FRIDAY REVIEW

Endowed with divine talent

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

Disciples of G. Venu presenting "Abhignana Sakuntalam"

Disciples of G. Venu presenting "Abhignana Sakuntalam"  

THEY COMPLEMENT each other perfectly: the master who is a dedicated performer of an ancient, sacral art form and the man who introduced him to the outside world. Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and his sishya-researcher G. Venu, are getting ready at the Dakshina Chitra to receive the virudhu for lifetime achievement in the folk performing arts. While the 88-year-old Madhava Chakyar is the senior most practising exponent of Koodiyattom,

— the oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre tradition in India— G. Venu is the moving spirit behind the revival of many traditional forms including Pavakathakali, (glove puppets) and Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppets) of Kerala.

Despite his frail appearance, the veteran Chakyar is alert to every question that is being asked while Venu's wife Nirmala Paniker, a dancer, acts as an interpreter. ``I was five when along with the other children in the family I started learning the art through observation. We would watch the artistes get ready for the performance and assist them — grinding the stone to obtain the paste for the make up and getting the palm leaves ready from which the kaajal is applied. Formal training was imparted by our uncles— as you know it is a matriarchal system— from the age of 7-11. But one never stops learning and one practises all one's life," he says with a twinkle in his eye. No wonder for he has performed continuously for 76 years! Koodiyattom has a complex theatre language marked by hand gestures, elaborate eye movements and facial expressions.

``At seven we started chanting the dialogue in the typical Koodiyattom style." The Chakyar had only a few years of formal schooling. ``He was keen to learn English but the elders did not allow him to as it would affect the special intonation of the vacchaka," says Nirmala and he nods regretfully.

Older brother Parameswara Chakyar was a wonderful guru. By 13, the young Madhava was fluent in Sanskrit, Malayalam and the old Tamil called Nambiar Tamil. Each family has a different style and the Ammannur paksha is noted for linking emotional expressions to breath control, a technique that was evolved by a ruler of Kodungallur who researched the tradition in depth.

``This is the golden period for Koodiyattom, especially after it was recognised recently by the UNESCO as `a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity,' " Venu joins in the conversation. ``There is public patronage for the art and numerous artistes have emerged from the training school which we have set up in Irinjalakuda." Venu also initiated a research and performing centre — Natanakairali — in 1977.

It was in 1974 that Venu saw the then 58-year-old Madhava Chakyar perform at the Vadakkunathan (Siva) temple in Thrissur. Koodiyattom was going through a slump as there was no help from the authorities and Madhava Chakyar's performance was only seen in the temple by a few people. Once patronised by the kings, the art form went through a period of neglect during the British rule.

Venu, a trained Kathakali performer, who had become deeply interested in researching the ancient art forms and had travelled all over the country, was stunned by the divine talent of the performer. ``This is what I was searching for."

Venu was inspired to write numerous articles on him and he arranged a number of performances by the veteran. ``Kamaladevi Chattopadhay and Kapila Vatsyayan played a major role in encouraging Koodiyattom."

The divine spark in the Chakyar was recognised and he received much acclaim. He received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1979 and other honours followed.

Madhava Chakyar performed in the festivals of India abroad and was conferred Padma Bhushan in 2003. Venu became his student and they formally established a centre to propagate the form which had been only performed in the Koothambalam in the temple.

``I left all my engagements and became a full time secretary of the institution," says Venu. ``We now have young, world class artistes and our best performers are women.

We are interacting with world theatre. Kudiyattom has similarities with the Noh theatre of Japan." Venu has written 12 books on Koodiyattom and other performing art forms — -mostly on notation. ``The future of Koodiyattom is bright. Nowadays, Madhava Chakyar does not travel out of Kerala but then this is an award from Dakshina Chitra."

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Moving tributes

THE INTIMATE amphitheatre with the circular stage lit up like an amber pool, made the award function and the wonderful Kudiyattom performance of ``Abhignana Sakuntalam" that followed, a classy experience. After Deborah Thiagarajan, the Director of the centre welcomed the gathering, actress Revathy gave a succinct but eloquent introduction to Kutiyattam and then read the citation. Dancer Padma Subrahmanyam who presented the Dakshina Chitra Virudhu 2005 (sponsored by the Friends of Dakshina Chitra) to the artistes, paid moving tributes to Madhava Chakyar and described how she was enriched by her association with him. She also paid encomiums to Venu and said his daughter Kapila, who would play the role of Sakuntala, had great potential. The production (director-choreographer: G. Venu) by a team of superb artistes showed the timeless quality of the art form. The event deserved a fuller gallery of viewers.- K. S.

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