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Koodiyattam — a “high-brow” art?

Koodiyattam is now declared as “Oral and IntangibleHeritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Some months ago I had the opportunity of watching Koodiyattam at a conference organised by UNESCO in New Delhi.

The story performed was Toranayudham, which narrates scenes from the Ramayana, in which Hanuman sets fire to Lanka with his tail, and then meets Ravana who is full of indignation and injured pride at Hanuman’s antics.

For the performance, I had the all-important role of displaying on a projector what the characters were doing or saying in the play, so that the delegates from various countries could follow the performance—every dialogue and sloka, without interrupting the performance. This involved a lot of typing on the spot as the actors could ad-lib or elaborate a particular line if they so wished. As Hanuman carried on with his monkey tricks, I was pleasantly surprised to see the audience laughing at the right points and enjoying the performance the way I was. It was surprising because none of my friends had so far shown any interest in Koodiyattam, which I thought was too esoteric for almost everyone’s taste. But here were people, who were not even Indian, feeling exactly the same things that I was—awed by Ravana and laughing at Hanuman.

Thrilled at the positive response to the performance, I put a thoughtbefore a friend, a mizhavu player, on our way back from the performance that Koodiyattam can, with communication aids, be made completely accessible and need not be considered ‘high art’ by those who watch it. He appeared somewhat unimpressed.

The role of the rasika (spectator) in performing arts like Koodiyattam is as important as that of the performer.The abhinaya or acting is also a far more personal experience than watching dance because the performer is attempting to make the spectator feel the emotional journeys that the characters are traversing. Koodiyattam provides the viewer with just that. The everyday emotions of happiness, anger, lust, wrath, are depicted by the actor while enacting a play. The connection with the audience is immediate. So,I explained to my friend that while the rituals of Koodiyattam were important, surely we could skip some of them to appeal to the audiences watching us without taking away the essence of the performance? As I saw it, there was simply no point to art unless it was accessible. This does not mean populist gimmicks or diluting the medium, but just some preliminary thought on the part of the actor about the audience and their reaction to the art. If no one watches me, what possible motivation could I possibly have to don make-up for the performance? A performing art, as I see it, is almost like interplay between the performer and the spectator. My mizhavu player friend simply smiled and asked me: “Have you noticed how we touch our ears after the initial playing of the mizhavu? (Mizhavu ochhapadathal).The mizhavu is the chief accompanying instrument to a Koodityattam performance. In Kathakali, the initial drum beating is done to inform the people that there is a performance in town. In Koodiyattam, a temple art form, it is done to request the ‘ashta diggaja-s’ (gods of the eight directions, according to Hindu tradition) to protect the stage and the ensuing performance. The audience is irrelevant here, don’t you see? The “Chakyar dharma” itself is to perform looking only at the light of the lamp on the stage, and not to notice anything beyond that. We are not performing for the audience, we are performing for the gods, that is the difference.” This silenced me for a while. Koodiyattam was, after all,a 2000 year-old temple art form and had only in the last century started being performed outside temples as purely theatre.

Remembering the performance from earlier that day, I could tell that there were two kinds of Koodiyattam today—one performed purely as theatre, and then, the temple art form given as an offering to god. The longevity of Koodiyattam as ritual is because of its adherence, in spite of the odds,to spirituality and tradition, even at the risk of ignoring the audience,and because it was carried on as a temple tradition. The other kind of Koodiyattam, which appeals purely as theatre, interested me more. It is important, therefore, to provide a bridge between the different kinds of spectators of Koodiyattam without diluting the nature of the performance itself. A step in the right direction here are the efforts of SPICMACAY,which holds lecture demonstrations and performances to create a platform for Koodiyattam artists to engage with a wider audience. I attended one such lecture demonstration in Ambika Primary School at Tiruvanantapuram in Kerala, conducted by my guru, the renowned Koodiyattam artist, Margi Sathi. Without explaining what she but also conjugation, prefixes,was doing at all, she performed the suffixes etc., which are characteristic scene where baby Krishna steals milk features of Sanskrit language. Myand butter and such like from the guru often jokes that if we ever houses of the gopika-s (milkmaids).lost our ability to speak, we could The children burst out laughing at still have complete communication in Sanskrit if we know Koodiyattam. Therefore, such interactions with the situation by feigning innocence people dispel notions of ‘high art’ in the minds of audiences by decoding the mudra-s and making them accessible. Generosity of attention and a little bit of imagination are all the audience needs to truly enjoy a Koodiyattam performance.

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