Film Dance

Documentary to set the record straight on Kutiyattam

Shooting spot with Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar  

(A group of Kutiyattam artistes and aficionados is producing a detailed documentary film based on sexagenarian Guru Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar to straighten the modern history of the art and preserve the classy Kalamandalam style with all its essence evolved through the late thespian Painkulam Rama Chakyar)

It’s summer vacation at the Kerala Kalamandalam. The serene ambience is felt around the Koothambalam (temple theatre) too. A few artistes, including sexagenarian Guru Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, the crew of the documentary and a few Kutiyattam aficionados and media persons are present. You can hardly hear anyone speak; everything is communicated through gestures and expressions.

Chakyar with a simple dhoti tied around his waist enters the stage to the soothing rhythm of the mizhavu played by Sajith Vijayan and Rahul. He sits gently, legs folded on a stool. In no time, the seasoned guru’s facial expression transforms to show the emotion of a lonely Sugreeva, who afraid of his brother Bali, goes into a retrospective mode. His cholliyattam (practice of an act without costumes) of an episode from Sugreeva’s nirvahanam (recapitulation and narration of the story right from the beginning to that particular moment of the act) of Bhasa’s Balivadham lasting for an hour is documented in a straight shot, leaving everyone around beaming. It takes some time for Chakyar to get out of the character. .

“Our effort is to document the Painkulam legacy through the artistry of veteran Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar . Of late, the Painkulam style is getting sidelined and distorted. All the other senior artistes of Painkulam, such as Sivan Namboodiri and Girija, are also taking part with their disciples,” says A. Narayanan, who is directing and editing the film. Narayanan, an alumnus of the Pune Film Institute, is a well-known film editor in Bollywood. As he hails from the Chakyar community, the intricacies of the art are not alien to him.

Acclaimed scholar of Sanskrit and Kutiyattam, the late Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboodiripad, who along with his brother, the late Ravi Namboodiripad and Dr. Sanalkumar Tampuran, pioneered analytical studies on the 15th-16th century Natankusam, the first available critique of Kutiyattam, categorically stated that the style practised till the 1960s was not much different from the descriptions mentioned therein. The post-Independence renaissance in Kutiyattam is primarily attributed to the late thespian Painkulam Rama Chakyar (1904-1980). The period — 1965-1980 — was of actual resurgence in Kutiyattam that shaped and concretised the art’s future.

Paimkulam Rama Chakyar

Paimkulam Rama Chakyar   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

The documentary will include classroom training by Rama Chakyar, both cholliyattam and performance of his much-acclaimed roles, significant episodes from the plays that Painkulam taught and edited at the Kalamandalam, which are today part of the main repertoires. This includes Balivadham, Thoranayudham, Jatayuvadham, Shoorpanakhankam, Bhagavatjjukam and Manthrankam. Also interviews of known Kutiyattam aficionados and scholars will find space in the documentary.

Liberty to artistes

Kutiyattam was not as tala oriented as say, Kathakali or Mohiniyattom. The actors, therefore, enjoyed more liberty. The structuring of the kinetics, including the movements of upangas such as eyes, eyebrows, etc., into a rhythmic pattern that we see in today’s interpolative and descriptive acting in Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu is a post-1965 development.

“The credit goes to Painkulam asan. Along with the mizhavu maestro P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, he made those training in percussion sit face-to-face with the actors during the cholliyattam that went on for hours. This synchronisation was the result of their joint effort through the Kalamandalam as criticisms from Kathakali maestros on the applied rhythm on stage were unbearable to him. As his disciples, we were a part of it,” recalls Rama Chakyar during a break.

Rama Chakyar is the disciple and grand nephew of Painkulam Rama Chakyar, one of the first two students of Kutiyattam at the Kalamandalam in 1965 (the other being Sivan Namboodiri), grandson of the late Ammannur Chachu Chakyar (1880-1967) and son of the late Ammannur Parameswara Chakyar (1915- 2008). Ammannur Madhava Chakyar (1917-2008), with whom he shared stage many times, was his paternal uncle. The captivating duel scene between Bali and Sugreeva in ‘Balivadham’, which has today become an indispensable part of the act and followed by all schools, was an experiment tried out by Rama Chakyar with Sivan Namboodiri during one of their cholliyattam sessions. It was wholeheartedly endorsed by Painkulam.

In Kutiyattam, the acting is executed through four-fold interpretation, known as nalavarthi. It literally means repeating four times. At the beginning, the actor orally recites the verses with hand gestures. It is known as cholli kanikkal (show while narrating). This is will be followed by mere showing of hand gestures without narrating the verses (chollathe kanikkuka). Thirdly, the artiste acts out the verse in detail, minutely and elaborately, unveiling the deeper involved meaning and even exploring the hidden meaning and improvising (anwayam). Finally, the actor goes back to cholli kanikkal. Thus, the actor needs minimal texts to elaborate — with highly imaginative improvisations exploring the multiple meanings. One sloka or a stanza or even a word may be interpreted for hours through angika abhinaya. Often all these were beyond viewers comprehension. “So Painkulam asan edited almost all the plays in practice to 120-180 minutes and taught us how to prune it further without diluting the essence of the form; he did all this even while choreographing ‘Bhagavatjjukam’ and episodes from ‘Sakunthalam,’ bringing back Bodayana and Kalidasa to Kutiyattam stage. He trimmed to an hour several marathon solo acts such as the padaprashna in Sugreeva’s nirvahana (Balivadham),” adds Rama Chakyar.

Painkulam’s initiative

All the significant improvements in the art, including costume happened on the initiative of Painkulam through the Kerala Kalamandalam. The charm of Kutiyattam female roles’ costume (also Nangiarkoothu), more importantly, the head gear, is also credited to Painkulam Asan and thespian costumer the late Vazhengada Govinda Warrier (1917-2003). The efforts to reshape Nangiarkoothu as a captivating solo performance by female artiste of Kutiyattam were initiated by him through Girija during the early 1970s.

It was Painkulam, who took the form overseas for the first time, in 1980, to Poland and France under the initiative of Christopher Brisky and Milena Salvini. A diabetic, he was a total vegetarian and survived on fruits and vegetables during this maiden tour. On the 41st day of his return, he passed away due to high blood sugar. The conservative group, which disapproved of Painkulam’s endeavours, attributed his demise to the wrath of gods for taking the form away from its traditional ambience and people.

“The artistes today follow the refined style of Painkulam asan, but not always give him the credit. He was a visionary. Those who criticised and opposed him during his lifetime later adopted all that he advocated. There were constant efforts to distort the post-Independence history of the art by belittling Painkulam and the Kerala Kalamandalam,” says Sivan Namboodiri.

Genuine Kutiyattam artistes are handicapped by limited social life, lack of proficiency in English and Hindi, and lack of contacts in big cities such as Delhi. These have resulted in poor patronage. The ground realities of Kutiyattam are often unknown to scholars and administrators outside Kerala. Some of the so called western ambassadors of Kutiyattam are also ill-informed. These underscore the relevance and necessity of the documentary project.

“The 20-hour long film, with an edited version for screening in theatres, will be a precious resource material for scholars and enthusiasts ,” says Sangeeth Chakyar, the brilliant young exponent, who carries the mantle of Kalamandalam Kutiyattam. The contribution of Kalamandalam for this documentary is by way of allowing shooting in the Koothambalam and classrooms.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 11:26:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/setting-the-record-straight-on-kutiyattam/article23835995.ece

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