Revisiting classical theatre

John Stewen Sowle   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

For centuries Western theatre scholars and art-theorists, with the exception of a few, identified temple-centred performing arts as close reflections of Indian spiritualism. In the latter half of the last century, scores of them came to Kerala Kalamandalam for a first hand experience of these highly evolved dance and drama traditions. One such scholar, John Stewen Sowle, who, in the 1970's, wrote a dissertation on Koodiyattam – the sole extant form of Sanskrit theatre in India, recently revisited Kerala. The scholar was struck by the sweeping changes that stylised art forms had undergone in a little less than four decades.

Born in Maryland, United States, and brought up in Oklahoma, John completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and then enrolled for the graduate programme in dramatic art at the University of California, Berkeley. John took his doctorate from there and taught for a while before rejoining M.I.T. as a computer programmer. Theatre was so ingrained in him that he was directing productions simultaneously.

Over the years, John, a winner of three Drama-Logue Awards for direction and designing, has had creative interactions with momentous works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein and Garcia Lorca. John was also drawn to meditation because his wife, Elin, was a keen practitioner.

Antiquity of Koodiyattam

He then looked for an overview of Indian traditional arts and began learning the Natyasastra, sage Bharata's ancient Indian dramaturgy. In the 1970's John applied for a Fulbright scholarship to acquaint himself with the many different performance genres and chose Kalakshetra for his academic endeavours. But Fulbright in India directed him to Kalamandalam. “It was by sheer accident that I arrived at Kalamandalam in 1973. There, I was graciously accepted by the colossus Painkulam Rama Chakyar, as a student of Koodiyattam,” recalls John.

John's dissertation on the surviving Sanskrit theatre heritage unambiguously places Koodiyattam above Kathakali.

He is overwhelmed by the antiquity of Koodiyattam and its insistence on “unwieldy and intense concentration from the spectators in order to make anything out of it.” Elitism of the Sanskrit theatre tradition, which precludes common audiences, is something which John is proud of.

As a scholar of acting techniques, John focussed mostly on the ‘chaturvidhabhinaya' (the four-fold concept of acting) as employed in Koodiyattam. Its physical rigour, discipline to inhabit a character and emotional focus engrossed this veteran theatre director. “I looked at the outside-inside correlation of Koodiyattam performances, venerably. In Western perception, emotions emanating from the actor affect his/her external manifestations in terms of movements and expressions. In Koodiyattam the sentiments of the characters do conform to pre-set physical kinetics of the actors who embody each emotion.”

For John, the seminal features of a Koodiyattam performance such as slow-tempo execution of hand gestures and body movements, discursive discourses like ‘nirvahana' and protracted rituals, form the “strength and beauty” of this drama tradition.

He admits that his fascination for rituals in Koodiyattam stems from his life-long concern for meditation. For him, these rituals are not to be despised. “The creators of the rituals are to be trusted. The transcendental experience in performance is brought in through the execution of rituals (Theyyam is a classic example). The godliness in the actors is realised through these rituals. The whole idea of lining up to have a glimpse of the deity is monotonous. Yet, the anticipation of finally seeing the deity gives the devotees the energy to endure the rituals. The same is the experience of watching a Koodiyattam performance.”

When asked about his response to the emotional crescendo – the climax – of a character in Koodiyattam, something which is being more and more deferred in performances today, John's reply is laced with black humour. “It's like a trial for execution. The trial involves a series of questions, sidetracks, examination of evidence… These are hugely boring while the execution is interesting. The climax is not easily dealt with in Koodiyattam.” However, John's obsessions have not made him dogmatic. He is not averse to healthy criticisms and dissension. In the course of the conversation, we can always agree to disagree with his views especially those on Kathakali.

The Chakyar-trio

John also fondly recollects his encounters on stage with the Chakyar-trio – Mani Madhava Chakyar, Painkulam Rama Chakyar and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar – whose expressional calibre sustained the nucleus of Koodiyattam. With more number of performances, performers and spectators, John feels, that this time-tested theatre form will continue to live on defying adversities. Although a defender of rituals and similar conventions in Koodiyattam, John does not hesitate to underscore the fact that but for the courage and conviction of the late Painkulam Rama Chakyar, it would have ended as a historical relic.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 2:02:10 AM |

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