Safina Uberoi

As he climbed on to the stage, his seventy odd years showed in his slight unsteadiness. A little gingerly, he seated himself on the stool and stared into the lamplight. Slowly, mesmerisingly, his green eyes began to flicker with a different fire and his whole face was aflame - meet Ravana- wise man, emperor, demon, fool.

He did not just show us Ravana- he WAS Ravana. Everything, from the confident stance of his shoulders to the smooth control of his gestures, bespoke a man used to authority- powerful man, victor, ruler. And yet, even as we watched, this Ravana, in all his grandeur was torn down from these heights by a mere, maddened monkey. As Hanuman set fire to his beloved Lanka, we saw a different Ravana, a mourner, tragic and defeated.

And then suddenly himself, with a snarl, he is transformed yet again. As Ravana revives and swears vengeance against hte destroyer of his city, his face is contorted with a terrible rage. Fissures of pure fury crease his face as the demon king roars for a terrible revenge.

It was a breathtaking performance. Every nuance of feeling was was there. Multiple shades of meaning.... it was brilliant, beautiful, incredible.....


As a performing art, Kutiyattam 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. This association has led scholars to claim for it a history of 2000 years. Although the veracity of this claim is difficult to prove, certainly by the 9th to the 10th centuries A.D. we have clear evidence of efforts to reform Kutiyattam by one king, Kulashekhara Varman. Such reform presupposes a long-standing tradition. Epigraphical and literary sources thus give Kutiyattam a continuous history of atleast 1000 yrs which makes Kutiyattam the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre.

Yet this does not mean that Kutiyattam has remained frozen for millenia. On the contrary, it has always contained a duality where tradition and contempraenity interact to produce a multifaceted art. While Kutiyattam's Aryan origins have been preserved, with change seen as sacrilege, it hs simultaneously adapted to regional tastes until Kutiyattam has been assimilated as a supremely Keralite art.

This ability to reconcile opposing trends in typically Indian fashion is symptomatic of Kutiyattam's development.

Firstly, as we have seen, Kutiyattam has been both faithful to the Sanskrit concept of theatre and also adapted to regional requirements.

Secondly, Kutiyattam's form represents this blend through the interplay of ritual and rehearsed elements with improvisational techniques. While traditional precepts are sacred, independent interpretation of the text is also the stamp of a great Kutiyattam actor.

Finally, Kutiyattam's social development was perhaps instrumental in the two creating this peculiar combination. Here we find the meeting of two world views, the patriarchal and matrilineal. The Chakyars are the matle actos and are chief custodians of th art and tend to dominate it. But unlike most classical dramatic forms (even until recently in the West) they share the stage with women. These are the Nangyars, women of matrilineal households who hold key position in Kutiyattam along with their menfolk the Nambiars. 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 a harmonious fusion between two distinct cultures.


Kutiyattam operates withinstrict religious and ritualistic boundaries whose nature is defined by their Vedic/Sanskritic origins. it is performed in the temple precincts, usually in a specially designed theatre called the KUTTAMBALAM (literally Temple Theatre). The Chakyarss themselves belong to the AMBALAVASI or temple-dweller caste and are the elite among a while host of temple servants. Teh Chakyar performs before a lamp lit with three wicks symbolizing hte Hindu trinity. The whole drama takes the form of a sacrifial offering to the diety. As a symbolic acceptance of this gift, the door to the inner sanctum sanctorum remains open during the performances and any interruption requires elaborate rituals to propitiate th egods for this sacrilege. The initial invocatory rituals are followed by the PURAPPUDU or preliminaries which the actor performs behind a curtain and involves certain abstract cadences of movement. Tranditonally the first day's performance could end with these movements wihtout the audience seeing any "acting" at all.

Thenext phase is the NIRVAHANA. Unlike the previous ritualistic elements whose semi-magical significance is of Vedic-Sanskritic origin, this practice is unique to Kutiyattam and possibly a largely regional evolution. In this NIRVAHANA the character introduces himself by present his personal history including perhaps his past life. The actor has almost full freedom to choose which legends associated with the character he wishes to emphasize. This choice helps to underline the Chakyar's importance as the interpreter of his role. The nature of the stories helps to delineate and explore hte character to a degree unusual in Indian theatre.

The missing element in this dance-drama is speech. Interestingly this is introduced not by the Sanskrit of th play proper but usually by the largely Malayalam prose of the VIDUSHAKA.

The VIDUSHAKA is supposed to have been introduced by Tolan the BRAHMIN minister to King Kulashekhara Varman. As the interpreter of the play the VIDUSHAKA helps to explain the esoteric Sanskrit passages in every day Malayalamm This emphasis on direct interaction with the audience prevented Kutiyattam from stagnating into a purely abstract form.

The plays themselves are in Sanskrit mostly religious and based on the epics. The most popular are not those of Kalidas or Harsha but the plays of Bhasa possibly of southern origin himself.

The text of these plays serves only as a nucleus with the actor augmenting the text and building upon its structure with a while host of real and fantastic associations. Athough the text of the play si considered "sacred" the play is often "frozen" while the actor goes far beyond its superficial limits to explore a whole range of emotive possibilities. This is done through what can only be described as a sophisticated form of MINIMAL THEATRE wehre the actors' face and body become the stage on which the play is enacted.

