In the footprints of Payyannur Kolkali

Payyannur Kolkali Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It could easily have been one among those many folk art forms that have faded into oblivion for want of practitioners or an audience. Thanks to the dedicated townsfolk of Payyannur, in Kannur district, though, Payyannur Kolkali, an esoteric version of the Kolkali, continues to thrive, at least, in the locality and its surrounding villages. Comprehensively documenting the nuances of this art form and the natives’ efforts to conserve the folk art form is the documentary Oru Deshathinte Kala – The Art of A Locale. The 35-minute film is, perhaps, the first effort of its kind to bring together the myths, history, lyrics, music, traditional methodology and modern practises associated with the art form.

The film has been written and directed by scenarist and filmmaker Suresh Poduval, himself a native of the locale.

“Here is an art form that is an intrinsic part of life in Payyannur and in turn one that finds its roots in life in the locale. Back home it’s almost customary to learn the art form when you are a child itself. I myself am one of the lucky ones to have learnt it. Yet, not much is known about it beyond the walls of the town. Payyannur Kolkali is something that I hold close to my heart. I was always troubled by the fact that not much of authentic study has been done on the art form. Also, for decades now it has been outshined by other more popular versions of Kolkali, particularly the Mappila Kolkali. We wanted to bring this ancient version of the Kolkali into the limelight,” says Suresh. The documentary was produced by his fellow Payyannur native Sudhakaran Kandoth.

Payyannur Kolkali (literally, stick dance of Payyannur) is a folk art form that is believed to be in existence for more than a millennium, the references of which can be traced back to Sangam Literature and the Dronaparvam of the Mahabharata.

In it the dancers wield two short sticks and move around in circles – sitting, standing, walking and running – rhythmically striking the sticks, moving in tandem to the music, all without missing a beat. “Payyannur Kolkali has similarities to the movements in Thiruvathirakali and Kaikottikali but it is most closely related to Poorakali in its steps and bodily expressions and in its music too,” explains Suresh.

“It’s a temple art form and is also a martial art form. Its songs, for instance, revolves around the legends surrounding the Payyannur Subramanya Swamy temple. The art form is customarily performed in Vettakorumakan temples in the locality as the deity Oorpazhasi is said to be very fond of watching it. It’s a martial art form because it is believed to have been taught to create a rhythmic sense in children who learnt Kathakali in the many kalaris in the locale. Kalaripayattu practitioners have for long played Payyannur Kolkali as a relaxation technique,” explains Suresh, giving us a glimpse into the documentary’s content.

Through the documentary he traces the emergence of Kolkali, it’s social, cultural and political and traditional impact, its lively practice and performance, its practitioners, its gurus, its singers, its modern avatar where women too have taken up the beat and even formed troupes, and its fight for existence.

It also throws light on the making of the sticks (kols) used in the art form and on its variations, the most fascinating of all, perhaps, the Charadukuthikali, which is something akin to maypole dancing.

Suresh says that narrating the tale of the Payyannur Kolkali was a “monumental task,” which took over three years to complete, because he had “very little” to work with in terms of academic research or written material on the art form.

“Much of its methodology and history is an oral tradition, which has been passed down for generations,” he explains.

As the first step he started off by cataloguing the lyrics of Payyannur Kolkali.

“I then got the lyrics composed and brought it out as an album, ‘Nirmala’, featuring top singers in Malayalam such as Sujatha, Jayachandran and Madhu Balakrishnan, in a bid to familiar with the music,” he says.

To understand the history and nuances of the art form, though, he went to the people of Payyannur themselves; experts such as Bharatanatyam exponent V.P. Dhananjayan, who has used movements and expressions from Payyannur Kolkali in his productions, and folklore scholar M.V. Vishnu Namboothiri, plus a whole lot of others such as Vadakkanpattu exponent Payyannur Balakrishnan, folk music scholars, Kolkali gurus and the likes.

“They were all invaluable founts of knowledge. For all of us, this endeavour has been an extension of our passion for the art form of our town,” says Suresh.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 2:24:03 PM |

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