lessons from kuttiyatam festival at iic
Sahapaedia brought to India International Centre historic theatrical interpretation of Kuttiyatam from Kerala. Sahapedia in collaboration with Seher, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the India International Centre (IIC), presented a six-day Kutiyattam festival of 'Surpanakhankam', from the second act of Saktibhadra's Ascharyachudamani, performed by Nepathya, Kerala.
Sahapaedia Director Sudha Gopalakrishnan, author of a book on Kutiyattam says, "It is a tradition fighting for its life, especially for the opportunity to perform full-scale, unabridged masterpieces spread out over several nights. It is rare in the extreme that the full beauty and complexity of Kutiyattam in full performances are made accessible to audiences outside of Kerala – and even in Kerala itself, such complete performances are now rare."
The full-scale, unabridged masterpiece, 'Surpanakhankam', from the Sanskrit play Ascharyachudamani, spread over 6 days, was based on the Ramayana. 'Surpanakhankam' depicts the incident of Surpanakha and a dramatic retelling of her interaction with Ram and Lakshman and their subsequent rejection of her during their exile in the forest. In the last day, the episode of 'Ninam' (bloodbath), when Surpanakha enters blood-splattered and wailing loudly, is both horrifying and spectacular.
It is the amalgam of costumes, the narrative of the story, the primordial rhythms presented with the humble instruments that captivate the aural and orator traditions of the kingdom of Kerala steeped in Vedic history and ritual symbolism. In the 50's and 60's temples had patronage and these performances would be held there. I remember my parents taking me to Ambalapuzha temple in Alleppey District to watch these plays that ran through the night. We traveled one hour by boat to reach there. It was an attendance of reverence and respect.
Scholars describe Kutiyattam as a dramatic interpretation, the acting is executed through four-fold interpretation, known as nalavarthi. It literally means repeating four times. In the beginning, the actor orally recites the verses with hand gestures. It is known as cholli kanikkal (show while narrating). This is followed by a mere showing of hand gestures without narrating the verses (chollathe kanikkuka). Thirdly, the artist acts out the verse in detail, minutely and elaborately, unveiling the deeper involved meaning and even exploring the hidden meaning and improvising (anwayam). Finally, the actor goes back to cholli kanikkal mixing improvisation and exploring the multiple meanings.
A recent documentary created shows that one shloka or a stanza or even a word may be interpreted for hours through angika abhinaya. While Kerala grapples with floods its time for Kerala Tourism to ask themselves questions. In the rat race for tourism numbers and giving their soul to the spa culture have Kerala's indigenous arts lost out? Aren't Kerala's living arts important?
Gopalakrishnan played a big role in the entire festival. The performance epic in its legendary lineage threw up a host of questions to art lovers about the role of the art mandarins in protecting and preserving the living art traditions of India and providing patronage to the indigenous traditions.
Genuine Kutiyattam artistes are handicapped by a limited social life, they lack proficiency in English and Hindi, and do not have contacts in big cities such as Delhi. This has resulted in poor patronage. The ground realities of Kutiyattam are often unknown to scholars and administrators outside Kerala.
The Ministry of Culture must note: ' Kutiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre from Kerala, and 18 other forms of cultural expression were declared by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, an initiative that drew attention to remarkable cultural spaces.'
What has happened to that initiative? Is it enough for UNESCO just to proclaim? What about the state, cultural and central contributions? What are we lacking? Its time for the Ministry of Culture to step forward and preserve India's living traditions. Artists and practitioners need to be nurtured and protected so as to take forward the power and beauty of a tradition that goes back many centuries.