Ode to the art of dramatics

Ode to the art of dramatics

The rhythmic beating of the drums and taalam. A dancer’s vigorous eye movements seen in the glow of an oil lamp. An ancient tale presented in front of a spellbound audience. Kutiyattam or Nangiar Kuttu performance by Kapila Venu took the viewers on a new high.

Her recent performance of Sita Pratigyam in Bangalore has brought a new focus on this dance-theatre form that has come a long way from the temples of Kerala to stages across the country and the world.

Kapila is one of the young exponents in the country who has been a dedicated practitioner of this ancient form of Sanskrit drama, which is based on mythological texts. This 2,000-year-old art form was brought out of the temples by Padma Shree Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar, who roped in non-Chakyars as well. Now young artistes like Kapila have taken the mantle and have been performing across the country.

Growing years

When asked about her journey practising the art form, Kapila says, “Kutiyattam is what I was born into and grew up with. The art was ingrained into our daily life and so it is a part of me. I see it as my sadhana (practice) and way of life.”

Having been born into a family of dancers, with father Gopalan Venu being a Kutiyattam exponent and her mother Nirmala Paniker a Mohiniyattam danseuse, the path leading to dance seems to be a natural choice for Kapila, who has also trained in Mohiniyattam.

Speaking about another major influence that drew her to the art form, she says, “My Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was a very charismatic person.

I was instantly drawn to him and his performances. Although he was a great performer, he managed to lead a very simple and pure life. It was a blessing to grow up in his shadow. I have always been in awe of him. More than anything else, he was the greatest influence on me.”

Kapila’s tryst with Kutiyattam started early, at the age of seven, and she trained in Gurukula Sampradayam at Natanakairali and Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam. Training in an ancient art form required a lot of discipline and dedication.

“Training was very rigorous, but at the same time, it was a long process that took several years. A gradual process rather than a jampacked programme. We learnt little by little everyday through several years, and the rest we imbibed by observing our masters, their lifestyles and by being a part of the community.”

Forms of theatrics

Based on ancient texts and mythology, Kutiyattam was performed in special theatres inside temples, which were called koothambalams. Kapila has performed in traditional repertoires including in Sakuntalam Kutiyattam, Vikramorvasheeyam Kutiyattam and Saundaryalahari Nangiar Koothu, apart from new productions including Narasimavataaram, Kurmavataram, Sita Parityagam, Chitrangada, which were all directed by her father.

When asked about making these themes relevant to the modern times, Kapila explained, “These texts are based on the great epics (Ramayana and Mahabharatha), puranas, mythology and history, all of which are eternally relevant to us. The evolution happens with the re-reading and re-interpretations of the texts with the changing times.”

Without limiting herself to this traditional form of theatre from the south, Kapila has also participated in theatre workshops around the world. She has trained in Body Weather workshops led by renowned Japanese dancer and choreographer Min Tanaka in Japan.

She has also participated in the World Theatre Project. In comparison with other forms of theatre, how vibrant is the traditional Indian theatre scene? “The traditional Indian theatre is highly developed in technique, philosophy, concept. I have always felt that we have so much to be proud of. The Indian theatre is in one sense very spiritual. Without sets and props, we can tell stories about the entire universe with nothing but the body and light of an oil lamp!”

“There are particular parts of the world where the understanding of Kutiyattam is much more deeper. For example, we have had very special experiences performing for Japanese audiences over and over again,” she says.

Despite being one of the oldest and purest forms of dance-theatre, Kutiyattam has stayed away from popular culture, making these performances extremely rare. Regular shows in India can possibly salvage the art and kindle an interest in the audience.

“Kutiyattam has always been rare and will always remain so. Unlike common belief, it is not dying a slow death, in fact, it is flourishing in the hands of very dedicated practitioners. It is not meant to be a very popular art form with a mass appeal.

Of course, regular performances are important to any art form, but Kutiyattam must always be performed in the right setting and circumstances for a very interested audience, not anywhere, any place, any time,” she says.

Practising a form that is steeped in traditions is certainly a challenge. When asked about the future of this art and its reach to the younger generation, Kapila says, “I was trained in a Gurukula Sampradaya. There are young people who are interested and come to learn the technique. However, only a few of them will be able to endure the long process to become outstanding performers. But it has always been that way. As a young artiste, I will work towards practising my art to the best of my ability and then find another young generation who will carry on the tradition with all care and sincerity. I am optimistic.”

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