Koodiyattam, world’s oldest theatre, going strong

Koodiyattam, the 2000-year-old Sanskrit theater of India, continues to fascinate people for its subtle nuances of acting as mentioned in Bharata Muni’s classic Natya Shastra (Science of Acting).

Koodiyattam, which is often compared to the dance-dramas ‘Jing-Ju’ (Peking Opera) of China and Noh and Kabuki of Japan, had inspired people like English theater and film director Peter Brook who spent days at the home of Koodiyattom legend late Ammannur Madhava Chakyar to learn valuable lessons from him.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized Koodiyattam as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”.

What draws art lovers to Koodiyattom is the magic artistes weave through their use of gestures (mudras), body movements (angika) and natural facial expressions (sattvika) as they enact scenes from Sanskrit plays of Basa, Harsha, Kalidasa and others.

Koodiyattom gives actors ample freedom to improvise. For instance, the description of a mountain or garden or encounter with a demon is conveyed through gestures, body movements and facial expressions of the artiste. Recital of short verses is sparingly used during performances which go on for hours.

The jester or vidushaka in Koodiyattam acts as a bridge between the players and the audience by explaining the meaning of Sanskrit verses in local language.

The jester makes solo performance in Chakyar Koothu, precursor to Koodiyattam, where vachika or narration is as important as acting. Humor is subtly employed to make the audience laugh and also think about life. The jester recites verses in Sanskrit and interprets them in local language, Malayalam.

The themes for koothu are taken from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. What makes koothu relevant to the modern audience is the jester’s ability to draw parallels between ancient and current events.

Late Chachu Chakyar, Mani Madhava Chakyar, Painkulam Rama Chakyar, and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar were some of the best exponents of Koodiyattam and Chakyar Koothu.

Nangiar Koothu is a solo performance by nangiyars, women of the nambiar community, depicting stories about Lord Krishna. It shows women were given serious roles in classical theatre in India over a thousand years ago.

Nangiar Koothu revived in the 1980s after an acting manual was published and non-nangiyar artistes entered the arena. Usha Nangiyar, Kalamandalam Girija, Kalamandalam Shailaja, Margi Sati and Kapila have played key roles in raising Nangiar Koothu to a new level.

Traditionally, only men belonging to chakyar caste used to act in Koodiyattom and Koothu. Male members of nambiar caste used to play the gigantic copper drum mizhavu while nangiyars played the kuzhuthalam or cymbal.

Koodiyattam and Koothu are going strong after they came out of temple theatres to world stages and chakyars opened the doors of their training centres to students of non-chakyar community. Young artistes like Sooraj Nambiar, Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar, Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar, Aparna Nagiyar and Kapila who graduated from Ammannur Gurukulam (training center) in Irinjalakuda are touring the world to present its oldest form of theatre to art lovers.

The story of Kapila (watch the video), the youngest among these performers, is bound to inspire more girls to embrace Koodiyattam.

She gave up her studies and plunged into the world of art like her parents Gopal Venu (better known as Venu G), a performer, teacher and expert on Koodiyattam and Nirmala Panicker who is specialized in Mohiniyattam, the classical dance of Kerala.

Kapila excelled in Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam and became confused when it came to making a choice between the two. She finally decided to follow in footsteps of her father who had given up his teaching job at the School of Drama in Thrissur to dedicate his life for Koodiyattam.

“My passion for Koodiyattam was really ignited by my parents. I grew up seeing them being passionate about the art,” Kapila said.

“I was also very drawn to the greatness of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar both on stage and in person. It was much later that I came to realise the depth and nuances of the form itself,” she said after returning from a tour.

Sooraj Nambiar (watch the video), senior teacher of Ammannur Gurukulam, wants more financial backing from the federal government to promote Koodiyattam.

“It’s heartening that more non-Chakyar students are joining Koodiyattom training centres these days. The theatre has a bright future ahead. But teachers and students need more aid. The stipend given to students is a meagre Rs1,000 (US$15) per month,” Sooraj said.