Rasikas in Thiruvananthapuram got a rare opportunity to watch Manthrankam (literally the ‘Act of Deliberations’), which is, perhaps, the oldest of episodes presented on the contemporary Koodiyattam stage. It comprises the semiotic translation to Koodiyattam, of the literary text of the third act of the Sanskrit play ‘Prathijnjayaugandharaya-nam’ (Oath of Yaugandharayana), composed by Bhasa, the predecessor of Kalidasa.
Manthrankam Koothu used to be conducted as a ritual in famous temples such as Thalipparambu, Peruvanam, Avittathur, Annamanada and Kidangur. The concerned treatises of acting (Attaprakaaram) are astonishingly elaborate, which indicates that its unabridged presentation should have been of unimaginably long duration. Later the practice of completing the performance in 41 nights later 16 came into vogue. Following the footsteps of Paimkulam Ramachakyar, the singularly progressive minded titan of Koodiyattam and the architect of the Koodiyattam Department in Kerala Kalamandalam, his disciple and successor in that institution, Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, abridged the presentation of the episode so as to be completed in five days. It was this version that was presented in the Museum auditorium in the beginning of September.
The deliberations take place in an awe-inspiringly deserted kitchen called Agnigriha (‘Fire-house’) of a village temple in Ujjayini, referred to in literature as Avanthi also. The three discussants are loyal and skilful assistants of the remarkable young king Udayana of the Vatsa country: Yaugandharayana, the chief minister, Vasanthaka, the court jester-cum-minister, who functions as the Vidushaka in Koodiyattam, and Rumanvan, the third minister.
Their set goal is to secretly get their master released from the deceitful captivity of Mahasena, the ruler of Ujjayini. Mahasena’s hidden agenda is to get the stage set for Udayana and his daughter Vasavadatha to fall in love, which, hopefully, will culminate in their wedding.
Yaugandharayana, Vasanthaka and Rumanvan converse and behave in their respective roles when they are in the Agnigriha. Outside that secret spot they disguise themselves as a mad man, a gluttonous Brahmin self-styled as Kuzhikkoottunni and a Buddhist monk, respectively. Their spoken language abounds in allegory, while their gestures express what is in their minds.
In Koodiyattam parlance, Manthrankam is referred to as Koothu, which indicates the pre-eminence of Vidushaka in the performance. Historically Manthrankam presents the pre-deterioration period of Vidushaka or the royal clown in Koodiyattam. Being the Vidushaka, Vasanthaka is the principal character of the play. Dexterous implementation of Yaugandharayana’s plans for the successful completion of the escape mission is Vasanthaka’s responsibility.
In addition to handling his own portions of the play text, Vasanthaka has to present before the audience, Rumanvan’s portions also, for which he resorts to a theatrical technique called ‘kim bravishi’ (“What do you say?”), wherein the passages of the character in absentia are enunciated aloud by the character on the stage so that the audience can follow the action.
On learning that King Udayana has been tricked into captivity by Mahasena, Vasanthaka propitiates Siva, assumes what is referred to as Dindika attire, characterised by a long supporting stick held by his right hand and a spherical cloth bag called ‘bhokkandam’ hanging from his left shoulder, and sets out to Ujjayini as a simple–minded Brahmin, interested only in good food. Subsequent deliberations in the Agnigriha lead to Yaugandharayana taking an oath to free his master with the heroine Vasavadatha, the heroine’s maid who has by now become Vasanthaka’s fascination, and Udayana’s veena, which could enchant elephants.
Usually the role of Vasanthaka is assigned to the most accomplished artiste available and one who is able to do full justice to all aspects of the role is considered competent to enact any character on the Koodiyattam stage.
Veteran actor Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar donned the role of Vasanthaka. The bulk of the text he had to commit to memory, a formidable task. Composed in Sanskrit, Prakrit or Old Malayalam and comprising countless quatrains, passages in prose abounding in astonishingly long compound words would appear overwhelming to most actors. But Rama Chakyar proved, beyond any doubt, his mastery over all the three aspects of presenting the character, namely power of spoken word, expressiveness of eyes and stamina (vaakk, nook and uukk). Throughout the performance extending to about 20 hours he kept the audience under the matchless spell of his skilful acting.
Sangeeth Chakyar essayed the role of Yaugandharayana-cum-mad man flawlessly. His facial make up resembling kathi of Kathakali to a certain extent and costume of tender coconut leaves, reminiscent of folk theatre in Kerala, had an aura of mystery associated with the seemingly endless play of allegory predominant in the presentation.
Kalamandalam Ramachandran Nambiar, Kalamandalam Sajikumar and Margi Mahesh on the mizhavu and Kalamandalam Sindhu alternating with a few others on the thalam enhanced the effectiveness of the performance. The huge PVC pipe held by Vasanthaka in his Dindika attire, instead of the traditional wooden stick, appeared jarring initially, but the connoisseurs acclimatised themselves to it in due course.
The performance was organised by the Kutiyattam Kendra of Central Sangeetha Nataka Akademi.