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Kuttiyattam - Ritual theatre of Kerala

Kuttiyattam - Ritual theatre of Kerala

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'Kuttiyattam' or 'Koodiyattam' (in Malayalam) is a sacred ritual theatre from Kerala that dates back to thousands of years. Till not so long ago, it was confined to performances in the temple theatres- 'Kuttampalams'- by Brahmins for select Brahmin and the noble elite.

 

Kuttiyattam Kalamandalam Sindhu
Kuttiyattam Kalamandalam Sindhu © Mukundan

 

Starting in 1950s, Kuttiyattam started to come out of its confines to reach audiences in other parts of India. In 2001, it was elevated to the ranks of 'masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity' by UNESCO. Today, Kuttiyattam is regarded as one of the most ancient dance theatres in India and the world. It is also one of the oldest continually performed dance theatres in India.

 

There are several elements that bind together the performing arts of Kerala- be it in dance, gestures, percussive music, make-up, costumes, ritually sanctified stages and actors, other iconographic elements or even the narratives derived from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and stories from Hindu mythology. No wonder then that Kuttiyattam, or its later inheritors such as Krishnanattam, Ramanattam, PavaKathakali, Kathakali etc., share a highly codified technique, make-up, gestures and archaic costumes. However, despite the similarities, Kuttiyattam is unique in that it draws on plays from Sanskrit playwrights such as Kalidas, Bhasa, Sri Harsha, Shaktibhadra, Nilakantha etc., in addition to epic lores, making it the only living Sanskrit theatre in today's times*.

 

Given the religious or folkloric nature of the narrative, the audience may be familiar with the plot. However, the emphasis is laid on how the story is told- the narration is done in Sanskrit which is later elaborated upon in Malayalam, the local vernacular, by drawing analogies and using tales-within-tales to make a relevant point. The story telling of one act could last several days. The enacting of the play is done in a mixture of prose and poetry. The text is first recited with gestures and then enacted only with gestures. The use of local language, along with Sanskrit, is said to be the contribution of the King Kulasekhara Varman, who, along with his friend Tolan, incorporated some structural changes in Kuttiyattam around 9th century AD. The translation and elaboration of Sanskrit text to Malayalam is done by the Vidushaka.

 

The Vidushaka (jester) plays a central character as he enjoys enormous liberty and flexibility in his bridging functions- as translator, commentator and as author of often satirical or ironical social remarks upon the words and actions of other characters in the plays**. However, the Vidushaka must also be able to relate back to the original narrative. He may be compared with the Kyōgen of traditional Japanese Noh or Nôgaku theatre or a medieval European court jester, and the French 'guignol' or a stand-up comedian of modern times as they interpret texts by improvising on references from socio-political events, current situations, members of the audience etc.

 Kapila in and as 'Shakuntala'
© DR Interarts. Courtesy: CDLM, Paris

 

Various musical instruments such as Mizhavu (copper drums), Kuzhithalam (small pair of cymbals), Itakka (an instrument played with small sticks), Kurumkuzhal (pipe), Kompa (trumpet) and Sankha (conch shell) are used in Kuttiyattam performances. 'Kuttu' or 'koothu' is a solo performance in a highly refined monologue whereas 'Kuttiyattam' literally means 'acting together' or 'combined acting'. This refers to the male narrator from the Chakyar community and female lead from the Nangyaramma community***.


Sooraj Nambiar & Kapila in 'Shakuntala'
© DR Interarts. Courtesy: CDLM, Paris
 Over thousands of years, it is only a miracle that Kuttiyattam has survived through the ravages of time. One of the possible factors for its survival may have been its elitist nature- of being performed in dedicated temple spaces by a select few families for reserved audiences. However, with today's socio-political, economic and cultural transformation taking place in the region, and in the country in general, Kuttiyattam's existence is threatened by a declining interest in traditional arts, lack of financial support and diminishing number of Chakyar families.

 

Māni Mādhava Chākyār may be credited with bringing this art form out of the shadows of temples onto the world stage. In 1955, Kuttiyattam was performed for the general public outside temples by Mani Madhav, much to the resentment of his community members. In 1962, he took Kuttiyattam outside of Kerala to Chennai. Since then, there has been no looking back as the art found its patrons and appreciators all over India and in the world. Today, Kuttiyattam is no longer confined to the Brahmin elite for its artists or spectators. Dedicated Westerners have also been admitted to learn Kuttiyattam. A Kuttiyattam troupe was sent by Government of India on a performing tour to France and Poland in 1981****.




*The art of Sanskrit theatre dates back to a few millenniums though its structured form is documented around the final centuries BC. 'Natya Shastra'- a treatise written by Bharatmuni- is an elaborate doctrine, often seen as orthodox or elitist for today's times, on the stagecraft of Sanskrit drama. It is estimated to have been written between 2nd century AC and 2nd century BC. Kuttiyattam may have amalgamated Sanskrit drama with the dimensions of existing, popular regional theatre around 2000 years back.

**Extracted from 'Kathakali- a study of the aesthetic and processes of popular spectators and elitist appreicators engaging with performances in Kerala' by John Glynn, University of Sydney, 2001.

***'Chakyar' is a subcaste of Brahmins- 'Ambalavasis' or the temple dwellers’ caste, hierarchically located between the Brahmins and the Upper Nairs. Traditionally, they were allowed to perform in temples after having being inducted with the sacred thread. 'Nangyaramma' are the women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar Brahmins. Women from Chakyar were not allowed to perform Kutiyattam.

****The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. 1998. Edition Routledge. ISBN-10: 041505933X

 

 

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