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Bowled over by Koodiyattam

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RARE INTEREST Farley Richmond has been documenting Indian theatre techniques, especially Koodiyattam for more than four decades
RARE INTEREST Farley Richmond has been documenting Indian theatre techniques, especially Koodiyattam for more than four decades

Farley Richmond was in Kerala to see and document a full Koodiyattam performance. He tells K. PRADEEP of how he has been incorporating this art form in Asian theatre styles for more than four decades

The theatre has always been an irresistible passion for Farley Richmond. All his conventional notions of theatre went for a six when he, for the first time ever, saw a Koodiyattam performance in the late sixties. Indian theatre was certainly lively then, the modern productions were very well, but there was nothing equal to what he saw in this ancient Sanskrit theatre. Koodiyattam became an integral part of his life ever since Farley made his first trip to India in1964 on a Fulbright grant.But strangely enough, it was to collect information of the English Theatre in this country. The data he garnered formed the basis of his PhD thesis. Farley was so fascinated with the land, the people and the culture that he returned in 1969 to study the techniques in traditional and folk forms that could be linked to ancient Sanskrit theatre. "I was taken to the koothambalams at Haripad and Irinjalakuda by my good friend and scholar L. S. Rajagopalan. I was amazed. I was a wide-eyed novice. I still remember watching `Soorpanankam' performed by a youthful Rama Chakyar and Sivan Namboodiri. Rajagopalan, who I nicknamed `The Boss,' initiated me into the art, taught me the tour de force of acting in this form, even without realising that he was actually doing so," recalls Farley, who is at present Professor of Theatre and Film Studies and Director of the Center for Asian Studies, University of Georgia Athens, United States.

Studying Koodiyattam

In five years time Farley was back to Kerala, on a different mission: To study Koodiyattam formally. "Koodiyattam was just introduced to Kalamandalam at that time. For 19 months I stayed in this wonderful institution learning one of the most perfect art forms." What made Farley's visit memorable was being introduced to the great masters of the art like Mani Madhava Chakyar and filming some of their performances. "Mani Madhava Chakyar must have been somewhere around 76 years then. I saw him act as King Udayana in `Swapnavasavadatta.' It must have been one of his last public performances. I filmed his eye exercises and the navarasas at his home. I must have talked to almost all the senior artistes, filmed some of them, travelled miles by bus to witness performances. It was a wonderful learning experience."By the time it was time for Farley to return he had completed the major part of the work on the book `Indian Theatre Traditions of Performance.' He had also canned valuable footage of the art. It was the beginning of Farley's research and documentation. He went on to produce a CD, `Koodiyattam: Sanskrit Theater of India,' which is an interactive, multimedia experience of the world's oldest surviving genre of theatre. "In all these years I have understood that to really learn Koodiyattam one has to be patient. I'm still very much a student. There is so much to this art that it will take a lifetime to really come anywhere near to complete understanding. This makes me return whenever I get the opportunity. And each visit has been an enriching experience."A great deal has happened in Koodiyattam since Farley's first visit. "Some of the changes are unnerving but surely not disturbing. The positives are the level of sophistication achieved in playing the mizhavu, the revival that has taken place in Nangiarkoothu, plenty of books and articles are being published on the art and that several Nambiars are now engaged in performing Chakyarkoothu based on the `prabandhas.' On the flip side is the relaxation of rules regarding admission of non Hindus to the koothambalams to watch a performance."Farley is also aware of the changes in American theatre. "Most of the students look for a career in films. The likes of Eugene O'Neil, Edward Albee or Arthur Miller, the great dramatists, are no longer there. The only good thing to happen is the emergence of a few women playwrights."Perhaps this explains why Farley went back to these classics, reworking on them. As part of Mozart's 250th birthday celebrations, Farley staged `The Magic Flute.' "I elaborately drew on Koodiyattam as well as Balinese theatre styles to convey a cross cultural fable. It was sold out for three weeks before it opened."In fact, Farley had earlier used Asian theatre styles, techniques, costumes, masks and props in other very successful productions. His production of `Death of a Salesman' using the Kabuki style and The Little Clay Cart (Mrichchakatika) in which he combined Chinese musical instruments and Balinese mask with Indian dance and design. Farley also staged Koodiyattam plays in the United States using students of the Michigan University, staged other plays, which had techniques, and costumes borrowed from this Indian theatre.

Directorial venture

"But perhaps what gave me immense satisfaction was directing `Soorpanankam' Koodiyattam, with Kalamandalam Raman to assist me, in which my students acted. We also staged `Ramayana,' only parts of it, which was very well received."Farely's recent visit to Kerala was to see and document a full Koodiyattam performance, something that he had not done before. "All that I had in my collection were snatches from different plays and interviews with artistes. This time I got to see and film a full-scale performance of `Soorpanankam,' with the rarely performed `Lalitha purappad' and Nirvahana. More significantly I filmed a whole performance, complete with the rituals and costumes on Kalamandalam Raman and Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar. Thirty years back I had filmed cholliyattam pieces of these artistes. How much they have changed and so too the art!"

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