Three prominent Koodiyattam artistes talk about their new-found confidence, challenges and possibilities

Kalamandalam Sindhu   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

Nangiarkoothu, a sub-genre of Koodiyattam, is perhaps one art form that has made huge strides in the last three decades or so. What was once a temple ritual has moved on to the performance stage with vigour and variety. Female roles in the old texts are being re-imagined and redefined, while new texts and characters are being developed. Talented new actors too have emerged on the Nangiarkoothu stage who have breathed fresh life into it.

While Koodiyattam is Sanskrit drama featuring male and female actors, Nangiarkoothu is a solo performance by women. It is almost entirely based on abhinaya, with hardly any nritta element. Koodiyattam has two major segments — nirvahanam, or retrospective, which is a solo act retelling past events, and the play itself that comprises dialogues and multiple characters.

At a seminar in Guruvayur, three prominent artists — Indu G, Aparna Nangiar and Kalamandalam Sindhu — spoke about various aspects surrounding women’s role in Koodiyattam. They agreed on the marginalisation of women on the Koodiyattam stage but offered different perspectives on the opportunities and challenges before them. While Indu believes that even the small roles of women in Koodiyattam plays offer potential for an artiste with imagination and experience, Aparna says it is the solo acts that offer women artistes the biggest canvas. Sindhu wants female artists to be more imaginative in dealing with the existing texts and be more creative with new choreographies.

Indu G

Indu G   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

Indu felt that the most prominent space for women in Koodiyattam is perhaps Kalpalathika’s retrospective in Subhadradhananjayam. Kalpalathika, the companion of Krishna’s sister Subhadra, recounts the story of Krishna in Sreekrishnacharitham. It is significant that hundreds of years ago, Koodiyattam gave 217 slokas and 55 hours of acting on stage to women, Indu pointed out.

However, later this became infrequent for several reasons, including the paucity of women actors, male dominance and other societal factors. But it is a historical fact that Sreekrishnacharitham remained in acting manuals and survived as ritualistic dance practices in certain temples. Even when we talk of bias against women, we must remember that such a big text was written solely for and performed solely by women centuries ago, reminded Indu. While Koodiyattam plays offer very few words to the actress, there are spaces and potential that she can discover and tap into, the artiste said.

Indu recounted her experience in the play Ascharyachoodamani through its different acts from Lalita in Parnasalankam to Sita in Agnipravesankam, the last Act. Indu recalled something she improvised that she hadn’t planned while acting as Sita. When Sita sees Lakshmana, she is reminded of her cruel words to him before she was kidnapped. “I happened to recall the lines from Kumaran Asaan’s poem Chintavishtayaya Sita, which says ‘O Lakshmana, please forgive me for the harsh words I uttered to you.’ This is not in the play or in the acting manual, but I instinctively introduced this in my act.”

The playwrights created roles for women that were certainly inadequate in time and space; yet these roles are challenging too. Without fully comprehending the intricacies and emotional weight of the role, it would be difficult for an actress to perform as, say, Sita in Jatayuvadham or as Tara in Balivadham.

While limited stage time reduces the physical demands on women, their very presence requires emotional and intellectual involvement and experience. So the importance of women in such plays should not be counted based on the time allotted to them or the number of dialogues. “It is when we are on the stage that we realise it is Sita and not Rama that shines bright. It is in those moments of silence on stage that an actress experiences womanhood or is forced to address the uncertainties that surround women,” said Indu.

The Koodiyattam artiste also narrated her experience as Tara in Balivadham, a role generally considered insignificant as the scene is dominated by Bali. “Though Tara utters just a few words, being on stage with Bali subjects her to a thought process and an experience that inspired me to write a short story,” said Indu. Tara creates so much turmoil in the actress, which, of course, is not to be acted out. But what the actress experiences in these silent moments is priceless.

Multiple impediments

Aparna Nangiar argued that though there are many female characters in Sanskrit plays, there are only a few in Koodiyattam. There may be several reasons — there weren’t enough capable women who stepped forward as actresses; Koodiyattam was always a character-centric performance and anyone impeding on the main character was consciously kept away and the supposed ban on panchakanyakas (Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari) from the stage, though there is no conclusive evidence to prove such a practice.

Generally, in Koodiyattam plays, there are several slokas that give immense scope to male actors. But such space is hard to find for women. “I can’t entirely agree with what Indu says about Tara. The thoughts that went through Indu’s mind may help Indu the actress but won’t impact the spectator. Whatever the character of Tara does, it is Bali who is towering above all else,” Aparna said.

