Preserving an intangible heritage

Aparna Nangiar staging Subhadra’s nirvahana

Aparna Nangiar staging Subhadra’s nirvahana   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Despite lack of sufficient patronage and financial hurdles, the legacy of Koodiyattam is kept alive at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam in Irinjalakuda

The flames of the traditional lamp dance in the evening breeze. The mizhavu player strikes the curvaceous percussion instrument. Enter the Chakyar, a jester-like figure, with an arresting gaze; he starts narrating to us about how the journey with his friend, Pandava prince Arjuna from Indraprastha, has cost him dear. Hungry and thirsty, he whines about his misery.

At the 32nd Koodiyattam Mahotsavam, presented by Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, the finale features Subhadradhananjayam, an episode where Arjuna falls in love with Subhadra. The gurukulam is tucked within a quiet lane in Irinjalakuda known for the historic Koodalmanikyam temple that has hosted many Koodiyattam performances by the Ammannur Chakyar family. The institute is milling with local and global crowd. The foreigners do not get what the narrator, played by Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar, is uttering in Malayalam and Sanskrit. But, his improvisations break the fourth wall. “Ah, look who’s coming!” he declares pointing at a latecomer sneaking into the audience. Children giggle and the seniors smirk at the latecomer, while the international audience watches the Chakyar in sheer awe.

A scene from ‘Urubhangam’

A scene from ‘Urubhangam’   | Photo Credit: Manoj Parameswaran

The eye movements of the other actors, dressed in resplendent costumes and sporting green masks, transfix the theatre artistes in the crowd. Tomoe Irino, a Japanese Koodiyattam student, who made Irinjalakkuda her second home in the early 1990s, recalls her memory of watching Koodiyattam performance for the first time. “It was as if a ray of light had struck me. As a theatre artiste, I had so many doubts about my craft. All disappeared watching this art form and I knew I had to learn it,” says the actor.

Inside the green room, a nervous young student with kohl-lined eyes, dressed in red and golden attire, is waiting for her chance to enter the stage as Subhadra. “Earlier, we were strict that students had to learn for 10 to 15 years before they could give their first performance. But parents are eager to see their children on stage. It also boosts their confidence as artistes. So, we allow students who have learnt the art form for over two years to play important roles on stage,” says Kalamandalam Rajeev, a mizhavu exponent and vice-president of the Gurukulam.

Training session at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda

Training session at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The gurukulam, the epicentre of Koodiyattam artistes in Kerala, was founded in 1982 by G Venu, exponent of Koodiyattam, and late Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, veteran artiste and scholar who reigned over the Koodalmanikyam Koothambalam (temple theatre) for several years. Venu recalls how he was mesmerised watching the latter on stage in the 1970s. “I had seen many veterans. But, he was something else. It was extraordinary how he played with the breath.” Narayanan Nambiar, a mizhavu player and secretary of the institute, who joined the institute in the early 1990s, tells us how the maestro would be on a journey of his own on stage. “He is beyond the structures of our rhythm.”

The veteran did not believe in people of just one caste learning Koodiyattam, points out Venu. “That’s how we decided to open an institute that would adhere to the gurukula system of learning the art, where any student, who dedicates at least 10 to 15 years of his life to become a performer — unlike institutes like Kerala Kalamandalam where students learnt the art just to obtain degrees,” he says.

Training session at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda

Training session at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Financial hurdles were always part of the game. “But, we did not want our artistes to take up secondary professions. I, myself, rejected many academic positions that came my way,” adds Venu.

Ashaan, as they fondly call Madhava Chakyar, would take pains to point out their mistakes while they were performing and would explain to them the logic of essaying a role and spacing, says Aparna Nangiar, another performer from the Chakyar lineage. The training involved physical strain and mental stamina, says Aparna. “Ashaan would tutor us on slokas as early as four in the morning. We had to be in half-sitting position and exercise our arm movements, and render the slokas,” she adds.

Breath control, perfection in diction, artistry over eye movements… all these help in bringing about in-depth abhinaya in a Koodiyattam performance than any other traditional art performance.

“Unlike Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, the movements in Koodiyattam are less, but the inner organs put in twice the effort as they are playing with breath,” Aparna observes.

Mizhavu players at a performance

Mizhavu players at a performance   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Many of the young artistes are not taking Koodiyattam seriously because they are uncertain about its future. “We always hope at least one student stays back and devotes his/her life into becoming a Koodiyattam performer,” she says. It’s also because of lack of enough support for the art form, says Rajeev. “Very few organisations sponsor Koodiyattam performances. Mostly, we ourselves invest money and resources to organise our own shows. Even temples do not come forward to host us, in spite of us trying to make it palatable for the common people by cutting it short and providing the synopsis.”

However, people do come to watch the annual Koodiyattam festival. At least four to five artistes from Japan come every year. Apart from this, they also hold a themed 10-day festival in July. Visionaries such as Madhava Chakyar and Venu have helped contemporary thespians realise the significance of the ancient performative tradition’s techniques. Venu teaches a module in Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore. And the new generation of artistes such as Kapila Venu, Aparna, Sooraj Nambiar and Rajaneesh Chakyar have taken their performances to the global audience and dedicated their lives to research on Koodiyattam.

Nevertheless, the times are changing. Contemporary Koodiyattam artistes, unlike their ancestors, need a parallel career to support themselves, says Aparna, a college lecturer. “My father told me how the late Chachu Chakyar did not allow Madhava Chakyar to learn English or take up a job. He would say there are other people to learn it, but none to keep this theatre tradition going. Similarly, my father was discouraged from taking up a school teacher’s job. The art form was a way of life for them. They are the reason why Koodiyattam is still alive,” she adds.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 4:30:54 PM |

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