain how I benefitted from the shows in Vadakkunnathan temple, Tripunithura temple and so on where uncle and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar would perform in turn for 41 days. I would say those were the halcyon days of Koothu and Koodiyattam.

You did not train under anyone else?

My uncle Kidangoor Narayana Chakyar also groomed me. Higher learning in Sanskrit was under the supervision of Poomully Neelakantan Namboothiripad. A strong footing in Sanskrit and ‘tharkka sastra’ (science of reasoning in a debate) is an essential requisite for prabandham koothu.

Do you subscribe to the dictum that Koodiyattam artistes should not watch Kathakali performances?

That was insisted upon in the past by the gurus, fearing that the purity of the art form would be lost. But there is nothing wrong [in watching Kathakali recitals] once you have mastered the techniques and graduated into an accomplished performer.

Which one is more intricate from the performance point of view, Koothu or Koodiyattam?

No doubt, it is Koothu, because it is ‘ekaahaarya’ (solo). A two-and-a-half hour performance demands of you deep knowledge of the Puranas, articulation, histrionics, wit and all such faculties in order to keep the audience in good humour. In this connection, I have to add that a koothambalam or the temple precincts are the most suitable venue for such performances, because you get the right ambience and the right audience. We cannot expect a disciplined and discernible audience outside the temple. This is sure to affect your performance.

Your view about the innovations attempted, at least by a few, in this art?

I firmly believe that the art form that has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors is well-structured and hardly needs any experimentation because all the techniques are end-products of careful studies in the light of their rich and varied experience on the stage. The so called GenNext artistes must take pains to comprehend the aesthetics of these techniques that are in vogue today. Such studies are seldom undertaken. Many of the experimentations are just for the sake of experimentation. This is reprehensible and counterproductive.

Ego and self esteem are a must for any artiste. But it must be restricted to the stage alone.


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