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One scene, three characters, rich dramatics — ‘Maya Seethankam,’ was a brilliant piece of exploration

Well-known artiste Margi Madhu Chakyar, son and nephew of the famed Koodiyattam artistes Moozhikkulam Kochukuttan Chakyar and Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar, and founder, Napthya Centre for Excellence in Koodiyattam, describes the Sanskrit theatre style of Koodiyattam as ‘micro acting.’ It is an apt description of a style that is all about nuances and details rather than a narrative or a storyline. There is no music, no dance, apart from the pure nritta performed in the opening ritualistic purvaranga, no crisp exchange of dialogue, but a stylised chanting of the short lines in one of the 24 codified ragas. The excitement lies in the dramatic exploration of a situation, the elaborate costuming, make-up, a grammatical gestural language based on the Hasta Lakshana Deepika and exaggerated mime using the eyes, eyebrows, cheeks and lips, along with the technique of breath control, are the vehicles of communication.

It is not a narrative, where a story begins and ends, but an elaboration of a short scene in a play. In Koodiyattam one act of a Sanskrit play becomes a performance; the 3-4 pages of text can take five days or forty one, according to Margi Madhu. Incidentally, the two-hour play at Kalakshetra, ‘Maya Seethankam’ represented just one segment of the third act of Saktibhadra’s Ascharyachudamani.

There was only one scene. It is the scene following Rama’s departure from the Panchavati hermitage in search of the golden deer Mareecha, after putting Lakshmana in charge of Sita’s safety. On being hit by Rama’s arrow, Mareecha cries out for help in Rama’s voice. This sparks an argument between Lakshmana and Sita.

There were three characters in ‘Maya Seethankam’ – Lakshmana, Sita and Ravana, the last as a bystander watching interestedly from his chariot in the sky. The tirai (curtain) was opened to a seated Sita who is worried, her hands are shaking and her lips are quivering. ‘Asannam eva ashobhanam…’ she chants, ‘O brother, my right eyes flutter, signifying an imminent danger.’ Lakshmana, standing by her side, tries to reassure her, saying we have nothing more to lose having come to the forest to do penance.

Sita has heard of Ravana, ‘O Lakshmana, from the sages in the forest, I have heard about a certain Ravana... He seems to have twenty arms.’ Hearing this, Ravana, perched on a stool by the side, screeches loudly in appreciation. Lakshmana dismisses Sita’s fear, ‘Dear sister, there is no point having too many arms. That is not a proof of great strength…’ He proceeds to demonstrate how the 1000-armed Kartaviryajuna was defeated by the two-armed Sage Parasurama with an axe, ‘…as though chopping off trees…’ Ravana reacts, wincing at every chop.

Absorbing drama

The drama is absorbing and entertaining. The rendered dialogue, in Sanskrit for male characters and Prakrit for women and the Vidushaka, court jester, is the text of the play. The sub-text is in the stage manual, Attaprakara, where every aspect of the text is expanded such as the demonstration of the chopping action, etc. In one instance, Margi Madhu Chakyar (Lakshmana) posed as Ravana, seated arrogantly with one leg crossed over the other, but with back arching as he is weighed down by the ten heads, provoking much laughter. This posturing is taught in the training Kalari itself. The third layer of the acting process is the improvisation or manodharma — the technique of Pakarnattam, imitation of another character, is one such improvisation.

Hearing Mareecha’s cry, the anxious Sita begins to cry in fear. She is angered by Lakshmana’s indifference, and as she gets more agitated, one sees Ravana becoming happier. Sita unjustly accuses Lakshmana, ‘Haadhi andhara gaamini…’ meaning ‘.. I know the reason why you are not going. You desire the country and you desire me..’ Lakshmana closes his ears to block the hurtful words, words that finally lead to grave consequences for Sita. Sita is crying, and so is Lakshmana; he is like a broken man.

Lakshmana points out Sita’s unjust sharp, piercing words, but she is unrelenting. With barely concealed scorn, Lakshmana imitates Sita being carried away with the golden deer, and requesting Rama to get it for her, mainly through his eyes, netra abhinaya. It was a brilliant piece of improvisation, easily the most memorable segment in ‘Maya Seethankam.’

Koodiyattam dates back about 2,000 years and has been declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. What is most interesting is not only the detailed analysis of human nature, emotions and reactions, but the finesse and timing with which they were presented within a confined stage. Margi Madhu sums up Koodiyattam as, ‘Less space, more acting.’

The co-artistes of ‘Maya Seethankam’ were Dr. G. Indu (Sita), Nepathya Sreehari Chakyar (Ravana), Kalamandalam Manikandan and Nepathya Jinesh (Mizhavu), Kalanilayam Rajan (Edakka) and Kalanilayam Sundaran (make-up).

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 11:40:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/dance/two-hour-dance-drama-with-abhinaya-as-the-main-play/article26138005.ece

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