Drama a hit if the stage caves in!

Drama a hit if the stage caves in!

Not many people know that the Christian community in Kerala came up with Chavittu Nadakam (a dance drama) in the 16th century in response to Kathakali.

Chavittu Nadakam is believed to have originated after the arrival of Portuguese on the Kerala shores. It is said that the Portuguese Catholic priests found the Hindu epic-based Kathakali dance serving the Hindus well in keeping up their knowledge of the Hindu mythologies and decided to have a type of Christian Kathakali to propagate Biblical stories and lives of Christian saints.

It has a significant Portuguese character in its costumes — they are glittery. “They include brocade dresses, headgear and crowns,” says Fr Joseph Thattarassery, the parish priest of the Nithya Sahaya Matha hurch near Kozhikode, Kerala, which has its own centre to promote this dance drama.

The trainer is known as annavi. The whole play, a combination of dance and instrumental music, is likened to a musical. The bell and drum are two instruments used for background score. Francis, a Chavittu Nadakam scholar-scriptwriter, says, “The language spoken is a mix of Tamil and Malayalam.” The actors themselves sing and act. Once an open-stage performance, it is now mostly played indoors.

The predominant feature of this art is artistes stomping (chavittu) the dance floor, producing resonant sounds to accentuate the dramatic situations along with their song. Hence, it translates to ‘stamping drama’. The play is considered a success if, at the end, the stage caves into the pressure of heavy stamping.

For many years, Chavittu Nadakam fell into disuse. Fr Thattarassery came across many artistes who were languishing in his parish. “This is one of the cultural riches of the Catholic church, and I wanted to revive it in some way,” he says. So, on October 1, 2007, a Chavittu Nadakam troupe was set up, and so far, they have given more than a hundred performances in various places.

“In earlier times, the duration of a play was six hours long, and a performance lasted through the night,” says Asan Sebastian, a Chavittu Nadakam dancer. “But nowadays, people are pressed for time. So, we have reduced it to one-and-a-half hours. The response has been positive so far.”

Fr V P Joseph, another Chavittu Nadakam enthusiast, set up a school   called the Kreupasanam Chavittu Nadakam Academy in 2005. It is a neat series of buildings, next to National Highway 47 in Kerala. There is an auditorium, a small hall for the boys for practice and a museum, highlighting the mudras, the costumes and the choreography of Chavittu Nadakam. There are five rooms for visiting scholars.

After a 17-year campaign and 12 retired teachers, they now receive pensions. Incidentally, a 2010 film, Kutty Shranku, by director Shaji N Karun, has featured superstar Mammootty as a Chavittu Nadakam artiste.

A five-day Chavittu Nadakam fest titled Chuvati 12 went on at the Holy Cross Church in Kochi (December 2012). Plays such as Julius Caesar, Brijeena Charitham, Roxilin The Villain and Anjelikka were staged. The last show there was Carlsman Charitham, based on the life of the Christian emperor Charlemagne, penned by Chinnathambi Annavi, the founder of Chavittu Nadakam. Another project that started there was a 11-feet-tall sculpture of the founder, which was installed this year.

Art scholar K Subhas Chandran, a curator of non-Kerala performance arts shows at the Biennale (Kochi 2012), has said that Chavittu Nadakam is the only Indian version of a European ballet in the present times and that “characters talk and sing. There is abhinaya in angika (gestural), vachika (vocal) and aharya (costume) format, but no satvika element, which is anyway an Indian concept.”

Yes, it may not be as famous as the other Kerala dance form, but Chavittu Nadakam is definitely rising to be an important art form of Indian heritage.

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