Year of the Woman

Kapila Venu is giving a new meaning to the old dance form, Nangiarkoothu

Kapila Venu at Kochi, Kerala.   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Over the last six months, Kapila Venu has been keeping a diary of her experiences performing Nangiarkoothu across Kerala’s temples where the ancient art was once offered as a ritual.

Which Nangiar clans inherited the right to perform as part of the worship in these temples? What are the legends associated with them? How did their history evolve? Where did they go?

Kapila plans to carry on with the journals for a year, covering 12 temples across Kerala.

Resurrecting lost characters

In this journey, she plans to complete the entire performance of Sri Krishna Charitam, the basic text on which Nangiarkoothu was traditionally based.

She is not sure what she will do with her chronicles — perhaps she will blog them or publish them. The idea is to ensure a contemporary connect with a long-lost world.

“Eventually I would like to take these performances to all temples where Nangiarkoothu was performed. There is so much we have to learn of the art’s history,” she says.

Kapila is a non-traditional performer of Nangiarkoothu, once performed only by women of Nambiar clans. The caste rule was defied by pioneering women artistes in the 70s and today a growing band of women from non-Nambiar families are performing Nangiarkoothu. But the sacred koothu spaces in temples are still closed to them.

“I am looking for other aesthetic spare spaces in temples with the right ambience for performance. Of late I have been giving a lot of thought to finding intimate spaces with better aesthetics to perform. And the most ideal performing spaces I found in temples are the ootupura (dining hall) and the nadapura (covered courtyard at the entrance). I don’t need too much light and sound either — a nilavilakku should be enough,” she says.

Women occupy a peculiar place in the Koodiyattam collective. They have an entire sub-genre all to themselves, Nangiarkoothu. But in mainline Koodiyattam itself several roles for women have been lost in the process of evolution.

That is now being challenged by many women artistes who are constantly researching to resurrect lost characters or create new ones.

Kapila is one among the newer generation of female Koodiyattam artistes to do so. Among her best-known performances are “new” works such as Soundaryalahari, Shakuntalam and Sita Parityagam.

Kapila’s character sketches are marked by a delicate balance between subtlety and strength. You rarely find her going over the top, an easy enough possibility in an art that is so much larger than life.

In Shankuntalam, for instance, she skirts with finesse and delicacy the mawkish sentimentality associated with her character.

An offering

A large part of the credit for her theatrical skills she credits to her abhinaya intensives under her father G. Venu that polished the skills she acquired under the venerable Ammanur Madhava Chakyar and Usha Nangiar.

On the contemporary Koodiyattam scene, Kapila is one of the most sought-after artistes. After a quiet couple of years dealing with early motherhood she is, she says, fully back in the performance space.

Koodiyattam has perhaps never had it so good as it does now, with fairly generous audiences. There are many more talented youngsters on the scene too. This means a phase of revival for the art and its oldest traditions.

“The latest trend in Koodiyattam is to do complete performances, sampoornangal. Till now the tendency has been to pick episodes and small sections because audiences for ritual performances in temples had shrunk. But there is now interest in seeing a work in its totality. And I thought to myself — why not perform an unedited text as per tradition, as an offering, in a temple precinct but as a non-traditional artiste?” she says.

The author writes on, and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 5:54:36 PM |

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