Chavittunatakam: Music-Drama in Kerala

By Puthussery, Joly | Comparative Drama, Fall-Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Chavittunatakam: Music-Drama in Kerala


Puthussery, Joly, Comparative Drama


Following the arrival of Vasco Da Gama on the Malabar coast on 14 May 1498, the Portuguese missionaries who came to Kerala in South India in the sixteenth century not only brought Latin Christianity to a region that already had a long Christian tradition--according to local tradition dating back to the apostle Thomas (1)--but also were instrumental in introducing forms of religious drama found in their native country. These forms in part grew out of the missionaries' perception that South Indian Christianity differed from their own allegedly more orthodox religion, and were related to their program for establishing customs that would ensure the exclusiveness of their brand of Latin Christianity. However, the dramas were not transplanted in their pure European form, but instead in a region famous for Kathakali dance dramas they merged with local performance modes. (2)

The result was a new drama that, performed for local Church festivals along the coast from Cochin to Rameshwaram, is known as Chavittunatakam (cavittunatakam). It was a genre that in part was intended to distinguish the Latin Christians of this region from the St. Thomas Christians, and it also filled a vacuum in cultural life for them since they were totally forbidden to participate in any way in Hindu rituals. (3) Hence we may see the plays as an aspect of the program of conversion instituted by the Latin Christians. (4) A major role was played by the Synod of Diamper (1599) in establishing the new religious drama that adopted the themes, costumes, and conventions that are found in Kerala's Chavittunatakam and Muvarasu Natakam, the latter similar to the Magi plays of Europe (5) and actually a separate but such a closely allied genre that it can properly be included in my discussion here. The influence of the synod was also felt in Goa, where the kinds of drama known as Mell, Mando, and Dekhini were established. (6)

Chavittunatakam (Malayalam: chavittu [cavittu] = foot stamping, as in dance; natakam = dance drama) as an art form receives its name from the emphasis placed on foot movement. In unique ways it brings together indigenous dance forms with imported matter from Europe, (7) and, according to Chummar Choondal, it is further a synthesis of "the religious, cultural, social, and artistic aspects of [Latin] Christianity in Kerala." (8) However, unlike the other folk traditions of Kerala, Chavittunatakam attributes great importance to the performance text (Malayalam: Chuvati), which is stressed from the rituals performed from the beginning of rehearsals up to the actual performance. These performance texts have not been published. Early plays such as Karalman, Janova, Brasijina, and others from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have been written on palm leaves in Vattezhuttu or Grandhaksara, which are the earliest scripts of Kerala. The plays mentioned above were probably recorded originally in Chentamil, for the texts in circulation at present show a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. (9) Play texts are nowadays written in Malayalam, but writers still use the rhyme schemes found in the early texts written in Tamil.

The Chuvatis are considered by Asans ("Masters") to be their personal property to be handed down by heredity, and hence they are never shared with others or printed. Thus the original authorship of early plays and later interpolations must be areas of obscurity. Further, the practice of Asans in using the same names as those of their own masters prevents scholars from being able to probe further. Names of the authors of some early texts seem also in some instances to have been borrowed from catechism books printed by missionaries for distribution (e.g., Chechuthachan = "Servant of Jesus"; Mariathachan = "Servant of Mary"). It is also believed that one of the authors, Cinna Thambi Annavi, to whom Brasijna is attributed, was a European missionary who was fluent in Tamil. Some of the later texts carry reference to Annavi, though this attribution may not be sufficient to establish authorship. …

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