Koodiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre tradition of Kerala, is said to be the last living performance art in the classical language, and the oldest continuous dramatic tradition.
Israeli indologist David Dean Shulman once traced the historical background of this form, which has its origin in the Natya Shastra, and its own individual growth of improvisation and adaptation to the local milieu to develop an indigenous form. Moving away from following the linear movement of narration as prescribed by the Natya Shastra, the characters move back and forth in a non-linear narrative, leading the viewers to peep into the minds of the characters as per the ideas being portrayed. Another characteristic is ‘pakaranattam’ — transformational acting — where the actor performing a role also delineates multiple characters.
Koodiyattam is a very demanding art form too — it requires total concentration from the audience. The many nuances and subtleties that form the vocabulary of a performance will otherwise be lost. This fact was re-emphasised at a recent performance of Kalidasa’s work ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’ by Nepathya at Kalakshetra Auditorium, as a part of Prakriti Foundation’s silver jubilee celebrations.
Kalidasa’s ‘Shakuntalam’, which was not a part of the traditional Koodiyattam repertoire, has been included by recent practitioners. Nepathya’s Margi Madhu shared his conceptualisation of this classic.
The first act describing Dushyanta’s hunting expedition with his charioteer, chasing the deer that runs into Sage Kanva’s ashram, the king entering the ashram, catching a glimpse of Shakuntala and meeting her and falling in love was the storyline of this two-and-a-half- hour presentation.
The traditional entry of the characters behind a Thiraiseelai — purappadu — was followed by the depiction of the king aiming his arrow at the deer, the charioteer reining in the horses and the conversation between the two. The communication happening through gestures and facial movements was so captivating that when the chariot moved through bumpy terrain, the audience could correlate it to the bumpy rides they experience every day. Nepathya Sreehari Chakyar, who played the charioteer, was very expressive in his responses to the king, the depiction of the horses being reined and the turbulence of the chariot.
Emphasis on abhinaya
The core emphasis on mukhabhinaya reached a pinnacle when Dushyanta describes the scenes within the ashram.
Madhu described in detail Shakuntala’s beauty. And Indu G played Shakuntala with conviction.
The imagery of the narrative unfolded through the innate talent of the dancers and their communicative powers, but the accompanying musicians contributed in a large measure to the overall aesthetic experience. Every twitch of the eyebrow, and every move of the hands and body found resonance with perfectly synchronised sounds — mizhavu by Kalanandalam Manikandan and Nepatya Jinesh, accompanied by Kalanilayam Rajan on the edakka. Tala was by Nepatya Anandi and make up by Kalamandalam Sateesan.