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Kutiyattom the art form

Based on a reference in ‘Silappadikaaram’ to a performance by one Parayur Koottacaakkayyan before King Senguttuvan, certain historians claim an antiquity of 2000 years for ‘Koothu’ (which includes ‘Prabandha Koothu’, a narration of Puranic stories, ‘Nangyaar Koothu’, a solo gestural performance of Krishna Lila by a female Nambiyar, and Koodiyattom, the presentation of Sanskrit drama). Whatever may the veracity of that claim, it has been established by epigraphic and literary evidence that koodiyaatom has been with us for nearly 1000 years. Curiously enough, most of the dramas used for Koodiyaattom belong to the group known as the Trivandrum Sanskrit Series which were discovered in Travancore by T.Ganapati Saastri. They include thirteen plays ascribed to Bhaasa, ‘Naagaanandam of

Sri. Harsha, ‘Subhadraadhananjayam’ and ‘Tapatisam varanam’ of Kulasekharavarman and ‘Mattavilaasa Prahasanam’ of Mahendra Vikrama Pallavan. The Koodiyaattom repertory also includes Saktibhadran’s ‘Aascharyachoodaamoni’, Neelakantan’s (or Mahendra Vikrama Pallavan’s) ‘Bhagavadajjukiyam’.

Overall, the performance of Koodiyattom is guided by the exhaustive ‘Aattaprakkarams’, detailed choreographic notes, and the ‘Kramadipikas’ (Codes of performance instructions). These were prepared by authorities who possessed wide knowledge in various fields of private and public life, human behaviour, naatyam, nrittam, music, taalam, caostume, makeup and audience reaction. In fact the dramataist is pushed right into the background by the authors of these guide books on performance.

Koodiyaattom is strictly a temple art and kit is performed only by one specific community called Chaakyars supported by Nambiyaars and Nangyaars. The Chaakkyars, who are attached to the temples, are the main actors. The Nambiyaars are the drummers and help with the make-up, while the Nangyaars also take part in the acting and accompany the performance by marking rhythm and singing.

Important temples in Kerala all have special theatres called Koothambalams, which were built according to the traditional texts on Vaastusaastram Silparatnam’, and it is here that performances of Koodiyaattom are staged. Where Koothambalams do not exists, the performances are held in the ‘Valiambalam’ or entrance hall to the inner temple quadrangle.

Koodiyaattom performances are closely allied to the temple rituals and in many cases it is the chief priest who gives the assent. Ritual functions are also carried out on the stage before a performance begins. The stage is decorated simply but elegantly by suspending slips of tender coconut leaves from its roof. Bunches of plantains and leaves sprouting from a trunk are tied on either side and one ‘para’ or big measure of paddy, with tender coconut palm sprouts rising out of it, is placed on the floor. The traditional bronze lamp, almost a metre high, stands in front of centre of the stage with one flame facing the audience and two facing the actors. At the rear of the stage, two huge copper pots called ‘mizhaavus’ are kept in wooden frames. These are the main drums of the Koodiyattom orchestra and the Nambiyaars take their place behind them. A white cloth, spread on the right hand side of the stage, provides the seat for two Nangyaars who direct the rhythm with small cymbals and sing the invocatory songs.

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