Book Reviews

Kootiyattam: The Oldest Living Theatre Tradition

Kerala, the tiny strip of breathtakingly beautiful land at the southern tip of India wedged between the Western Ghats and the Arabian sea, the land of the relentless tropical sun and roaring rains that come down in torrents from dark skies for six months a year scaring outsiders, the radiant land that tourist promotion deservedly calls God’s Own Country, is known today for several endangered heritages. Among these are botanical heritages like its tropical rainforests which abound in trees that are not to be found anywhere else in the world; zoological heritages like the world’s only lion-tailed monkeys, the flying lizards that leap from one skyscraper tree top to land gliding through the air on another treetop equally high after covering thirty meters in a single leap and the yellow-black hornbills with their amazingly huge beaks; and social heritages like matriarchy that has flourished in this land for over two millennia, many practices of which shock the patriarchal world outside it, but which anthropologists and sociologists from all over the world have been studying avidly for the last couple of centuries.

Yet another endangered species of this magnificent land is the oldest living Sanskrit theatre tradition, the oldest living theatre tradition of India, and perhaps the oldest living theatre tradition of the world: kootiyattam, classical theatre in its most ‘classical’ form, ritual theatre, theatre par excellence, theatre from a bygone era where the performance of a single act from a single play often continued for more than forty nights at a stretch, each night’s performance lasting for as many as six hours or more, theatre in which right from the beginning women did the roles of women when everywhere else in the world they were not allowed on stage and often not even among the audience.

Dr KG Paulose’s Kutiyattam Theatre: The Earliest Living Tradition is an exploration of the wonderful world of this magnificent art form that was once the hereditary privilege and coveted legacy of a few families and the performance of which was confined exclusively to traditional theatre halls annexed to large temples where admission was restricted rigidly to the upper castes and which UNESCO has declared as one of the 'masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity' in 2001.

Theatre in the west is believed to have begun around 700 BC with festivals that honored Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, sexuality and the celebration of earthly living. The early Greek theatre was, though, more pageant than drama, patterned after the traditional Egyptian pageants honoring Osiris, god of the male reproductive force like the Greek Dionysus and of many other things, including civilization. Drunken men and women danced through the streets of Greece during the Dionysian festivals, dressed in goatskins, goats being the symbols of sexuality, singing and dancing erotically, ecstatically. The word tragedy commonly used in the context of drama today comes from these Dionysian celebrations and means a goat song. There were usually competitions among participating groups and over time these celebrations evolved into the Greek theatre as we know it today. Initially, when theatre began being performed from a stage, there was only a single performer on the stage. Gradually the number of performers increased and by the time of theatre legends like Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, circa 500 BC, theatre in Greece had attained amazing standards of excellence.

In India, however, the roots of the theatre are traced to the time of the earliest Vedic rituals. Several Vedic rituals involved strong elements of drama, like the ashwamedha yajna that possibly evolved from what was once naramedhas, human sacrifices, part of which was ritual mating of either a priest or a king with a queen prior to his being sacrificed. It is said that the Indian theatre evolved from these ritualistic elements of the sacrifices. There is also a story that tells us that the gods once approached the creator and requested him to create a new form of entertainment for them and Brahma created the theatre in response to this request. What is beyond doubt is the great antiquity of theatre in India – the greatest ever Indian manual of the theatre, the Natyashastra of Sage Bharata, that gives us amazingly detailed, precise instructions about every aspect of the theatre itself is over two thousand years old and we have evidences that other manuals of antiquity existed long before that.

This glorious Sanskrit theatre that thrived in India for long, however, declined and subsequently met with its sad death due to political, social, economic, linguistic and several other reasons. While external reasons hastened its demise, it must be said that the Sanskrit theatre itself failed to realize regional needs and realities that had come into being over the millennia, to accept the challenges posed by these and to grow in response to them. That is, it died everywhere else except in Kerala, where its performances continued in the form of kootiyattam into which it had evolved there.

Kootiyattam, however, is not Sanskrit theatre exactly as it was, says Dr Paulose, It is 'an amalgam of two traditions: the one represented by the national Sanskrit tradition and the other the regional.'

The name kootiyattam is a combination of the words kooti and attam, with the 'y' appearing in between to connect the two vowel sounds. Kooti means joined together and attam means dance and by extension, acting. The wordkootiyattam, therefore, literally means dancing together or acting together. Kootiyattam is acting together in many different senses, one of which is that it is a form of theatre in which men and women act together on the stage.

In kootiyattam, female roles are handled by women and not by men. Men's roles, of course, are handled by men. The women who act on stage in kootiyattam are nangyars ' women of the nampyar [nambiar] community. The nampyar men too are part of the kootiyattam theatre, but they do not act on stage, instead they play on a huge earthen drum called mizhavu. The male roles are handled by men of another community called chakyars.

