Helping hand to understand Koodiyattam

Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar depicts a mudra in Koodiyattam.   | Photo Credit: Special arranegment

For nearly three decades G. Venu was an ‘inseparable companion’ of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, the undisputed master of Koodiyattam. Madhava Chakyar’s contribution to this ‘masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity’, apart from his matchless performances on stage, was safeguarding the acting techniques of Koodiyattam and propagating it.

Ramayana Samksepam: An Attaprakram (Acting Manual) For Depicting The Story Of Ramayana Through Mudras In Koodiyattam Theatre depicts the story of the Ramayana through hand gestures. It combines three plays: ‘Ashcharya Chudamani’, ‘Pratima’ and ‘Abhishekam’ and is narrated through gestures as shown in the attaprakaram or acting manual written in Malayalam. “The entire story of the Ramayana is narrated with the least possible use of words. The words of the text are arranged along with mudras in their exact sequence. As each word is spoken or perceived in thought, the mind manifests its essence and the hand gestures come alive. This acting manual brings together most of the mudras, a total of 260, used in Koodiyattam. The Ramayana Samksepam is an expression of storytelling that comes from the heart,” explains G. Venu.

Ramayana Samksepam… is a pioneering work by Venu that notates the gestures of Koodiyattam. It is an actor’s manual for expressing the story of the Ramayana through mudras. Venu has developed the notations with brilliant sketches, use of photographs and a DVD to make it a comprehensive documentation.

“I used to learn the Ramayana Samksepam from my guru every day for many years. I used to be ready after a bath, putting ghee around my eyes at around seven in the evening at my guru’s home in Irinjalakuda. He used to come with a lantern in his hand, after his customary, elaborate, oil-bath, still in his wet clothes, the bhasma (ash of dried cow-dung) smeared on his body. And then he would recite the Ramayana Samksepam, which he knew by rote. I would show him the mudras and, from time to time, he would stop reciting to give me instructions. This was quality time allotted only for me,” remembers Venu.

In Ramayana Samksepam, published by Natana Kairali, with support from the National Culture Fund, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Venu develops an innovative notational system for the eyes, eyebrows, facial muscles, torso and hand gestures that form the elaborate vocabulary of Koodiyattam. “I had an earlier experience of notating the mudras for Kathakali. I had this habit of forgetting what I had learned, often invoking the anger of my guru. I needed to find a solution to that. That’s how I began sketching the mudras I was taught. My training under my father, a well-known artist of the Ravi Varma School, a disciplinarian, helped. I did a few sketches, which, surprisingly, he approved of. I now needed confirmation and so took them to KCS Panicker in Chennai. He was gracious enough to look at it and told me to follow my heart in whatever I did. These sketches were notated into 878 hand gestures that were later published in five editions. Also published are three editions of a volume on notations of mudras in Mohiniyattam, written by Nirmala Panikkar, my wife and Mohiniyattam exponent.”

Mudras in Koodiyattam are not regarded as a mere technique but as something that contains energy of the expression of the bhavas or emotions.

“Such a system of acting, one which incorporates the training to express emotions through the hands learned through the narration of a particular story, exists only in Koodiyattam. None of the acting manuals (attaprakaram) contains the names of any mudras. The word used is ‘kaikattal’, (the literal meaning of which is 'show by hands'), which means to express with the help of hands.”

While notating the mudras of Koodiyattam, Venu knew that he had to be more precise. “Natyasastra is a compilation of acting and theatre in general, formulated by studying the diverse schools of performance that existed in different parts of India and codifying them. Hastalakshanadipika has compiled most of the hand gestures used in the performing art forms of Kerala. The direct influence of Ramayana Samksepam can be found in this text. In fact, many people have misunderstood the Hastalakshnadipika to be the authentic text on the mudras used in Koodiyattam. This is wrong. I have seen the palm leaf manuscript of Hastalakshanadipika in the collection of texts in my Guru’s house. But I have never seen him refer to this. He, in fact, firmly believed that it was not helpful for the study of mudras in Koodiyattam.”

For Venu, this work of documentation was the toughest he had undertaken not just because it had to be precise but because it was an elaborate process.

“I had put away the rough sketches I had made as I got involved in so many other things. I thought about them when I got time out of my teaching schedules at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, and at the International Theatre Institute, Singapore. I took out the sketches I had made and began working on a reference manual for students that would help them understand the meaning of the mudras easily. I also decided it would be bi-lingual, in English and Malayalam. The work took me three years to complete.”

Complete documentation

The work in 12 chapters is a complete documentation. The acting manual is described in detail with one chapter on the notation of the mudras through sketches made by Venu, and another very special chapter that had demonstration of the mudras through photographs of Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, Venu and Kapila Venu, his daughter. Included with the volume is a three-hour-50 minute video documentation in which Kapila performs or demonstrates the story of the Ramayana through mudras.

And perhaps what makes the video a keepsake is a rare, informal demonstration of the Navarasas, one of the greatest contributions to the Indian theatre, by Ammannur Madhava Chakyar recorded in 1986.

The book (including the DVD) is priced at Rs. 1,000.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 8:38:05 AM |

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