What could they do to keep the art thriving during the pandemic? This was the dilemma that the Kothavil brothers, Govindankutty and Unnikrishnan, faced when work came to a standstill. The two are the only custodians of the heritage craft of Kathakali koppu or crafting accessories such as headgear, ornaments, and masks for the well-known performance art form.
The answer lay in miniatures; the brothers contracted the life-size figures in the dance dramas to just 30 inches for gifting as a souvenir and gift item. “It was difficult to convince the family to contemporarise the art but, with some persuasion and the obvious ground reality, they relented,” says Gopinath Parayil, the man behind the concept.
“The Kothavil family has been in this for nearly 75 years. When the pandemic struck, performances were not held and the makers of Kathakali accessories had no work. We came up with the idea of crafting small figures and koppu to retail as souvenirs. We are also looking at utilitarian items,” he says.
Besides koppu, the family also makes accessories for other art forms such as Koodiyattam, Krishnattam, Othanthullal, Chakiyarkoothu, Nangiarkoothu, and folk forms such as Pootham and Thara, in which the character wears a mask. In the latter, a headgear called kireedom is also worn.
The first order that the family received was for a large-size koppu but the family convinced them to relocate into possibility of a miniature souvenir. Ramankutty, a teacher at the Government L..P. School, Vellinazhi, (where the Kothavil family also hails from) explains that while many miniature Kathakali characters made of plaster of paris or fibreglass are available in the market, they are ugly and do not do justice to the art form, also “the difference lies in rendering the characters proportionately in a 30-inch frame in wood.”
They used a soft wood called kumizhu, commonly found in the forests. It is also said to have medicinal properties. Raman points out that, though soft and light weight, it does not break. In making their miniatures, the artists used acrylic instead of golden tin sheets usually used over wood. He says Kathakali came to Vellinazhi nearly 150 years ago under the patronage of the Olappamanna Mana.
Some of the ornaments made include chevippovu, thoda, kathila (for ears), paruthikkayamani, hasthakadakam, vala (for hand and wrist), tholpoottu (shoulders), padiyaranjhanam, elassu and mani (for waist) and koralaram/mula koralaram (neck/chest).
The kutti chamaram, or the headgear worn by the evil character, is also rendered in miniature. The original has a diameter of two feet.
The wooden pieces are embellished with peacock feathers and beads by the family members who take around a month to complete a figure. The miniatures are priced between ₹25,000 and 60,000 depending on the level of labour required.