Nangyarkoottu is an allied form of kootiyattam, and is performed exclusively by women. Similarly chakyarkoottu is another allied form of kootyattam, performed exclusively by men.

What Dr Paulose does in his remarkable book Kutiyattam Theatre: The Earliest Living Tradition is to explore thoroughly all the different facets of this miracle of survival.

The performance of kootiyattam traditionally took place in koottampalams, which were sacred halls/stages inside temple compounds specifically dedicated to these and other similar performances. Here, the performing team acted out a play selected from one of the leading Sanskrit dramatists, the legendary Bhasa, whom even Kalidasa considered a role model for himself, being the most popular of ancient playwrights. In fact, if Bhasa's works are available to us today, the credit goes exclusively to kootiyattam and allied theatres in Kerala ' while the texts were lost without a clue everywhere else, the chakyars and nagyars preserved it among themselves. Apart from Bhasa's works, Mattavilasa, a satire on the then Kanchipuram society by the Pallava King Mahendra Vikramavarma, Bodhayana's Bhagavadajjuka, Kulashekhara's Subhadradhananjaya, and Shaktibhadra's Ashcharyachoodamani are also very popular, says Dr Paulose.

Interestingly, kootiyattam usually does not stage entire plays. A single act from a play is considered the complete play and this is acted out elaborately ' so elaborately that sometimes it takes as long as forty nights for it to be acted out. Ashcharyachoodamani, when performed in its entirety, takes eighty-six days for a single presentation on the kootiyattam stage. Since the performance is so long, the text recedes into the background as the actor takes over and the actor's emotive skills, ability to elaborate, verbal skills and histrionics dominate the stage.

As Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan who had drafted the candidature file for Kutiyattam for the UNESCO recognition says 'Another instance of elaborate depiction of verbal skills is 'Mantrankam', the third Act of Bhasa's Pratijnayaugandharayana. A speech-oriented play with the Vidushaka as the only character on the stage, with detailed narration of the story and potential to outsource related material from a wide variety of other texts, Mantrankam takes about forty nights to complete its narration' The entire story of the Ramayana by integrating the three plays ' Shaktibhadra's Ashcharyachudamani, Bhasa's Pratimanataka and Abhishekanataka ' was in the repertoire of the kootiyattam artist. This cycle of plays, confined to the temples of Kerala, had twenty-one Acts and took a full year in its enactment, perhaps one of the longest performances in the history of world theatre!'

While kootiyattam is without a doubt an actor's theatre, these performances are based on rules laid down by such texts as Attaprakarams and Kramadeepikas, which give instructions regarding the theatre's rituals and conventions, stylisation in speech and movement, use of orchestra to enhance histrionic action and so on.

The book is in five parts. In part one, named The National Theatre, Dr Paulose discusses the evolution of the Indian theatre. This part begins with The Early Beginning where the author traces the roots of kootiyattam to the Indus valley civilization and the Vedas. In the other seven subsequent chapters that form the first part, Dr Paulose discusses Buddhism and Sanskrit Theatre; Evolution of the Natyashastra; Natyashastra and Kalidasa; Performance of Sanskrit Dramas; Author's Text and Performance Text; Minor Plays; and Decline of National Theatre.

Part two, named The Kerala Scenario, consists of Tamizhakam; Tradition of Sanskrit Drama in Kerala; Innovations on Kerala Theatre; Presentation of Sub-texts; The History of Kootiyattam; Kootiyattam and Allied Forms; Kulashekhara in Retrospect; Localization of a National Theatre; and Cultural Levels of Colonization. As is clear from these chapter names, what the author does in this section is to analyse how Sanskrit theatre came to Kerala and what changes it underwent there so that even when it was no more a living and performing tradition in the rest of the country, it remained a vibrant art form in Kerala.

This part is also significant for the discussion of the allied forms of kootiyattam such as chakyarkoottu, nangyarkoottu and so on. Of special interest to us today is nangyarkoottu, performed exclusively by women ' a nangyar is a woman of the nampyar community. Nangyarkoothu was developed by women, according to Dr Paulose, in answer to the tendency to sideline women characters that at one stage crept into kootiyattam.

Also discussed in this part are the contributions of Kulashekhara Varman towards the modification of Sanskrit theatre that made the subsequent birth of its transformed form we know today as kootiyattam possible. 'What Kulashekhara did was evolving a method to harmonize the micro and macro levels of acting to please the elite and ordinary alike. While doing so he provided the actors ample space to exhibit their talents by exploring the possibilities of suggestion through imaginative acting' The innovations of Kulashekhara were helpful for Sanskrit drama to evolve as kootiyattam,' says Dr Paulose here. The most important contributions of Kulashekhara to Sanskrit drama, according to the author, is the introduction of an element called poorva-sambandha [retrospection wherein 'every character at the time of his/her first appearance narrates his/her past up to the present point, thus connecting the present to the past'], dhvani-yojana [blending of suggestive sense or expansion of thematic and psychic meaning] and prekshaka-prayoktr-sambandha [spectator-actor interaction].

