‘Koodiyattam is a full-time vocation’

Margi Madhu in ‘Balivadham’ Koodiyattam   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Koodiyattam, the traditional Sanskrit theatre, has a rare and challenging scene called ‘Bharatavakyam’ or the actor’s speech. It’s rare because it comes only at the end of the complete continuous performance of the last Act of a play, which may take 10 days or more. It’s challenging because it’s the complete re-enactment of that Act on the last day by a single actor over several hours.

In Bharatavakyam, the actor assumes the role of narrator and presents the whole story of the play in mudras. Then he recites the dialogues of all the characters in the last Act in their voice, in the positions and poses they had on stage, and in the precise ragas that match their characters and moods.

In 2017, I watched in awe as Margi Madhu of Nepathya in Moozhikkulam, Ernakulam, performed Bharatavakyam at the conclusion of Agnipravesankam, the seventh and last Act of Sakthibhadra’s play Ascharyachoodamani, that was performed over 10 days. One moment he was angry as Rama, in the next he was a scared Lakshmana, then a weeping Sita. He had all the verses by heart, there was no time to pause and think, and there was no prompter. A five-hour stupendous solo act without a break.

Madhu, a Koodiyattam actor performing for the last 40 years, has done the complete Bharatavakyam only twice before.

Margi Madhu at a performance in Chennai

Margi Madhu at a performance in Chennai   | Photo Credit: R Ragu

To appreciate this rarity, one needs to look at the structure of Koodiyattam, where an entire play may take up to 100 days. For this reason, Koodiyattam treats every Act in a play as a complete play by itself for the sake of performances. But then, staging the entire Act of a play may take anywhere from seven to 12 days, with three to six hours of performance every day.

Such full-length performances that used to take place in temples as part of rituals are getting rarer. Even in the few temples they still take place, the strength of the audience is so pathetic that artistes may not be inspired to give their best.

But it’s also true that Koodiyattam has gained some prominence of late, thanks to government patronage. Such performances are mostly short episodes or segments carved out to fit into the demands of a three-hour programme. This should be a cause for celebration in the normal course but the connoisseurs or the prekshaka, as they are called in Koodiyattam parlance, have their concerns.

Noted Koodiyattam authority KG Paulose writes in the epilogue of his 2006 book, Kutiyattam Theatre — The Earliest Living Tradition: “Some hold the view, quite rightly, that many new productions fail to do justice to the spirit of Kutiyattam. The deep and subtle acting is ignored. When the presentation is limited to two hours, in their hurry to complete the story, serious solo scenes are either omitted or diluted. This is a matter of serious concern for many of the lovers of this ancient art.”

Ettumanoor P Kannan, director of Sangeet Natak Akademy’s Kutiyattam Kendra, believes that presenting an Act completely is important for the psycho-physical maturity of an actor. “By being a part of the complete presentation, through several days of performance, the actor becomes familiar with all segments of the Attaprakaram, which enables him to conceive his role perfectly and in detail. Complete presentation of Acts is essential for the preservation of the tradition and for the growth of Koodiyattam; but not from the point of view of the audience. A viewer, at a time, watches only a small portion from an Act. So, a complete presentation is not very important for him,” says Kannan.

Madhu agrees. Only a full presentation of an Act will unveil the aesthetic beauty of Koodiyattam in full, he says. That’s why the annual festivals at Nepathya are also an attempt to preserve the longer format. FridayReview caught up with the 53-year-old Madhu, Nepathya’s director and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady.

Koodiyattam has more stages now, but mostly three-hour shows. How important is it to keep the full version — complete performance of an Act over several days — alive?

The condensed three-hour performances are certainly welcome but they can pack in only the essential components while retaining its dramatic moments. But Koodiyattam is not only that; it has a broad sweep and extremely detailed satvikabhinaya techniques. Unlike other theatre forms, Koodiyattam has a loose structure that liberates the actor, which gives him the freedom to improvise and interpret.

Margi Madhu

Margi Madhu   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

This is very important for the artiste too, though today’s audience may not demand it. Artistes can master Koodiyattam only if they go through all these small parts that make the integral whole. It may appear dull or repetitive in parts, especially in the ‘nirvahanam’ [retrospective] segment. But this foundation is crucial for the artiste.

What exactly is lost in this three-hour format?

Take Thoranayudham, which is normally done in six days — one day for purappad, two days of nirvahanam or retrospective and three days of Koodiyattam drama. The first three days are completely cut out while condensing this into the three-hour format. Sankukarna’s slokam on the first day of the drama itself takes more than two hours to act out in detail. That’s shortened to a mere 15 minutes. Only the textual meaning is conveyed. It’s merely reciting the dialogues. We wonder if it was worth all the effort, such as taking three hours to put on the make-up!

Hence, there should be more initiative from the artistes to present the full version and get new audiences, but without dumbing down this theatre. In today’s busy world, most people don’t have the patience to sit through long hours day after day. But it’s vital that we preserve the depth and diversity of Koodiyattam.

This tradition must not be allowed to fade away for two reasons. First, only mastering such full-length portrayals will equip Koodiyattam artistes and percussionists with the ability to condense them into shorter performances. Secondly, it is the primary responsibility of the artistes and the society to ensure that such traditions are kept alive and passed on to future generations.

Is government patronage the answer?

Government funding is crucial but should not be the sole source. We must explore other avenues. CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds are one avenue that holds out some promise. For example, Kochi-based Petronet funded our Vichinnankam project. But the problem is that most commercial sponsors look for popular art forms where they will get some amount of visibility. We must accept that Koodiyattam will never be a popular art form.

