Panchakanya Koodiyattam Mahotsavam turns the spotlight on strong women characters

Featuring Koodiyattam exponents Usha Nangiar, Kapila Venu and Aparna Nangiar, the festival presents new interpretations of mythological stories.

Updated - June 12, 2024 04:00 pm IST

Published - June 12, 2024 03:34 pm IST

Usha Nangiar

Usha Nangiar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A young woman turns into a stone after her husband curses her because she was seen making love to another man, who had sneaked into her house disguised as her husband. The woman lies in the forest as a stone waiting to be redeemed from the curse. Most of us know this much-familiar story of Ahalya and sage Gautama. But senior Koodiyattam artiste Usha Nangiar has come with a unique interpretation of this mythological story.

According to Usha, “When Gautama curses her, he says, Ahalya will suffer for four seasons alone and hungry. It means she isn’t just a stone but a woman caught in one.”

Usha has created the other Panchakanyas — Draupadi, Sita, Mandodari and Tara — with the same sensitivity. She wrote fresh attaprakarams (acting manual) adhering to Koodiyattam conventions for these characters. At the Panchakanya Koodiyattam Mahotsavam, to be held till June 18, Usha, along with young exponents Kapila Venu and Aparna Nangiar, will present her interpretations.

Kapila Venu

Kapila Venu | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

A dearth of strong female characters in Nangiarkoothu (the solo woman performance form of Koodiyattam) led Usha to reimagine these five heroines. She would see her male counterparts perform complex characters, and yearned to play layered roles that demanded the actor to engage in sookshmabhinaya (subtle acting). In the 1980s, when Usha was learning, women performers were seen as mere storytellers in Nangiarkoothu. But when one looks at the history of the art form, you find strong women characters. “King Kulasekhara Varman, who was a patron of Koodiyattam, married a Nangiar artiste. Their patronisation ensured a range of female roles. With time, this theatre tradition lost these roles and their performers,” says Usha.

Training under Ammannur Madhava Chakyar

Usha’s training under the legendary Ammannur Madhava Chakyar in the 1990s helped her explore the form. For seven years, she stayed at the gurukulam. “He encouraged me to ask questions and be imaginative. Though a hardcore traditionalist, his contemporary approach shaped by aesthetic sensibilities. He adhered to the text, but also made new discoveries in it. Also the respect he accorded to women characters was rare. In Ammannur asan’s performances, Sita or Tara would be treated with the same dignity as important male characters.”

Aparna Nangiar

Aparna Nangiar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Usha points out that when reimagining characters, one must know the character’s mind inside out and the multiple dimensions and meanings of a scene.

Talking about the Panchakanya performances, the senior artiste stresses that it stays within the rules of Koodiyattam. “When I first showcased it, audiences felt that contemporary choreographies must be like this. We use the form as a medium to tell the pains of these characters. Through such attempts, we also can come up with innovations. That’s how Koodiyattam as an art form can grow,” says Usha.

The Panchakanya Koodiyattam Mahotsavam, led by Usha Nangiar, will be held till June 18 (6 p.m.) at Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Thrissur.

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