Koodiyattam’s dramatic transition

Rajaneesh Chakyar   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

From the koothambalam to the device screen, it has not been an easy transition for Koodiyattam, Kerala’s ancient Sanskrit theatre form, to adapt itself to the new normal. Besides its elaborate costume and heavy make-up, the art form is known for its lengthy scenes, an entire play may be staged in over 100 days and a single act in seven to 12 days with a performance duration of three to six hours.

Traditionally performed as part of rituals in temples and later, on stage, Koodiyattam artistes, faced with an uncertain future in the wake of the pandemic, have been exploring the online world to reach out to the audience. And they have met with a fair amount of success.

Initial attempts, mainly through Facebook, in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown were born more out of enthusiasm than certainty. But as the lockdown was extended, both artistes and cultural organisers stepped up their act with a stream of webinars, lec-dems and pre-recorded programmes.

The live streaming that followed had the biggest impact, with both Koodiyattam and Kathakali, which draws a relatively larger audience, seeing a spike in views. Nepathya Moozhikkulam and Madhavamathrugramam, two popular Koodiyattam groups, say the feedback has been extremely encouraging.

Nepathya was perhaps the first off the blocks has presented 12 live Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu performances and ten Chakyarkoothu sessions since May. According to its creative director, Margi Madhu, “I am happy about the increasing viewership online. Our monthly programmes used to get only a small audience, but on Facebook it is being watched by an average of 40 people. The videos of these performances, streamed later, have been garnering over 3,000 views. I believe our English subtitles have helped extend our reach outside India.”

Margi Madhu

Margi Madhu   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

Technical glitches

Madhu, however, also has some concerns. Though the quality of the video is good, he is not happy with the audio quality, especially of the mizhavu drums. Improving the standard of live streaming calls for a fine set of equipment, including video camera, microphone with audio mixing device, video switcher and encoder.

“But that would require huge investment, which is difficult in the present circumstances when the focus is to help artistes monetarily due to cancellation of events and festivals,” says Madhu.

Koodiyattam artiste Rajaneesh Chakyar of Madhavamathrugramam has attempted only Chakyarkoothu online till now. “Initially, we decided to wait it out. But as the lockdown was extended, we decided to try out the new medium. We converted a room in our house into a studio, put black backdrops, fitted LED lights, and used our mobile cameras to shoot. We know the quality isn’t ideal, so we have planned to invest in better equipment.”

Despite the challenges, it is the positive feedback that has kept Rajaneesh going during this crisis. “For one, we get a larger audience as people sit at home and watch. Also, the video remains on the Facebook page, so anyone can go back and watch it.” Sound is an issue for Rajaneesh too. “We tried collar mic for Koothu, a speech-intensive art form, but it gets cut off intermittently when we move about on stage.”

The scene is a little different in Kathakali. Here it is usually the organiser who arranges the venue. The last one month has seen an increase in live programmes, organised by various groups, but the streaming quality has not been consistent.

The right ambience

Shaji Mullookkaaran, an IT professional with a keen interest in art videography, says this is an opportunity to get the latest technology. Shaji confronts many problems in his work, from bright, overpowering backdrops to unsuitable lighting and inadequate bandwidth. He says that organisers must pay more attention to these factors rather than leaving everything to the lighting contractor.

“They must insist on a clean black background, PAR lights that can focus a narrow beam and control brightness. They should also ensure high-speed fibre broadband. Going forward, all venues must ideally provide fibre connection. All these will add to the cost but will result in a good viewing experience,” explains Shaji. He feels that online presentations are here to stay as more people have begun to enjoy watching programmes from the comfort of their homes.

Madhu agrees. He plans to continue streaming even after Covid. “But first we need to upgrade our equipment and sponsors can help us do it,” he says.

It is time art lovers, corporate entities and the government came together to take Koodiyattam, the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit theatre recognised by UNESCO as one of the ‘Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’, and Kathakali, an art form synonymous with Kerala, to the next level.

The author, a retired journalist, writes on Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 3:24:58 AM |

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