This is why the solo retrospective segment in Koodiyattam plays is important for women. Theoretically, while there are many opportunities for women to play these retrospective segments, the reality of Koodiyattam today is that men’s nirvahanams are performed in detail while women’s remain on paper in the kramadeepika, or production manual, opined Aparna.

Aparna Nangiar

Aparna Nangiar   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

What is available now is Sreekrishnacharitham and Lalita’s retrospective in Parnasalankam or Soorpanakhankam. There is evidence that Mandodari had a retrospective, a role that has been revived by Usha Nangiar with new slokas written in. It is such a well-researched piece that more possibilities emerge every time we perform it, said Aparna. Subhadra also has a retrospective in the fifth act of Dhananjayam, which doesn’t see the light of the day today. This may be the reason why we now find many women performers choreographing new nirvahanams, she added.

She is of the opinion that aside from reviving the retrospective segments within the Koodiyattam play, we must look at the untapped possibilities within the retrospective. Currently, only three slokas are detailed in Lalita’s retrospective in Soorpanakhankam, though the acting manual contains pointers to much longer and detailed performances. For example, there is a sloka where Lalita compares her beauty to Rama that offers big scope for the actress because, though she is a demoness, she appears as a beautiful woman. But in tapping these hidden segments, we must be careful to revive it without any damage to the structure and theory of Koodiyattam, pointed out Aparna.

Coming to Nangiarkoothu, Sreekrishnacharitham spans episodes about the origin of Mathura kingdom to Subhadra falling in love with Arjuna. There are slokas that, on the surface, do not offer much scope, but if we approach them with an enquiring mind and add material from the allied art form of koothu, for example, the possibilities are limitless. Dasamam Koothu, which has remained a ritualistic practice, is another area that has a lot of scope to explore and enlarge.

However, such enquiries and choreographies must begin only after an artiste gains expertise that comes with proper training and long stage experience. Otherwise, these will violate the framework of Koodiyattam, cautioned Aparna.

Female identity

Kalamandalam Sindhu, who spoke about women’s identity on the Koodiyattam stage, perhaps was the most vocal about the secondary status accorded to women.

She highlighted that the early history of Koodiyattam showed that women did perform on stage, however, they lost that space gradually. New stage techniques were used to sideline them, for instance, a lamp symbolised Sita. Male characters performed kettadal, or acted out the female lines. This was done by pretending to hear them as a Nangiar woman sitting on the stage was made to recite the lines of a female character. Only five plays remained in the performance arena and there were only two female characters. By the beginning of the 20th century, Koodiyattam had been reduced to a temple ritual, having lost its grandeur as a performing art.

The reforms in the mid-1900s, led by Painkulam Rama Chakyar, resurrected this art form and brought it out from temples on to the public stage. It became an aesthetic delight after the costumes were modernised and other changes brought in. Female roles were resurrected, acting manuals written and new plays came to light. More women took up Koodiyattam with many of them coming from outside the traditional communities. More than that women-centric plays were given due importance by male practitioners of Koodiyattam.

However, these changes did not get reflected in the content of female roles, lamented Sindhu. Not much thought had gone into the subject of female identity. Perhaps, such a possibility did not exist in the current acting manuals written by men. Language itself was a big factor in this marginalisation — Prakrit for women versus Sanskrit for men.

Even the new plays explored only possibilities of abhinaya for women, and did not give any thought to projecting female identity. The late Margi Sathi’s Sreeramacharitham is the first composition by a woman in the last century. But it has to be said that this work is not from the point of view of Sita’s identity. What should have been a look at Rama’s life from Sita’s perspective didn’t come out that way. A female perspective would even have necessitated a different title. This state of affairs can be changed only by actresses who will start thinking as Sita. The change should come from the women.

New choreographies such as Chintavishtayaya Sita and Mandodari by Usha Nangiar are the start of a change in this direction, an awareness of female identity. Another possibility is what Indu suggested as in Mayaseethankam — re-read the male-written text from a female perspective. Works of Koodiyattam guru Venu G such as Sitaparityagam and Chitrangada also offer helpful pointers, pointed out Sindhu.

True women’s identity, freedom and rights predicate a society that recognises these values and an audience that will enjoy it. What is more important is that these exercises must not be a mere assertion of female identity but must remain within the confines of the pristine highly structured tradition of Koodiyattam. That is both an opportunity and a challenge, she said.

The seminars were part of a Koodiyattam festival organised by Mammiyur Mahadeva Temple, Guruvayur, in December.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 2:10:36 PM |

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