Staying together for nearly three weeks, watching, discussing, documenting Koodiyattam, taking short breaks from their scheduled regimen to savour the delights of God's Own Country, was for the eight students from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Chicago, a mind-blowing experience. They knew it was going to be hard to say goodbye.
The mission of these students learning theatre, Sanskrit or Malayalam, was to watch, learn and document two complete, unedited Koodiyattam performances at c in Koodiyattam, Moozhikulam.
But at the end of the 16 days, and over 60 hours watching plays, it was much more than all that. They had bonded so strongly with each other, with the little village, the art form and the artistes that parting became difficult.
Next year's trip
“It became a bit emotional. But I think they held on by planning for the next year's trip. They have already asked us if it would be possible to focus on the ‘vachika' element, perhaps parts of ‘Purushartham'. And all of them have sworn to return,” says Margi Madhu, noted Koodiyattam artiste and the spirit behind Nepathya.
Compared to the group that came to Nepathya in 2008, this was an eclectic bunch. “There were those who had not seen a Koodiyattam performance before, others like Heike Moser who had studied and performed, scholars like Dr. David Schulman, students of Sanskrit and Malayalam, theatre scholars, performers and some who knew no Sanskrit or Malayalam. But there was this unbounded love for the art that they shared,” feels Madhu.
Professor Freddie Roken, Dean of Fine Arts, Tel-Aviv University has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and contributed chapters in many books on European and Israeli theatre. He was more interested in the performance than the text of the plays. “It was a complete theatre experience, the actors so very impressive,” he gushed. Freddie also probed the possibility of staging Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest' in Koodiyattam form. “He has also promised all help if we are ready,” adds Madhu.
Shlomit Simhi and Reenat Caidar, two theatre students, felt this was an enriching experience. “These days opened an enchanting world before us. For me the text or the language did not matter. I was thrilled by the performance, by the possibilities the art form throws open,” says Shlomit. While Reenat, who is also a professional theatre actor, aerial acrobat and lots more, rolled into one bundle of energy, feels she can experiment with some elements of Koodiyattam in her shows. “The gestures, expressions, movements were what charmed me. I feel that I must learn Sanskrit and Malayalam to make it wholesome. I'm planning a solo show when I get back. I have already planned to use some of the Koodiyattam elements in it.”
For Prof. David Shulman, one of the greatest Indologists and accomplished scholars in Indian languages, Koodiyattam and Kerala are on the top of his favourites list. Even for someone like him who has seen various Koodiyattam performances in the past this was a ‘lifetime experience.' “We only hope that our visit, our effort in staging these complete plays, will ignite a spark in audiences here. Koodiyattam, like never before, needs support, perhaps from the government. I understand that it cannot attract a mass audience but there is need to preserve this heritage,” says Prof. Schulman, whose efforts have gone a long way in propagating this art form in Israel.
Talking about the efforts at the Hebrew University Prof. Schulman informs that seminars are held regularly which bring together students and scholars of Sanskrit. “We have a huge following for Sanskrit and this naturally led to Koodiyattam. When it was performed at the University by Madhu and his group there were huge crowds and this in turn led to a large group being drawn to the intricacies of the art.”
Koodiyattam has gone through changes. For someone like Dr. Heike Moser, who studied the art for two years at Kerala Kalamandalam from Rama Chakyar and P. N. Girija, who writes, reads and speaks fluent Malayalam, and is now teaching at the Tuebingen University, Germany, these changes are quite visible. “There have not been upheavals but I have noticed on my visits here certain subtle changes. This is especially in the narration. But I find a bunch of very talented youngsters who are surely some hope for this great art. They have managed to fill the void created by the death of the masters to a great extent.”
Sixteen days at a stretch, two unabridged plays, Nepathya has set a record of sorts. The visitors have gone back promising to come again. For Madhu and his team it is a feeling of emptiness. “Suddenly, after all that hectic preparations, discussions and acting all of us feel so blank. But it has also made us more responsible for we now realise that though audiences here may not be large there are others across the seas who are looking up to us,” says Madhu optimistically.