Part three, entitled Description, consists of chapters dealing with Sanskrit Plays Used for Kootiyattam, Bhasa and Kerala Theatre, Techniques of Kootiyattam, Transformation of Roles, Moments of Excitement, and Multiple Levels of Stage-Audience Relation. Part four deals with stage manuals and part five, the final section of the book, deals with the ups and downs that kootiyattam went through during the last century when, while on one side the ancient theatre was threatened with extinction for lack of support and other reasons, on the other it broke many of its elements that had become shackles rather than strengths and eventually grew to draw world attention and find a place as one of the precious 'masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity' recognized by the UNESCO. This final section talks about the emergence of kootiyattam from the temple onto public stages, its subsequent bold spreading of wings to soar onto the world stage, contemporary efforts to popularize the theatrical art and so on.

A rich photo section is appended to the text which, apart from paying tributes to such legends of kootiyattam as Mani Madhava Chakyar and Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, shows us what kootiyattam looks like today when it is performed by contemporary artists. A CD on kootiyattam too is part of the book. 
Dr Paulose's book is far more than a book on this unique human heritage from the south of India. It is also an in depth study of Sanskrit theatre itself. The author of Kutiyattam Theatre analyses the differences between the prekshaka, the enlightened spectator or the connoisseur, and those who are referred to asnanaloka, or the general masses, as understood by the great masters of Sanskrit theatre. Speaking of samanyabhinaya, the author speaks of its six variations such as ankura and nivrtyankura. The scholarly author analyses in depth the differences between natyadharmi and lokadharmi styles of acting, the ten types of roopakas [plays] and the eighteen types of major uparoopakas, bringing home the depth at which our ancients had analyzed the theatre.

Speaking of the sanctity of kootiyattam and its kinship with yajnas, Vedic sacrifices, the author says: 'The three wicks in the lamp [present on the stage throughout the performance of kootiyattam] represent the three fires in the yagashala. Removal of the three wicks at the end of the performance symbolizes the end of the yajna. When the actor gets attired he ties a red band round his head. Once he ties the band, 'the actor has changed over to the character' When a chakyar [in the course of his performance] ridicules anyone including the royal persons, no one responds back. If anyone were to retort to the actor, he would take off his headgear and the performance will be stopped. Thereafter no performance will be held in that koottampalam without performing rites of atonement.

Kutiyattam Theatre is an invaluable book on a rare treasure of humanity made all the more valuable through the author's hard work, great commitment and dedication and deep scholarship. The extensive, erudite notes and detailed quotations at the end of each chapter are great assets to the book and among its greatest strengths.

The book is beautifully produced by DC Books, Kottayam and the layout and formatting are splendid. However, one wishes the book had received more careful editing and proofreading ' a book of such immense value deserves these. There are too many proofing errors in the text of the book that jar the pleasure of reading. The errors are only in the English part of the book, though. The Sanskrit, mostly quotations from classical texts given in Devanagari, is free from errors ' my guess is that the learned author has himself read the proofs of the Sanskrit section.

Dr Paulose is an expert on Indian aesthetics, the Natyashastra and ancient theatre. His doctoral thesis was on Kootiyattam. Before ending a long career as an academician, Dr Paulose was the principal of Sanskrit College, Tripunithura, Kerala and Registrar, Sri Sankara University, Kerala. He is actively associated with Kerala Kalamandalam, the unique institution dedicated to the performing arts in Kerala that has made invaluable contributions to the promotion and development of art forms such as kathakali and kootiyattam. He is also the Founder-Managing Trustee of International Centre for Kutiyattam, Tripunithura, Kerala. His other works include Introduction to Kutiyattam, Kutiyattam: A Historical Study, Bhima in Search of Celestial Flowers, Bhagavadajjuka in Kutiyattam, and Improvisation in Ancient Theatre. 

Dr Paulose's book uses diacritical marks throughout for non-English words. Since this review does not use diacritical marks, the transliterations of Sanskrit and Malayalam words here are at times spelt differently from the book. 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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Views: 3782      Comments: 1

Comment The Photo on this page is not what it appears to be on multiple fronts. First it is not credited and not attributed (or in academic terms, the photo is plagiarized). The photo was taken by me of a production at The State University of New York at Stony Brook. The photo was placed into my online portfolio as a stage designer and presumably lifted from there. If the author of this article read the portfolio text they would also know that while this was a performance in the Kutiyattam style, the performers depicted are American student actors.

I do not mind when my work is published in books or elsewhere online, but the custom is to properly attribute the work of others.

Richard Finkelstein
22-Apr-2015 10:58 AM

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