Keepers of the flame

Keepers of the flame

In conversation with a family of Koodiyattam exponents, Debbie Rodgers explores the art form’s historical legacy and its present cultural foothold...


She is the zealous guardian, yet paradoxically, also the most ardent promoter of the ancient art of Koodiyattam. Her husband shares her passion and her belief through his forte, the Mizhavu (pronounced Miraav), the pot-shaped drum that accompanies a Koodiyattam performance.

Together, Usha Nangiar and her husband Kalamandalam Hariharan continue to kindle the flames of interest in this 2,000-year-old Sanskrit dance-drama, that has, since 1965, been brought out of the sacred Koothambalam (temple theatre) and into public spaces, giving Koodiyattam and the Mizhavu a new lease of life. Their 15-year-old daughter Athira, who has just completed her Arangetram in Koodiyattam, is entrusted with the thalam (beat) and recitation for their performances.

Koodiyattam (which means combined acting) has been recognised by UNESCO as ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. Koodiyattam has two branches: Chakkyar Koothu — performed by the eponymous cast of Kerala and played by multiple male characters. In contrast, Nangiar Koothu is a solo performance in which one actor plays all characters in the story. This is the sole prerogative of Nambiar women; who earn the title Nangiar after their Arangetram (onstage debut). The Mizhavu is the privilege of Nambiar males — an honour that belonged to Usha’s late father.

Art beats

In describing the art, Usha says that a traditional full-length Koodiyattam recital is performed over 32 days, with a daily two-hour segment. It comprises prose and four-line poetry that form the characters’ dialogues. “We elaborate at length not just on each sentence or word, but on its meaning — both outer and inner meaning; and this is done through facial expressions (mukhajabhinaya), eye expressions (netrabhinaya) and hand gestures (mudras).” Body movements (angika abhinaya) are limited and used solely to take the story forward. 

Despite its strict restrictions in form and format, Usha maintains that in Nangiar Koothu an artiste has full freedom to improvise on stage. “This is my media to say what I want to the people.” Introspection is a part of every performance. “We need to have a deep understanding of the other person before we can portray that person,” she explains.

Usha explains that the traditional costume for a Nangiar Koothu performance is made up of a number of knots. Symbolically, those very knots have spurred this classical exponent to break through the barriers. “Koodiyattam has made me stronger because I think a lot — my thinking purifies me. On stage, I am totally free — totally free — no one to stop me!” 

Her intellectual freedom led to her questioning her guru and subsequently researching, through the ancient palm manuscripts, the roles of the Panchakanya, to whom she attributes the source of her strength. She found that while mention was made of them, the stories of Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari were never brought to the stage. Ancient performances, she reminds us, were male-oriented stories from the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. Usha ’s recent performance in Bangalore, an excerpt from Draupadi, is testimony to her continued efforts to redress this lacuna. 

Yet, of what relevance is this rich, ancient traditional art form to the young contemporary dancer of today? Twenty-eight-year-old contemporary dancer, Dr Tony Pius, who underwent a one-month training session with Usha as part of Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts’ (Bengaluru) Way of the Masters project, says: “It’s amazing how just hand gestures, body language and dynamic eye movements can hold together a conversation between the artiste and the viewer. The spine of all this being the varied percussion sounds from the Mizhavu.”

Youth connect

For 27-year-old Bharathnathayam/Contemporary dancer Ronita Mookerji, the genius in Koodiyattam is “the eyes and its variations, and how it explores the space, tangible and intangible... The many variations shown, at such different levels of physicality, increases one’s physical wisdom,” she says.

But to Usha, the most important fact is that, these young dancers, “who are always searching,” get to connect with their roots. Mookerji echos, “We will then have a deep-rooted, strong base that we can keep referring to, refining, exploring... and we can derive self-expression from it.”

“Great patience and suffering during training without getting easy results” is a major drawback to attracting young students, rues Usha. Another aspect is the fact that, while a certain amount of technique can be taught, emoting cannot. Attracting and sustaining an audience’s attention purely through emoting is not an easy task and takes years to perfect. 

“Koodiyattam is an ancient form, yet we are living in the contemporary world, partaking of and performing in the contemporary world. Space, time, duration of the performance, cast, light, everything has now changed; in that respect we are contemporary but still retain our classical status,” explains Usha.

What is the relationship between the Mizhavu artiste and the dancer on the stage? I am curious to know. “Nothing is pre-planned,” says Kalamandalam Hariharan, through his translator. “Everything happens on the spur of the moment, yet within a set rythmn.” He knows the story, and once on stage, Hariharan reacts instantaneously, his fingers giving rhythmic resonance to the palette of emotions portrayed by the artiste, interpreting, improvising and always reinventing with every performance, the exciting symbiotic relationship that he shares with the dancer. Hariharan does not just play the Mizhavu with his hands, he plays it with his heart.

Destiny’s child

As the first outsider to break the proverbial glass ceiling (he is a Nair), Hariharan’s path was not an easy one, says his wife. Yet the master Mizavhu player brushes that aside nonchalantly. What almost brought him to his knees, he says, was his first trip abroad in 1985, to collaborate with western musical artistes in a production for Jayachandran Palazhy’s Imlata Dance Company (London).

Here was a lone Indian musician with a pot pitted against a plethora of electronic gadgetry! The sheer scale of the production combined with clashing cultures and musical ideologies, almost made him throw the towel in. With Palazhy’s support he lived to tell the tale — and what a tale it has been — a tale that encompasses contemporary dance, theatre and films across the globe. Hariharan’s success has been the catalyst for resurgent interest in the Mizhavu. Yet he shares Usha’s concern that young artistes today are not serious, learning the ancient arts more as a hobby than a desire to make it a career.

Such is his dedication to his art that Hariharan refers to his Mizhavu as “a human being, a Brahmin.” The Mizhavu has a life and death cycle; birth and death ceremonies akin to those conducted for a Brahmin boy are conducted for the instrument.  When a Mizhavu is damaged, a special ritual is conducted to move the Atma (soul) from the old to the new drum. The art of making the clay Mizhavu is breathing its last sigh. Today, most Mizhavus are fashioned from copper. A concerned Hariharan has been given a government grant to research and recreate the original clay Mizhavu. A natural progression for both Kalamandalam Hariharan and Usha Nangiar, as artistes and as a couple, was the founding of a school in Kerala — Krishna Nambiar Mirhavu Kalari — now in its 10th year, to keep the flames of interest in Koodiyattam and the Mizhavu burning ever bright.

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