Koodiyattam performer Kapila Venu takes the ancient Sanskrit theatre to new audiences all around the world. Saraswathy Nagarajan visits the magical world of Kapila

Kapila Venu straddles two worlds. One is the real and tangible world around her – the global village of mobile phones, e-mails, televisions and automobiles. The other world she inhabits is peopled by mythical, larger-than-life characters who come alive on stages lit by the flickering golden light of traditional lamps. As the lights dim and the beats of the mizhavu reverberate, Shakunthala, Subhadra, Sita and even Narasimha recreate their worlds for new audiences as petite Kapila breathes life into them.

One of the most talented young exponents of Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu, Kapila has blended the two worlds seamlessly. The avid film buff and music lover goes into raptures while discussing Konkona Sen, her favourite actor, and Bombay Jayashree, her favourite singer. In the same vein she talks about enacting Sita, one of her favourite characters, in ‘Sita Parityagam,’ a play choreographed by her. And adds that she finds it difficult to relate to Subhadra in ‘Subadhradhananjayam.’ “Critics are going to flay me alive. But Subhadra goes against all contemporary ideas of womanhood and identity,” she says laughing. “I don’t compromise on my art. But there is an evolution and as a modern woman, my interpretation of certain characters would certainly have my imprint on it,” she explains.

Candid and composed, Kapila has no qualms in dispelling any images of her being a uni-dimensional artiste. “I am serious about my art. But that does not mean I am into it 24X7. I read, listen to music, chat with my friends… I read Kovilan’s stories again and again. I have also enlarged my listening to include singers like Kishori Amonkar. And when I feel the need to do some soul searching and recharge myself, I go to Japan to be with Min Tanaka, an avant garde dancer in his Sixties who runs a place that is almost akin to an ashram. He has greatly influenced my views on life,” says Kapila.

As the only child of Koodiyattam artiste and scholar Gopal Venu and Mohiniyattam danseuse Nirmala Panikkar, Kapila began learning dance as a toddler. But it was with her guru the legendary Ammannur Madhava Chakyar that she voyaged into the realm of the epics at the age of seven. By the time she was nine, she was ready for her arangettam. As she speaks about her ‘aashan,’ her dreamy, limpid eyes glow with memories of classes, performances and long conversations. So enthralled was Kapila with the scope and virtuosity of Koodiyattam that the Lawrence School product from Ooty decided to concentrate on Koodiyattam.

Unlike many young talents in Kerala, Kapila did not seek the youth festivals to make a mark in her field or hit the limelight. Even the silver screen has not been able to woo her, although, she says with a grin, that there has been many offers.

“I enjoy watching films although I am not a television buff; films like Santosh Sivan’s ‘Malli.’” dimples Kapila, shedding her remarkable composure for some time to rave about the film. “I am not shutting the door on films. But I don’t see myself in films in the near future. I want to learn more about Koodiyattam. I am learning from Kidangoor C.N. Rama Chakyar now,” she adds displaying that single-minded devotion that has made her a name to reckon with in her field.

Devoted to the art

Kapila even gave up college for her art. “I did try to do my graduation though correspondence. But then I asked myself how it would help me and when the answer was in the negative, I decided not to waste my time,” says the 27-year-old. Is marriage on the cards? “It may happen. But that is not on my list of priorities. There are so many other things I want to do,” she says. Her effort has been to improve her technique as a actor and deepen her understanding of the classical theatre form that has been recognised by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.’

As a link of that precious heritage Kapila has mesmerised thousands around the world with stories, old and new. In addition to the established plays in Kodiyattam, she has also performed in plays directed by her father like ‘Shakuntala’ ‘Soundaryalahiri’ and the ‘Dashavataram.’ Kapila will soon be in Japan (June 10-17) to perform ‘Sita Parityagam.’

“It is very exciting to take this ancient theatre of ours to international audiences and see their reaction. The stories and the techniques of Koodiyattam are so evocative and universal that it is impossible for the spectators to remain unmoved,” explains Kapila who also teaches at Natana Kairali, her father’s institution in Irinjalakuda. She agrees that on her seemingly frail shoulders rest a legacy that has been bequeathed by her guru.

“I am aware of that. But I am not sure what I plan to do in the future. I want to take my art to new spaces,” she explains.