A move away from Krishna in Nangiarkoothu

Kalamandalam Sathi   | Photo Credit: Valson B Vennikkal

The Ramayana seldom fascinated Kalamandalam Sindhu during her childhood in a Kerala village defined by its areca orchards. Today, the Nangiarkoothu artiste is obsessed with Valmiki’s epic, especially in presenting episodes from the perspective of Sita.

Sindhu’s solo theatre project, which she had launched in August last year, hit an unexpected roadblock when lockdown was announced. Her plan had been to stage the Ramayana in 40-plus monthly episodes in Thrissur, Kerala’s cultural capital. She hopes now to get the project back on track once normalcy returns.

The Sreerama Charitam series, of which she had staged the first six episodes, came to fruition after three-and-a-half years of research and planning. It won her appreciation but, more important, it marked an unorthodox deviation in theme for Nangiarkoothu.

New moves

The women-centric performance form, which is more than a thousand years old, has traditionally remained detached from the Ramayana. Canonically, the temple art revels solely in the Krishna tales from the Bhagavata. This continued until the turn of the 21st century.

In 1999, Nangiarkoothu got a new manual that proved path-breaking. The book, Sreeramacharitam Nangiarammakkooth, was the result of intense research by Margi Sathi. The top danseuse in the field compiled 224 slokas with guidance from P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, a senior player of the powerful mizhavu in Nangiarkoothu performances.

The entry of new characters refreshed the form, but it did not alter the basics. Nangiarkoothu is a mono act, where the lone artiste essays multiple roles with changes in stage position and body language. In short, the performer in Nangiarkoothu is invariably the narrator. This is unlike its parent art form, Koodiyattam, the world’s oldest extant theatre.

Sindhu and Sathi bonded well when they met in 2006 as participants in a 12-evening Nangiarkoothu festival at a vintage shrine in coastal Alappuzha district. Revived after four decades, the annual event was being held in Ambalapuzha, 175 km south of their alma mater, Kalamandalam, in Cheruthuruthy beyond Thrissur.

Sathi in those days was teaching at the Margi institution in Thiruvananthapuram, which she had joined in 1988 soon after completing her Koodiyattam course. By a happy twist, Sindhu too joined Margi in 2007, a decade after completing studies in Kalamandalam.

In 2005, when Sathi’s husband and stage accompanist on the edakka drum, Subramanian Potti, was killed by electrocution, she joined Kalamandalam. “I could imbibe a lot from Sathi. We were in constant touch,” says Sindhu, who began to get a lot of performance opportunities in Thiruvananthapuram.

Eager apprentice

Earlier, Sindhu had freelanced for eight years: as a small-time tutor at two Koodiyattam institutions, besides undergoing advanced studies under the well-known Usha Nangiar. On stage, Sindhu assisted Nangiar by reciting the slokas and keeping time on the tiny kuzhithalam cymbals. Nangiar taught Sindhu the details of delineating 50 of the most popular slokas in the conventional Sreekrishna Charitam’s 217 stanzas. Typically, in the two-hour episodes (based on four lines), Kalpalathikaas, the maid of Krishna’s wife Subhadra, recalls her memories.

Contrasting this has been the inspiration to perform Sreerama Charitam, where Sindhu improvised on its random chapters. Then, after Sathi’s passing, Sindhu was recruited as a teacher at Kalamandalam in 2017. This is when the idea of staging a full-length Sreerama Charitam gathered steam, meant also as a tribute to Sathi. And in August 2019, Sindhu realised her dream, where she presented the ritualistic Purappad entry of the narrator, followed by the inaugural episode.

Scholar P. Venugopalan says he had realised Sindhu’s “immense potential” at the 2006 festival in Ambalapuzha. Ettumanoor P. Kannan, director of Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Koodiyattam Kendra in Thiruvananthapuram, notes that Nangiarkoothu has an inherent capacity to portray “anything under the sun.”

The semi-realistic make-up makes it easier to communicate compared to Koodiyattam. “New works have become prolific in the past decade. If the chief artiste does good homework, rehearsals can be minimum,” he adds.

Sindhu says she doesn’t always get to work with fellow artistes ahead of shows. Still, the mizhavu players are happy. “Sindhu improvises instantaneously. We have to be very focused,” says Ratheesh Bhas of the project, which has five other percussionists, including Kalanilayam Rajan on the edakka. Supporting him on the kuzhithalam are Kalamandalam Sangeetha, Prasanthi, Nila and Sreelakshmi.

When will the team be back in action? “The coronavirus will decide,” Sindhu says. “And funds too.”

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 2:13:25 PM |

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