In 2001, Koodiyattam, a Sanskrit theatre form of Kerala, was declared a ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’, along with 18 other forms of artistic expression across the world, by UNESCO.
Koodiyattam (or Kudiyattam) deserved the honour because it’s a 2,000-year-old heritage. A synthesis of local dance and theatre traditions of Kerala and Sanskrit classicism, it’s considered the only surviving link to the ancient Sanskrit tradition of India. Koodiyattam is made of words ‘koodi’, which means ‘combined’ in Malyalam, and ‘attam’, which means ‘acting’, to mean a play by a group of characters on stage. Both solo and group performances feature musicians.
Elaboration The important aspect of Koodiyattam is the detailed theatric communication. A single act from a Sanskrit play is considered one whole play sometimes, and it can be performed over a stretch of 40 days. And, a single shloka is acted out by a performer up to three hours, as he improvises the theme and text along the way. This means that acting skills are paramount.
The art holds a codified language of gestures and patterns of facial expressions. A series of emotions may be expressed by the same actor within a few minutes, which is called rasabhinaya. Hasthabhinaya (hand gestures) and nethrabhinaya (expression through the eyes) also steal the spotlight. The aaharyam (costume) is elaborate and displays bright colours of red, green and gold mostly, and makes use of a headgear. The basic aesthetic rules in Bharata’s Natya Shastra, a treatise on performing arts, are seen in here.
It’s no surprise that an artiste undergoes training for 10 to 15 years, which includes breath control and facial muscle movement. The play repertoire draws from the works of Sanskrit playwrights Sri Harsha, Bhasa, Kulasekhara, Sakthibhadra et al. The more famous Kalidasa and Bhavabuti are not featured, surprisingly. The text and its author function like a stimulus or a springboard for the performance. The basis is the subtext provided by the stage manual, which is passed on from one generation to another.
The music ensemble forms an animated background as instrumentalists use mizhavu and edakki (drums), kurumkuzhal (a variant of flute) and kuzhitalam (cymbals), mainly.
One would wonder about the origin and evolution of this ancient art! Of course, it’s not clear, but it’s common knowledge that over the centuries, certain communities mastered the art form and passed it on; that patronage from kings and nobles helped Koodiyattam prosper, as did the works litterateurs authored about it. It’s interesting to note that the art form was considered so sacred that it was staged only in specially constructed venues called kuttampalams or kuthambalams, located within Hindu temples. It is believed some grants offered to these temples helped the livelihood of Koodiyattam artistes.
Earlier, since the male actors came from the Kerala Hindu community Chakyars, they were called so. The female artistes took the name Nangiars, with the Nambiars (male) as drummers and Nangyarammas (female) as kuzhitalam players. Now, people from other communities have taken interest in these roles. However, the need for Koodiyattam to prosper remains, which is what the UNESCO recognition highlights.
Among the famous Koodiyattam performers of the modern times are Mani Madhava Chakyar, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and Mani Damodara Chakyar.
The signs of its decline began in the early 20th century. The ‘niche’ art was confined to temples only Hindus could enter. The performances seemed complicated and failed to entertain the masses. Sanskrit, the language of Koodiyattam, was used less and less.
The decline of royalty meant reduced patronage to temple ceremonies. With performance opportunities declining, the elder artistes who knew little else than their art faced an uncertain future. Many in the younger generation began exploring other avenues for a steady income.
However, a few silver linings appeared. Mani Madhava Chakyar then took the bold step of performing Koodiyattam outside Kerala (in Chennai for the first time), and more importantly, outside the temple. The art form opened up to more audiences. Many stalwarts and art lovers from other communities made efforts to conserve and propagate Koodiyattam.
A few musicians, much against the purists, began participating in fusion music shows as part of percussion ensembles for exposure and income. Even today, a few Chakyars say this is how they supplement their income.
The efforts of private institutions and a few crusading performers have ensured more performances within India and abroad, especially in the West.
G Venu, Founder-Chairman of Natanakairali, an institution working to revamp traditional art forms of Kerala, including Koodiyattam, says, “There was a crisis in the first half of 20th century. Our younger generation looked for other ways to earn a living. Ammannur Madhava Chakyar had not one disciple to teach! I thought that would be an irremediable loss for Koodiyattam. He was unwilling to take it outside temples or teach people of different communities than his own. It took some years of persuasion to make him come around. We started the Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, a training centre, and Natanakairali, in Irinjalakuda (Kerala). Today, 25 years later, there is a new generation of Madhava Chakyar’s disciples. They include Usha Nangiar, Kapila Venu, Potiyil Ranjit Chakyar, Sooraj Nambiar, Ammanur Rajaneesh Chakyar and Aparna Nangia.
Rajaneesh Chakyar, a disciple and nephew of Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, says the UNESCO recognition has no doubt spurred a lot of academic interest among “Indians and foreigners, who are taking up research.” “Venu sir’s efforts have made a difference. But the state and central government also need to do more so that youngsters find this a viable profession,” he adds.
His sentiments are echoed by his colleague and mizhavu artiste, Kalamandalam Rajeev. “Right now, the government grants we get are meagre and take long to come through. This is demotivating for those who are interested in the art,” he says.
Call for support Veteran Kathakali performer Kalamandalam Gopi, known to have supported Kerala’s traditional art forms, has said, “There is abundant talent and dedication in Koodiyattam artistes. There should be sustained support to the art form from the central and state governments. An artiste should be assured financial security and regular avenues to perform.”
Establishing more training and research centres, libraries and platforms for performances, and conducting cultural exchange programmes with other countries will perhaps popularise Koodiyattam’s heritage.