The artistic legacy of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar

Ammannur Madhava Chakyar as Ravana  

Koodiyattam, the sole extant form of Sanskrit theatre tradition in India dating back to 10th century AD, went through an unprecedented renaissance in between the first and second half of the 20th century. Of the legendary practitioners who pioneered the renaissance in Koodiyattam, the contributions of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, nephew of the patriarch Ammannur Chachu Chakyar, were critical in reinterpreting the dynamics of the performance of Koodiyattam and its theoretical framework.

Madhava Chakyar established himself in the field as an exemplary actor and teacher by honing his innate skills and immersing himself totally in the chaturvidhabhinaya of Koodiyattam. His close reading of Sanskrit plays by juxtaposing them with time-tested attaprakarams (manual for acting and stage presentation of Koodiyattam plays) and kramadeepikas (manual on stage craft) helped him visualise the texts of the plays and the characters from different angles. The fact that he remained centre stage for over half a century speaks volumes about this multifaceted genius.

Madhava Chakyar’s physical features did not conform to conventional norms of artistes associated with the traditional performing arts. His lean, tall frame and light-coloured eyes made him look quite different from most of his peers. However, the anatomy of his body did not bother Madhava Chakyar or any of his die-hard fans in India or abroad. Conviction in his art and confidence in his expertise guided the artistic voyage of the thespian. His mental acumen and scholarship helped him transcend physical constraints. Madhava Chakyar’s involvement in each of the plays in Koodiyattam and his holistic approach to the art form illuminated his stagecraft and enchanted audiences.

Every actor, whichever the medium of self-expression, has his/her inherent strengths and weaknesses. Madhava Chakyar was no exception. Satwikabhinaya, best realised through facial expressions, was the forte of Chakyar. His noted disciple Usha Nangiar is all praise for her Guru’s dramaturgical dexterity. Chakyar was not so keen on the subtleties of Angikabhinaya. Instead he revelled in rasabhinaya.

Defining roles

While his roles of Ravana in various plays showcased different dimensions of Veera (valour) and Sringara (romantic) rasas, Madhava Chakyar as Arjuna in the play Subhadradhananjayam or as Soorpanakha in the play Soorpanakhangam was always a special treat for the viewer.

At the Koothambalam of the Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur, he appeared as Arjuna in Subhadradhananjayam. This was in the late 1980s. Madhava Chakyar was by then a septuagenarian. Yet the density with which he enacted a peacock envying Subhadra’s tresses remains memorable. His glowing eyes portraying the battle of vanity between the two and the peacock’s retreat was a marvellous example of netrabhinaya (using the eyes to convey emotions). Translating metaphors into visual phrases convincingly, especially those related to the Sringara rasa, is no mean task in a complex art form like Koodiyattam. Madhava Chakyar could tackle it effortlessly.

Discerning art lovers cherish the veteran’s unmatched enactment of Kailasodharanam followed by Parvathiviraham in Thoranayudham. He had mesmerised viewers while acting as Bhima watching the spectacle of a triangular confrontation involving a python, an elephant and a lion – Ajagarakabalitham - in the play Kalyanasaugandhikam, of Neelakandha, through the technique of pakarnnattam (multiple impersonations by one actor).

His portrayal of Soorpanakha in her aboriginal form had an extraordinary aura. Madhava Chakyar’s treatment of the female demon was awesome whenever he negotiated the crude vachika (dialogues) of the character and her infatuation for Lord Rama. Underneath the thin layer of humour, an initiated spectator could read the agony of the forlorn Soorpanakha in the words and actions of the thespian. Another significant role of Madhava Chakyar’s was the invincible Bali in Balivadham.

His presentation of Bali’s amazement giving way to acute anger and contempt as his brother Sugriva challenges him for a duel had always been poignant. Though the protracted death-scene of the veteran’s Bali had invited criticism from some quarters, scholars like KG Paulose have substantiated the legitimacy of the scene as befitting the context; Chakyar succeeded in performing it through breath-control that he learnt from Bhagavathar Kunhunni Thampuran.

Unmatched Vidooshaka

The history of Koodiyattam does not register the names of even a handful of artists who could enthral the audience through deft depictions of Nayaka-Prathinayakas and Vidooshakas. Chakyar could do both with astounding spontaneity and calibre.

Since his brother Parameswara Chakyar was proficient in the Vidooshaka roles, Madhava Chakyar more often took up the roles of the Nayakas leaving the role of Vidooshaka to his brother.

But when it came to Prabandhakoothu, Madhava Chakyar had consistently adhered to a high profile. His loaded words laced with razor-sharp wit targeted odd ones in the audience. His mastery over Purusharthakoothu seldom needs to be stressed.

Yet his prime concern in Koothu was the imaginative narration of an episode based on the epics, which enabled the listeners to enjoy the beauty of the languages – Sanskrit, Prakrit and Malayalam – along with the assimilation of one or more messages carrying the wisdom of Dharma.

Madhava Chakyar had written Aattaprakarams for more than half a dozen plays. One of his dear disciples Margi Madhu feels that Chakyar’s Aattaprakaram of Sreekrishnacharitam Nangiarkoothu is exquisite as it is focussed and devoid of unwarranted details.

The thespian had combined in him conservatism and radicalism in almost equal measure. He was dead against the idea of Koodiyattam being predisposed to the chaturvidhabhinaya of Kathakali. At the same time his enduring inquisitiveness in ascertaining the many shades of the protagonists in the plays of Bhasa, Sakthibhadra, Kulasekhara, Neelakandha and the like bore the stamp of creativity and a progressive outlook.

Madhava Chakyar had bagged prestigious titles and honours including Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademy Fellowship, Kalidas Samman and Keraleeya Nrithya-Natya Puraskaram. None of these recognitions changed the person he was.

He remained down to earth and one could notice in this Karmayogi a venerable detachment from worldly gains.

Several years before his demise, Madhava Chakyar had fallen into a state of dementia. For those who had been familiar with his rendering of the Nirvahanam, Samkshepam and Anukramam on innumerable stages, it was hard to believe that the “monarch of remembrance” had begun to struggle with his memory.

As Madhava Chakyar’s birth-centenary year is celebrated this year with symposiums and recitals, it is important to remember the contributions of this prodigious scholar and guru who had given his life to the art form.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 7:05:17 PM |

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