India's Special K: An Actor-Based Form of Sanskrit Theatre Has Grabbed Headlines in the Indian State of Kerala-And Abroad

By Ratnam, Anita | American Theatre, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

India's Special K: An Actor-Based Form of Sanskrit Theatre Has Grabbed Headlines in the Indian State of Kerala-And Abroad


Ratnam, Anita, American Theatre


In India today, the letter K has a special significance. The most famous of film actors is called Khan, the most popular TV serials all start with the letter K, and some directors continue to make films with titles that begin with that letter.

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The southern Indian state of Kerala, home to two of India's ancient theatre and dance traditions, also begins with K. But Kerala's indigenous art forms are not for popular tastes and certainly do not have huge box-office appeal. And while both kutiyattam and kathakali enjoy time-honored origins and the same first alphabetic letter, the global awareness of kathakali has been more widespread than its more ancient and difficult elder cousin, kutiyattam (pronounced koodeeyattam).

The Indian government has frequently used kathakali as a cultural tool for export, and many performances, especially in Europe, have attracted standing-room audiences and standing ovations at the end of a three-hour show. The elaborate headgear, colorful face designs and heavy and billowing skirt-like costumes create an effect of larger-than-life heroes and epic drama. In 1985, then Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara even sat in the special box at the Kennedy Center to witness a kathakali performance as part of a year-long cultural extravaganza mounted by the Indian government in the U.S.

Kutiyattam, however, with its strict orthodox ancestry and fiercely guarded divisions of caste and community, has not enjoyed the respect and accolades that it deserves. Drawing on the texts of Sanskrit dramatists like Asvaghosha, Bhasa, Sudraka, Kalidasa and Mahendravikramavarman, kutiyattam was once performed by a community of male actors called Chakyars and female performers called Nangiars, assisted by drummers called Nambiars. The prefix "kuti" in the regional language of Malayalam means "combined" or "together," and "attam" means "acting": therefore, the word "kutiyattam" means "combined acting." This feudal, slow-tempo theatre form integrates the histrionic aspect of the elaborate acting of the hero and the other main characters based on classical Sanskrit (as written and described in ancient Indian texts called Puranas) and the verbal narration of the Vidushaka, the comic character, in Malayalam.

It was not until 2001, when UNESCO recognized this magnificent theatre tradition as a world heritage in danger of becoming obsolete, that kutiyattam has been flung onto front pages and the center stage in Indian artistic discussions. Many dance students have been astonished at its delicate nuances of hand gestures (even more detailed and numerous than bharatanatyam, the most popular and recognizable style of Indian classical dance) and eye movements--its challenging modes of training and creative processes. Seminars, festivals, conferences and academic discussions have created a broader awareness of kutiyattam than ever before.

These efforts have been largely steered by one man from his modest home and academy in the small Kerala town of Irinjalakuda. A scholar, performer and ardent devotee of traditional and indigenous Kerala theatre forms, G. Venu has almost singlehandedly championed the cause of kutiyattam in India and overseas. In this interview, conducted via e-mail and telephone between Chennai and Irinjalakuda, Venu speaks candidly about the state of kutiyattam and kathakali and his hopes for the traditional theatre art that he has spent his life learning and documenting.--A.R.

ANITA RATNAM: In May 2001, UNESCO declared kutiyattam "a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity." What does this really mean?

G. VENU: This declaration came with the realization that it will be an irretrievable loss to the world culture if kutiyattam's rare and traditional knowledge--which is oral, difficult to comprehend and intangible, and stored in the recesses of the human mind--is not transmitted to the modern world.

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