Kerala's ritual dance-drama gets UNESCO recognition

This dance-drama tradition that forms part of the Goddess Kali cult is the second art form from Kerala to be included in the UN list for preservation as human cultural heritage after the classical theatre Kudiyaattam, which was accorded the coveted status a few years ago.
Mudiyeettu is a ritualistic art which evolved as part of the Bhadra Kali (Goddess Durga) cult performed in some temples in Kerala, whose origin can be traced back to the 9th or 10th century AD.

With seven characters and seven elaborate scenes, it is enacted annually in an open space adjacent to Bhadra Kali temples after the harvest season, seeking blessings of the Goddess for well-being of the village community.

Based on the mythical story of the battle between Kali and Darika the demon, the play is performed by artists in heavy costumes with Kalamezhuthu or tantric drawings made using organic dyes on the floor as background, amid beating of drums.

The ritual dance-drama begins with the discourse of Lord Shiva and Narada, and it progresses through the entry of Darika and Kali, followed by their grim battle and concluding with the slaying of the demon by the Goddess.

Like the famed Ram Leela of north India, the play drives home the message of ultimate triumph of the good over evil.

Mudiyeettu is more of an offering than an art form for its performers, says Keezhillam Unnikrishnan, the best known contemporary exponent of the tradition and a member of one of the four traditional performing families of the art form.

"Unlike classical theatres Kathakali or Koodiyattam, Mudiyeetu is considered a sacred offering to Goddess Kali rather than a medium of pure entertainment. It derived its name from the tall and glittering headgear worn by the artist who appears as Kali," Unnikrishnan told PTI.

Now there are only nine performing troupes and four traditional families in Kerala who regularly enact the play. The UNESCO recognition is based on the performance and history of these families residing at places like Koratty, Keezhillam, Pazhaoor and Kunnakal in the state, Unnikrishnan said.

As a ritualistic art, Mudiyeettu demands greater preparations and self-discipline on the part of the artist than any other art form, he said.

The actors have to follow strict 'vrata' or a period of renunciation of all worldly pleasures several days before the staging. A total of 32 pieces of specially washed clothes are worn by them. Even if the performance is not inside a temple, only organic colours are used for Kalamezhuttu or drawings on the floor depicting various episodes from the Goddess myth.

"These all are connected with the spiritual undercurrent of the art form," he said.
According to classical and folk art scholars, what makes Mudiyettu unique is its fusion of pan-Hindu mythology with purely local folk beliefs and rituals.

Along with Kali, Darika, Lord Shiva and sage Narada, characters with a local flavour like Koimbata Nair and Kooli appear in the play.

When the drama scales to its tempo to the accompaniment of percussion instruments like chenda (drum), elathalam (cymbal) and chanting of verses, the entire atmosphere gets electrified and even the thrilled audience begins to participate in the 'war' in the concluding scenes, artists said.

Now a waning art with younger generation showing hardly any interest, the UNESCO recognition is expected to give Mudiyettu a revival, opening opportunities for more research into its history and evolution, Unnikrishnan said.

"International recognition will surely give a boost to the age-old art and contribute to its promotion. A traditional artist like me believes it is due to the blessings of the Goddess that it has received a status of world heritage", he said.

"It will give us strength to hand over the torch of the legacy to the next generations."
Besides Mudiyeettu, the Chhau dance of Eastern India and Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan have also been included in the latest Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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