Tracing the rebirth of Koodiyattam

Painkulam Rama Chakyar   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

The most crucial revolution in the art of Koodiyattam, the pan-Indian Sanskrit theatre tradition that dates back to the pre-Christian era, happened in 1965, exactly 50 years ago. That was when the training and performance of Koodiyattam was institutionalised and the doors were opened to members of all communities through the Kerala Kalamandalam with Painkulam Rama Chakyar (1904-1980) as the chieftain.

Much before that, in 1949 and 1956, Guru Painkulam had opened a Pandora’s Box by performing Chakyarkoothu and Koodiyattam outside a temple, since it was traditionally seen as a form associated with a caste and with temples, and not meant for the masses.

Additionally, it is a difficult form, with nuances that cannot be grasped unless one is familiar with its vocabulary.

“ Initially, I was subject to much insult. Even Painkulam asan was publicly humiliated by his people for teaching me. There were instances where some Chakyars boycotted the performance when I was given a role,” remembers actor Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri, a Padmashree recipient and the first non-Chakyar to take up Koodiyattam. It was a time when performance at temples had become scanty. Several Chakyars had migrated to other states to earn a living.

The only other Koodiyattam student at the Kalamandalam with Namboodiri was Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, Painkulam’s niece’s son, who is today a celebrity trainer-cum-performer. The duo excelled as hero and court jester, Ravana and Hanuman, Bali and Sugreeva etc.

“He made training and performing a pleasure of physique and mind, thoroughly reformed the art by editing, choreographing and re-choreographing plays to suit the changing times but keeping its essence intact. The credit for the beauty of today’s Koodiyattam attire, including the headgear used in female roles, goes to him and the late Vazhengata Govinda Warrier,” says Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar.

The descriptions about the performance structure of Koodiyattam mentioned in Natankusa (15th-16th century), the very first critique on the dance form, is not different from what was practised till the 1960s.

Painkulam opened the doors to train girls from other communities too. It was in 1971 that P.N. Girijadevi (Kalamandalam Girija) joined, to become the very first non-Nangiar in the field. She was “unaware of the complexities related with the art and its caste-adherence” as was Kalamandalam Shylaja who followed Girija in 1974. He took Girija to Kunjippillakutty Nangiaramma, a veteran in temple performances, to train her in female roles and Nangiarkoothu.

During those days, the role of the percussionists was seen as simply ritual. It was Painkulam and mizhavu maestro P.K. Narayanan Nambiar who jointly worked to bring in the aesthetic blend of physical movements and rhythms that one sees today. The percussionists’ onstage position is behind the actors, but they could provide rhythm to even minute eye movements. To facilitate this poetic precision, the masters worked by making the early students of mizhavu sit face-to-face with the actors during their training.

Nambiar’s book Sreekrishnacharitam Nangiarammakoothu (1984), by compiling a few texts that he could gather from the homes of traditional artists, was another path-breaker in the dissemination of Nangiarkoothu.

When his disciples were able to perform well, Painkulam found pleasure in presenting them on stage. By the time the art was ready for another milestone in its history. Painkulam took it outside India, to Poland and France in 1980. Till this tour, the Chakyars believed that crossing the ocean would ostracise them from their community.

A vegetarian, Painkulam sustained himself mainly on fruits during the tour abroad. A diabetic, it affected his health and on the 41st day of his return, on July 31, 1980, he passed away.

In the words of the late Koodiyattam scholar L.S. Rajagopalan, “Paradoxically, the artists who opposed the reformations of Painkulam were not hesitant to follow in his heels and they enjoyed the fruits of his struggle.”

During 1990-91, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA, Delhi) launched a project to support Koodiyattam. In March 1995, the SNA conducted the very first Koodiyattam Mahotsavam in Delhi. It was an eye-opener for connoisseurs and theatre practitioners.

Reviewing the post-1965 history of the art, one realises that more performances today happen outside the temple. Thanks to Kerala Kalamandalam, mizhavu and Nangiarkoothu performers substantially outnumber those from the traditional community and several actors are also non-Chakyars. The outcome of such efforts was that the UNESCO recognised Koodiyattam as ‘a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’ in 2001.

During May 2007, the SNA started the Centre for Kutiyattam. Simultaneously, the post-Painkulam era of Koodiyattam started facing new threats from multiple angles, including the changing cultural priorities of the people. (The writer is the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi)

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 8:19:23 PM |

Next Story