To be successful in this the actor must be well-versed in what the Natyashastra describes as the four main ABHINAYAS- ANGIKA, SATVIKA, VACHIKA and AHARYA. ANGIKA ABHINAYA refers to the use of the body and here Kutiyattam especially emphasizes hand gestures and facial movements through the use of a stylized, highly evolved mime language. To this is added the subtle essence of SATVIKA ABHINAYA which involves the actors' inner identification withthe character and which according to the Natyashastra are marked by involuntary physical reaction of tears, perspiration and hallucinations!

rhia uaw od non-verbal action is interwoven with VACHIKA ABHINAYA or teh use of voice. The plays maybe in prose and verse in Sanskrit or Prakrit and a semi-vedic chant is used inrecitaion. 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 not only set the mood for the play and heighten its drama but also keep its TALA (time) and have great symbolic significance. To the left of hte stage a Nangyar may also sing the chief verses and accompany the Chakyar with cymbals.

All these techniques help to explore each character's inner complexities. An outward, visual depiction of these qualities is made with the use of the AHARYA ABHINAYA or makeup. Each element of the makeup from teh ritual of application to the symbolic use of colour is carefully calculated not only for effect but as an intellectual statement. For example while black represents "evil" and PACCHA or green roughly translates as "good", the makeup of most characters contain both - only the proportion vary! What emerges are not the black and white caricature so common to much of our theatre btu characters whose internal variation are reflected in the many coloured splendour of their masks.

Mnay of these elements of Kutiyattam from MUDRAS to makeup have ben adopted by Kathakal a form which emerged from Kutiyattam emphasizing dance and music somewhat at the expense of detailed acting. Kathakali also accomodated pace and spectacle as ingredients of popularity to a greater degree than Kutiyattam. It alos gave Malayalam precedence of over Sanskrit and this vernacularization helped broaden its audience. Today Kathakali is performed all over India while its parent form languishes near the back waters of Kerala.

However in pure refinement of ABHINAYA Kutiyattam remains quite unparalleled. A Kutiyattam actor can take a single verse and spend several hours executing it! This stress on elaboration prevents the staging of a complete play. Instead specific acts of plays, often with names and identities of their own are chosen. Even teh full exposition of the relatively short acts takes many nights.

Each verse of ht eplay is interpreted three fold. First it is recited and broadly rendered in ABHINAYA. Then it is chanted slowly with each word- meaning elaborated in greater detail. Finally, there follows longer freer improvisation based on key words and ideas. Much of htis tradition has been exposited and preserved through "manuals" on the plays written by great Chakyar gurus. These are the ATTAPARAKARAMS and KRAMADIPIKAS which cover both acting techniques and also discuss the philosophical and metaphysical implications of the play. But through the use of free Malayalam prose great Kutiyattam performers were able to make these abstractions have immediate relevance for their audience, the theatre became a space not only for spectacle but also for introspection.

This elaborate encoding means that Kutiyattam places great emphasis on the audience's ability to interpret it intelligently. Today it is easy to dismiss Kutiyattam's minutae of expression as obscure, its detail as obsessive and its finesse as elitist. Yet there was a time when every gesture of the actor was of deep significance for the audience and in the jesting of the Vidushaka they recognized a penetrating caricature of themselves.


This is what makes Kutiyattam so wonderful. While its plays are peopled by the godly, their portrayal is profoundly human. Kutiyattam explores our innermost dilemmas with a depth that gives it universal significance.

It seems tragic that an art form so refined produced by a highly developed scholastic and artistic tradition seems so near extinction. Embodied for the past few decades in three great gurus - Parameshwar Chakyar, Mani Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, it seems quite likely to die with the last of them.

At such a juncture "preservation" is an easy catch phrase but does its power lie in logic or in its emotive appeal? If Kutiyattam is declining, doesn't this imply that it has lost its relevance? If the social milieu which produced it no longer values it, is preservation still valid? Must Kutiyattam be frozen and presented like a museum piece in the halls of a westernized middle class searching for roots and self respect in ethnicity?

Perhaps the solution is atleast partly contained within the problem. It is not enough for the Chakyars to move out of the temple and into modern auditoriums, we must meet them half way.

Audiences should not only see Kutiyattam, they should be helped to understand it. When an art form changes its context, to avoid being merely petrified and retain its innovative vigour, it nees to renew itself and remain relevant. Kutiyattam must speak to the audiences of today. It must find some way of reaching otu to the 'real lives' of the audience without corrupting its own reality. One thousand years ago it still had the vitality to adapt. Five hundred years ago it gave birth to Kathakali. And now agian it is time for a new stage of its evolution.

Perhaps what we need is another "middleman", somone who like the old Vidushaka will help to interpret Kutiyattam for our urban audiences.

Any volunteers?

This is an extract from "The Eye" No. 1, Vol. 1, Jan-Feb 1992, pg 4-8.

The Author

Safina Uberoi went on a SPIC MACAY Gurukul Scholarship to live with Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, in Irinjalakuda, a little town in Kerala. She came away greatly inspired and motivated enough to want to make a detailed documentary film on Kutiyattam.