Then there are NGOs catering to the arts. Amsterdam-based Prince Claus Fund, which is dedicated to culture and development the world over, stepped in to help build a costume room for Nepathya after we suffered heavy losses in last year’s floods.

This art form was kept alive for the last few centuries within temple precincts. That largesse is vanishing. So, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government to preserve and promote our heritage. In Japan, for example, the ancient classical dance drama Noh is funded by the government.

You mentioned drawing new audiences. How can the artistes do that?

Many people dismiss Koodiyattam, saying they do not understand Sanskrit. This is a misconception since all that one needs to enjoy the performance is an understanding of the few slokas in a given performance. Secondly, Vidooshaka speaks Malayalam. The bottom line is that Koodiyattam has plenty to offer to anyone interested in theatre.

I know foreigners who come to watch Koodiyattam only when it’s a complete performance. Most of them don’t know Sanskrit or Malayalam. They enjoy the slow, multi-day unfolding of the play because only such a presentation brings out all aspects of Koodiyattam.

A detailed synopsis will educate the viewer to some extent. We at Nepathya have started projecting subtitles on a screen as we found that a majority among the audience needed some pointers to fully understand and enjoy the long descriptive phases or attams. This year, Kutiyattam Centre’s Natyadharmi festival also adopted subtitling. The feedback has been very positive.

Then there are workshops in schools. We need to explain what distinguishes Koodiyattam from other art forms such as Kathakali. Much work in this direction is already being done. But I feel we artistes must be more involved in this process.

What is the training regimen at Nepathya?

Training is led by me and my wife, Indu G, a Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu artiste for more than 20 years. We have five senior artistes who have been training for 10 or 12 years and are today capable of taking up most of the important roles. It’s not just acting and body language. Language, interpretation, intonation, and articulation are all equally important.

But there is a constant challenge. Some new students drop off as they find it difficult to manage Koodiyattam kalari and the regular school. There is parental anxiety if their children will be able to live by Koodiyattam alone. There is societal pressure since their peers chase the corporate ladder.

Koodiyattam is a full-time vocation; you can’t balance it with a day job, which may be possible in a more individualist art form such as music. Passing out from a kalari is not enough. Constant engagement with this art with a group of artistes and percussionists is an absolute must.

Where do you see Nepathya 20 years from now?

That’s a tough one. But I will tell you what our aim is and what we are hoping for. That Koodiyattam actors and percussionists will have the financial independence to remain as full-time artistes. That they will be able to explore new possibilities and bring new works into the Koodiyattam repertoire. That they will be able to work towards reclaiming lost texts.

Nepathya Yadukrishnan and Nepathya Rahul Chakyar in a rehearsal at Nepathya, Moozhikkulam

Nepathya Yadukrishnan and Nepathya Rahul Chakyar in a rehearsal at Nepathya, Moozhikkulam   | Photo Credit: Nepathya

For example, Nepathya is currently in the process of reviving Pratimanatakam by the fourth-century dramatist Bhasa. We expect to stage Vichinnankam, the complete first Act of Pratima, in about a year. I had to write a new attaprakaram (acting manual) based on an old kramadeepika (production manual).

The Koodiyattam acting manual is a very detailed guide to performance. Many elements such as nirvahanam slokas, past stories, descriptions and commentaries are written in to the original text. The original play is only a starting point. This takes a lot of time and effort.

All this needs peace of mind that comes with financial security. The artistes need to believe that Koodiyattam will provide for their daily needs.


Moozhikkulam is a small village on the banks of Chalakudy river near Angamaly in central Kerala. Though it is known more for its Lakshmana temple, it punches above its weight when it comes to the arts and can boast a talented young generation of Carnatic vocalists and Koodiyattam actors. On a narrow lane leading from the temple is Nepathya’s ‘koothambalam’, or amphitheatre, which is now getting ready to host a 15-day Koodiyattam festival.

Every year, more than 30 Koodiyattam aficionados arrive on a two-week-long cultural pilgrimage, to stay here and soak in this theatre form. They include Sanskrit scholars, theatre professionals, dancers, students of South Asian art and culture buffs from India and the world over.

Well-known Indologist David Shulman, Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University, says Kerala and India are very lucky to have the Nepathya team carrying on this ancient tradition at its best.

Margi Madhu and Indu G leading a familiarisation session for festival delegates

Margi Madhu and Indu G leading a familiarisation session for festival delegates   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

Adds Prof Shulman: “Margi Madhu, Indu G, and the Nepathya troupe as a whole are among the finest representatives of the classical art of Koodiyattam in this generation. Together with my students and colleagues from Jerusalem and colleagues and students from Tuebingen and elsewhere, I have had the privilege of witnessing full-scale Koodiyattam performances each year since 2008. They are the high point of the year.”

Ettumanoor Kannan says: “The importance of presenting an Act in its entirety is well understood by Madhu and through Nepathya, he is trying to present it every year. That is why Nepathya could contribute good young Koodiyattam artistes who are matured enough to handle major roles.”

Another regular visitor to the festival is Sudha Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Sahapedia and author of Kutiyattam — the Heritage Theatre of India. “I have been watching Koodiyattam for more than 40 years. There was a time when Koodiyattam had to slim down, get out of the temple and find new audiences. The late Painkulam Rama Chakyar led that effort. But today, what’s needed to preserve Koodiyattam is to perform the full Acts and retain its depth and broad sweep.

The 12th Koodiyattam Festival at Nepathya Moozhikkulam will be held from August 15 to August 29. Featured are Kalyanasougandhikam Vyayogam (one-act play) over six days, and Jatayuvadham, the fourth act of Ascharyachoodamani, over eight days. The festival is supported by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and The European Research Council.

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 9:44:40 AM |

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