Theatre

He broke barriers for art

Paimkulam Rama Chakyar. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: mail_grjgm

Thanks to the efforts of Milena Salvini of France and Sanskrit scholar turned diplomat, Christopher Briskly from Poland, Koodiyattam, the ancient performing arts tradition sustained only in Kerala, made its first trip abroad to Poland and France. The four-week tour during May-June, 1980, was under the leadership of Guru Paimkulam Rama Chakyar (1904-1980).

There was displeasure among Chakyar’s clan and the traditionalists, who felt it was an unholy act to take the dance form out of the temples and abroad. They saw Chakyar crossing the sea as a crime that warranted making him an outcast. By ignoring opposition, Paimkulam was laying the foundations for change.

“A strict vegetarian, he lived on fruits during the tour,” recalls his disciple-cum-grandnephew and a leading exponent of our times, sexagenarian Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, who was among the 13 members of the group.

The tour was followed by tragedy. The fruits the thespian ate made him acutely diabetic and on July 31, he passed away. (His disciples will be commemorating his death anniversary on Tuesday next.)



Today, his clan, including those who had opposed him, are enjoying the result of his endeavour. Now Koodiyattam is not only presented outside the temple, but in other States and abroad.

Government support

Since the 1980s, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi has been supporting Koodiyattam, thanks to the efforts of a few aficionados who formed Margi, Thiruvananthapuram, under the leadership of the late D. Appukuttan Nair.

The Delhi-based scholar, Dr. Sudha Gopalakrishnan’s painstaking attempt resulted in the submission of a project proposal to the UNESCO that in 2001 earned the art recognition as ‘the masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.’ This substantially improved the situation as some sort of regular funding for the sustenance of the art and artists began to be given by the union government through its cultural bodies. This helped the artists, who, in the past, had to rely on the insufficient income that came from their performances in the temples.

The late Moozhikkulam Kochukutta Chakyar (father of Margi Saji Narayanan and Margi Madhu), told me during early 1990s, “Thanks to Appukuttan Nair and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, I am able to provide two meals a day for my family.”

During the last century, many Chakyars were forced to take up a variety of jobs to support their families.

However, the status of artists from outside the traditional communities has not improved. Since most of them are alumni of the Kerala Kalamandalam, their only scope is a regular job at their alma mater, where during the last 17 years temporary teachers have been appointed on contract basis against the few vacancies.

The Koodiyattam faculty at the Kalamandalam was started under the leadership of Paimkulam Rama Chakyar in 1965. He began to teach the dance to non-Chakyars and non-Nangiars, in 1965 and 1970 respectively.

Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar and Sivan Namboodiri, this year’s Padmashree recipient, were the first two students; the latter being the first from outside the communities.

Kalamandalam Girija followed Namboodiri and became the first woman and non-Nangiar to learn the art. Today, Girija is the head of department of Koodiyattam at the Kalamandalam.

Paimkulam dared to give performance space to Sivan and others like him at the Venganallur temple (Chelakkara, Thrissur) where, since 1946, the annual performance right has been his family’s by a special order of the then Kochi King.

“Once Chakyar asan was invited for a performance at Manjeri (Malappuram) and he took me too. When the local authorities came to know that I would be participating, they opposed it. He told them politely but firmly, ‘if this place is forbidden to my disciple, whatever may be his caste, I think I am also incompetent to perform here,’ and led us back without performing”, reminisces Sivan Namboodiri.

In 1949, Paimkulam defied another tradition to perform Koothu or Chakyarkoothu, for three days at a Namboodiri house in Kollam district as he happened to be staying there.

He performed it without percussion or a Nangiar. The issue of costume was solved by using what was available. This drew the wrath of his clan. Only Chathakkudam Krishnan Nambiar (Usha Nangiar’s father) supported him and was a source of inspiration to Paimkulam throughout his life, along with Peruvanam Narayana Chakyar, an ayurvedic physician, and Peruvanam Raman Nambiar.

