Exploring time and space in Koodiyattam

Mundoli Narayanan’s book

Mundoli Narayanan’s book | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A new book by Mundoli Narayanan delves deep into the factors that have shaped this theatre form’s technique

Space and time are significant parameters in every performing art, and theatre is no exception. But they assume crucial dimensions in Koodiyattam. Mundoli Narayanan has explored the esoteric performance culture of this Sanskrit theatre form on the basis of these two concepts in his book, Space, Time, and Ways of Seeing - The Performance Culture of Kuttiyattam (Routledge, 2022).

This is a serious departure from earlier books, which have mainly focussed on its chronological evolution and technique. If Koodiyattam is a theatre of elaboration, equally extensive is Narayanan’s discussion on space, a common denominator in all the six chapters of the book. Also, he has been successful in establishing that Koodiyattam is indebted, for all its unique techniques, to the unique space of the koothambalam. The treatment of time as a part of the elaboration of and digression from the main plot is also discussed.

Narayanan explores the idea of space through phenomenology, based on the works of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and arrives at the triangular relationship between theatre space, performers and spectators. The pictorial representation of this drives home the interrelationship between ‘ways of seeing’ by the audience and ‘ways of doing’ by the performers.

He looks at the historical contexts of Koodiyattam and relates it to socio-political and cultural developments, especially during its formative period, from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The emergence of the temple as a main patron of Sanskrit drama is significant. All treatises, including Kulasekhara’s VyangyaVakya, Silappadikaram and Natankusha (a critique on Koodiyattam by an anonymous 15th century author), have been included.

Koodiyattam’s nomenclature is explained by Narayanan as the coming together of two languages — Sanskrit and Malayalam — a startling and unprecedented departure from the conventional explanation as the coming together of actors.

Pressed for space

Narayanan dwells at length on the spatial qualities of the Koothambalam or temple theatre, which exists only in Kerala. The space allocated for the audience here is limited, and this enables a proximal view of the characters on stage. The ‘circumscribed view’ is enhanced by the illumination provided by the traditional lamp. While this is advantageous, as even the minute mukhabhavas of the actor are clearly visible to the audience, the actors are naturally compelled to limit their anga-upanga-pratyanga movements within the limited illuminated area. One sees how the ‘ways of seeing’ and the ‘ways of doing’ spring from the above constraints.

Narayanan attributes the development of nirvahanam (prologue) and the single-act performance to the space constraints of the Koothambalam and the culture of elaboration that arose from it. Interestingly, he points out that while Kulasekhara privileged text and characters, thereby conforming to “playwright’s theatre,” the subsequent history of Koodiyattam, especially after it entered the Koothambalam, made it an “actor’s theatre”.

Focus on the presentation

The idea is further affirmed in the sophisticated treatment of time, which becomes an aspect of space in Koodiyattam. Elaborations and digressions, which are the hallmark of this form, makes the time for these subjective to the actor/ character, and even a moment of the dramatic time can be extended to an hour, broken up into several segments, or be a succession of segments strung together. The performance time is thus detached from real time and text time. Forward and backward movements through time — between past, present, and future — are intrinsic to the form, and the performance mode is totally non-realistic. Intriguingly, the plot becomes secondary; the focus is not the story but how it is presented. Hence the conclusion that Koodiyattam is essentially ‘actor’s theatre’.

Narayanan throws light on the training space, and explains how the pedagogical regimen turns the trainee’s body into an archive. In this connection, it is significant that the space of the Kalari is similar to that of the Koothambalam. The repetitive nithya kriyas instil a sense of rhythm and space, and the relationship between body and space. He goes on also to explain in detail the purpose served by attaprakarams and kramadeepika, both in performance and training.

Shift of cultural space

The chapter on ‘Socio-cultural Space’ is a comprehensive account of the social culture that produced the space for the form to emerge. Narayanan concludes that the shift from Koothambalam to the proscenium stage during the 20th century has been counter-productive in many respects. His suggestion that a virtual Koothambalam be temporarily created at every performance venue sounds meaningful.

Narayanan, recently appointed Vice-Chancellor of Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit in Kalady, has produced a work that is schematically unique. It points to his scholarship and long experience of viewership.

Perhaps the only factual error is in the ‘Notes’ below the Introduction. Abhijnanasakuntalamwas a production of Natanakairali and not of Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, as mentioned. This path-breaking work is a treasure trove for aficionados of Koodiyattam.

The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 11:11:31 pm |