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Koodiyattam - the 'ritualistic' Sanskrit theatre of Kerala

the one still living , more than 1000 years old ancient form of classical dramatic dance theatre in India

Koodiyattam is recognized by the UNESCO as one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. The Koodiyattam tradition of enacting classical Sanskrit dramas, is closely tied to Kerala's Hindu temples. It is a comprehensive theatre form that has existed since before the tenth century AD and is India's oldest theatre to have been continuously performed. Koodiyattam has the same delight in nuance and hidden shades of meaning in metaphors and delicate implications which is the hallmark of so much of Sanskrit literature.
There is  clear evidence of efforts to reform Koodiyattam by one king, Kulashekhara Varman by the 9th to the 10th century A.D. As such reforms give rise to the supposition of a long-standing tradition, literary sources assume that Koodiyattam has a continuous history of at least 1000 years.  This  makes Koodiyattam the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre.

click any image to enlarge it !

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the actors
Traditionally, the actors have been members of the Chakyar caste, themselves belonging to the Ambalavasi or temple dweller caste, the elite among the temple servants. 
The dedication of this community of artists, considering their profession as kuladharma (family duty) is responsible for the preservation of Koodiyattam through the centuries. Nambiars, a sub-caste of drummers, have been associated with this theatre as players of the mizhavu ( a pot-shaped, large drum unique to Koodiyattam). It is the women of the Nambiar community who act the female characterizations and play the bell- metal cymbals. 
While most of  the about 18 Chakyar families and an equal number of Nambiar families have given up the traditional profession in the course of the past 50 years, the Ammanur family alone continues to maintain the inherited profession.
Padmasree Ammanur Madhava Chakyar
born on May 13,  1917,
is  the last of the outstanding Koodiyattam guru like Parameshwar Chakyar and Mani Madhava Chakyar
He opened in 1982 the now famous Ammanur Chachu ChakyarSmaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda, Thrissur District, a training centre for Koodiyattam, named after his guru and uncle.
To train exclusively Chakyars and Nambiars was given up and the training opened to members of other families also.
art form and social background
Koodiyattom is a peculiar combination  of the Sanskrit concept of theatre,  operating  within strict religious and ritualistic boundaries  and  an  independent interpretation of the text. 
Here we find also the meeting of the two world views:  the patriarchal and matrilineal. The Chakyars are the male actors and chief custodians of the art, while sharing the stage with the Nangyars, women of matrilineal households and their men folk, the Nambiar drummers. While the Chakyars are said to be of Aryan origin and therefore probably carriers of Sanskrit learning, the Nangyars are local and their inclusion represents thus a harmonious fusion between two distinct cultures.
While Koodiyattam's Vedic/Sanskrit  origins have been preserved and regarded as a sacrilege, the actor's independent interpretation of the text has simultaneously adapted to regional tastes until Koodiyattam has been assimilated as a supremely art of Kerala. The vigor of the folk art roots of Koodiyattam and Koothu  may explains to a large extent that this art form is still alive.
the performance
The performances of a drama usually last several days and the enacting in the original form of a single act may even take up to 41 days. It will  begin at 9 p.m. after the close of rituals in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, and continue till midnight, sometimes till 3 a.m. before the commencement of the morning rituals.
The first day may have the form of a sacrificial offering to the deity with initial invocatory rituals followed by preliminaries like certain abstract cadence of movement performed behind a curtain and without the audience seeing any acting at all.

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In the next phase the character introduces himself by presenting his personal history including perhaps his past life. The Chakyar actor has almost full freedom to choose which legends associated with the character he wishes to emphasize and  thus becomes an important interpreter of his role . 
The complete performance of the drama - from beginning to end - is performed on the last day.
cu1801.jpg The performance take place in a kuttampalam, the temple of dance-drama, a structure built within the compound walls of a temple according to the rules of Natyashastra.
Performance elements
Acting in Koodiyattam is based on a highly evolved mime language. Stylized facial and eye expressions, a language of mudras (hand gestures), a unique style of chanting together with elaborate headdresses and the symbolic use of colour through the makeup constitute the drama. Contained movements and intense emotions mark this temple theater style.
Unlike in Kathakali, women traditionally perform the female characters. 
music elements
The accompaniment is chiefly by the use of mizhavu drums played by the Nambiars who sit at the rear of the stage. These huge drums have great symbolic significance; they set the mood for the play and heighten its drama. They also keep the talam, the rhythmic pattern.
To the left of the stage a Nangyar may sing the main verses of the drama and accompany the Chakyar with small cymbals.
Further accompaniments may be the  itakka (an hour-glass shaped drum),
the  kuzhal ( an oboe-like wind instrument) and the shankha (conch shell).

To be successful in this the actor must be well-versed in what the Natyashastra, the great treatise on dramaturgy in Sanskrit by Saga Bharata, written sometime between 2nd century B.C. and 2nd A.D. , describes as the four main Abhinayas (abhinayam=the art of dramatic expression through words, facial expressions or gestures)
All these techniques help to explore each character's inner complexities.
the training


angika =
dramatic expression  with the body
 (hand gestures or
mudras, facial movements)

satvika =
actors' inner identification with the character that may be marked by involuntary physical reaction like tears,

perspiration and fainting 

vachika =
ritualistic teh use of voice
aharya =
makeup (symbolic use of colour) and costume

the schools
point Ammanur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda, Thrissur District
point NatanaKairali, Irinjalakuda, Thrissur District
a research and performing centre for traditional arts,  that has been playing a significant role in the conservation and popularization of Koodiyattom for more than two decades. Natana Kairali with it's dynamic founder-director Gopal Venu, himself an actor and  trained in Koodiyattam from guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Paremeswara Chakyar, is also involved in propagating the art form outside the country by organizing workshops and staging the Sanskrit theatre in various countries.
point Kerala Kalamandalam. Cheruthuruthy, Thrissur District
point Mani Madhava Chakyar, Likkadi, Thiruvananthapuram District

Kuttu, Koothu

Koothu is a mono act in which a single actor represents the role of all the characters. He expounds puranic stories, drawing parallels from contemporary life in order to emphasis a point or relate a moral from the stories he is narrating.  

Nangiar Koothu

Nangiar Koothu is an offshoot of Kutiyattam that has captured the imagination of people in recent times. is performed solo by a woman actress. The stories she enacts are taken from the the text Sree Krishna Charitam, depicting the life of Lord Krishna
Usha Nangiar, a disciple of Ammanur Madhava Chakyarm has already become synonymous with this art form. Kunjipaalykutty Nangiaramma is another well known contemporary actress of Nangiar Koothu

Chakyar (Prabandham) Kuttu

Chakyar or Prabhandam Kuttu, a solo performance,  is another offshoot of Koodiyattam. The character represents the vidushaka (fool,  clown), poking fun at Kerala society, using the colloquial language Malayalam. The name of the art form refers to the community of the actor respectively to the use of the prabhandas, literary works in Sanskrit for dance-drama. as a basis for his narration.  


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