To obviate the displeasure of his Guru Parameswara (Chachu) Chakyar, Paimkulam started the Koothu only after a sloka of obeisance that he composed spontaneously. It was a submission to both the cosmic performer Lord Siva (Parameswara) and his Guru Parameswaran.

In 1956, Paimkulam performed Koodiyattam at a function held in Kozhikode under the aegis of All India Radio. This event and the debut Koodiyattam performances of Mani Madhava Chakyar’s sons (hailing from the Nambiar community and who handle the percussion by virtue of following the matriarchal system) in 1955 were considered the primary attempts to take the art form outside the temple.

His inspiration

Later Paimkulam recorded that the inspiration for these acts came from the words of the late Malayalam litterateur, Prof Joseph Mundassery (who later became the state’s Minister for Education), spoken in 1943, on how non-Hindus and lower class Hindus were deprived of the chance of watching this ancient, intellectual art because it was confined to the temples.

Sugreeva of ‘Balivadham,’ Rama and Surpanaka (‘Shoorphanakhangam’), Ravana (‘Thoranayudham’ and ‘Jatayuvadham’), Kapali of ‘Mathavilasam,’ and the Vidhooshaka (court-jester) of various plays were the acclaimed roles of Chakyar, who won praises for aharya shobha (costume effect), technical perfection, choreographic brilliance and the nuances of rhetoric.

“Some of the scholars of his times had said that none of his contemporaries could match Paimkulam when all these elements were combined. Chakyarkoothu was also his forte and he displayed his brilliance in impromptu and intelligent humour”, recorded the late Kathakali thespian, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair.

From 1977 onwards, when his pupils became capable of handling lead roles, Paimkulam reduced his performances to give them the opportunity instead and proudly watched their act.

Unbelievably, he helped them in the greenroom and even held the lamp during their stage entry, which are the duties of the greenroom assistants.

‘Bhagavadajjukam,’ based on Bodayana’s farce (7th century), is one of his celebrated choreographies.

“His expertise in choreographing a new play, editing an existing one and composing the slokas for Vishushaka in Sanskrit and Malayalam are discernible in all the plays that he had worked on. He was also praised for his acumen in editing a play to shorter durations (of one to three hours) at a short notice as per performance requirements duly retaining all the essential ingredients”, recalls Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar.

‘Jatayuvadham’ second part, ‘Kalyanasoughandigam’ first part, ‘Mayaseethangam, Naganandam’ third act and the two acts of ‘Swapnavasavadatham,’ were among his known choreographies.

The present day status of Nangiarkoothu is credited to Paimkulam. At the Kalamandalam where more girls started taking up Koodiyattam (and when admission to dance section became full), he worked on developing Nangiarkoothu to get them performance space. He also initiated the reformation of the entire Koodiyattam costumes and one such classy endeavour is the present day headgear of Nangiarkoothu and the female roles of Koodiyattam. He did it in consultation with the late masters, Vazhengada Rama Warier, Vazhengada Govinda Warrier and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair. He also modified some of the mudras.

For fear of aesthetic corruption, the Chakyars were forbidden to watch other performing arts, especially Kathakali. Paimkulam broke this custom, by encouraging his disciples to watch and appreciate other art traditions. He also ensured that his students read newspapers and were up to date on general knowledge and socio-political developments.

“After all, a Chakyar’s job is being a social critic as well”, was his justification.

Acclaimed roles

Sugreeva of ‘Balivadham,’ Rama and Surpanaka (‘Shoorphanakhangam’), Ravana (‘Thoranayudham’ and ‘Jatayuvadham’), Kapali of ‘Mathavilasam,’ and the Vidhooshaka (court-jester) of various plays were the acclaimed roles of Chakyar, who won praises for aharya shobha (costume effect), technical perfection, choreographic brilliance and the nuances of rhetoric.“Some of the scholars of his times had said rated that none of his contemporaries could match equalled to Paimkulam when all these elements were are combined. Chakyarkoothu was also his other forte and that he displayed his brilliance in delivering impromptu and intelligent humour”, recorded the late Kathakali thespian, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair.

(The writer is the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 3:39:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/he-broke-barriers-for-art/article3686236.ece

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