Dance of the gods

February 10, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 04:58 am IST

Devakoothu, performed bya female dancer, is aninteresting bridge betweenthe folk and classical traditions. K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN

Tayakkavu in Thekkumbad, Kannur, was once a picturesque island on the Pazhayangadi with Mattool village on the river’s other side. Legend has it that when goddesses once descended on the bewitching Thekkumbad island to collect rare flowers, one of them lost her way in the forest and ended up in a bower.

She came to be known as Valli (literally a bower) and began to be worshipped by the local inhabitants who conceived of a koothu (dance) narrating her story. Devakoothu (dance of the goddess), as it came to be known, is performed by the women of the Malaya community who are traditionally Theyyam performers.

Devakoothu is not the typical Theyyam since it has elements of lasya like the undulating movements of the hands and body. It also has a strong resemblance to Nangiarkoothu and Mohiniyattam. Male musicians provide chenda (percussion) and ilathalam (cymbal). The narrative style is more polished than that in the pastoral Theyyam songs ( Thottam and Vellattam ). The organic elements of Thullal , a semi-classical semi-folk tradition of Kerala, are discernible.

The Devakoothu performer has to undergo 41 days of strict penance. She comes from the other side of the river in a specially made country-boat accompanied by a women-only entourage. At Thekkumbad island, she has to stay in a shelter specially made of nine stalks of coconut leaves. Outsiders are forbidden from entering the shack or seeing her. Traditionally this reception is accorded only to artists with significant Theyyam roles to their credit. Back home after the performance, she breaks her penance with a fish meal. Only women past their menopause are allowed to perform Devakoothu. And they have to be members of the Malayan community, married to any of the three Malayan families with the titles Palliyara, Mootha Cherukunnu and Elaya Cherukunnu. Hence it is also known as Malayikoothu.

Interestingly, the environment of the performance space closely resembles that of the Theyyam. The performer appears behind a red curtain held up by two women. The limited hand movements of Devakoothu mirror those of Mohiniyattam, Nangiarkoothu and the female roles in Kathakali, though it deploys only nritha hastha and gestures resembling ardhachandran and alapadmam . The meaning of the text is thus not literally acted out through gestures. Physical movements are less stylised and with the semi-circular chuzippu (whirl) discernible in Mohiniyattam.

The headgear of female artists in Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu were introduced by Kutiyattam kulapati , the late Painkulam Rama Chakyar, and the great Kathakali-Kutiyattam costumier, the late Vazhengada Govinda Warrier during the mid-1970s. The basic structure is similar to the one used in Devakoothu. Interestingly, several centuries ago, in Kerala, Kutiyattam was confined to Perinchalloore (Taliparamba area not far from Thekkumbad). All the 18 Chakyar families of those times were descendants of Perinchalloore families and later migrated to central and southern Kerala. In Kerala, dancers attached to the place of worship (known as both Tali and temple) were considered Deva Nangka, colloquially Devangana, and the dancers of highest order (Uthama Nangka). Perhaps, the origin of the word Nangiar can be traced to this and Devakoothu might be a later and gradual geographical successor of the Devangana tradition.

During the performance, Valli completes her prayer with dance ( Koothu ) and Narada (performed by a teenaged boy) appears with a piece of new cloth in one hand and a cane in the other (perhaps to represent his veena). They dance together, which is known as Koodiyattam among the artists and devotees alike; meaning dancing ( attam ) together ( koodi ). The art of Koodiyattam (transliterated from Sanskrit as Kutiyattam) also has the same meaning. Finally, Valli wears the new attire given by Narada, resumes her original form and returns to heaven.

Devakoothu forms an artistic bridge between the desi (folk) and the margi (classical) traditions. From an anthropological point of view too, Devakoothu is significant as it brings a woman on a sacred stage; that too a labourer from the once untouchable castes. Nobody knows its origin. Perhaps it emerged between the 15th and 17th centuries when a variety of forms such as Ramanattam, Krishnanattam, Kathakali and Thullal emerged from the upper classes. By this time, Kutiyattam, which had evolved earlier, was restricted to the temple precincts.

After a gap of over a decade, Devakoothu was revived during 1985-86, according to the historian, Prof. C.G. Nair. “Of late it is performed only once in two years due to financial constraints,” says a member of the five Nair families of the locality who have the joint right to organise Devakoothu. It is also becoming a tourist attraction in northern Kerala, with the local media billing it as ‘the only Theyyam of the world performed by a woman’.

The rituals before the performance are quite arresting as they remind us of the cycle of life and its significance in the agrarian way of life. These involve men who act as guards and an item called Vindur Bhootham. The ‘corpse’ of the Bhootham made of hay is burnt to signify that all sickness is drawn into it and destroyed. Interestingly, one of the guards is made to lie in the stack of hay that symbolises the Bhootham. When it is set on fire, he escapes uninjured like Houdini ! Vindur is colloquial for vindu. After this is an act that represents sowing seeds with telling gestures.

The writer is the Director of the Centre for Kutiyattam of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi.

It is becoming a tourist attraction with local media billing it as ‘the only Theyyam in the world to be performed by

a woman’

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