Koodiyattam , also transliterated as Kutiyattam, is a form of Sanskrit theatre traditionally performed in the state of Kerala, India. Performed in the Sanskrit language in Hindu temples, it is believed to be 2,000 years old. It is officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Koodiyattam [kutiyattam], meaning “combined acting,” signifies Sanskrit drama presented in the traditional style in temple theatres of Kerala. It is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre. It has an attested history of a thousand years in Kerala, but its origin and evolution are shrouded in mystery. Kutiyattam and chakyar koothu were among the dramatized dance worship services in temples of ancient India, particularly Tamilakam (modern-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala). Both kootiyattam and chakyar koothu find several mentions in ancient sangam literature of south and also in the epigraphs belonging to subsequent Pallava, Chera, Chola periods in Tamil Nadu. Inscriptions related to the dramatized dance worship services like koodiyattam and chakyar koothu are available in temples at Tanjore, Tiruvidaimaruthur, Vedaranyam, Tiruvarur, and Omampuliyur.
They were treated as an integral part of worship services alongside the singing of tevaram and prabandam hymns. There are mentions in epigraphs those forms of dramatized dance worship services that are called aariyam that mostly had Sanskrit scripts for plays.
Several ancient kings and members of other professions are listed to have authored several works for these services. There is evidence of these services being done all over ancient subcontinent during time of cholas and pallavas. A Pallava king called Rajasimha has been credited with authoring a play called kailasodharanam in Tamil that has the topic of Ravana becoming subject to Siva’s anger and being subdued mercilessly for the same. For examples a fragmented inscription at the door step of an ancient Shiva temple (now non-existent) in Pegan in Burma finds mention of these services.
It is believed that Kulasekhara Varman Cheraman Perumal, an ancient king of Tamil Chera dynasty, who ruled from Mahodayapuram (modern Kodungallur), reformed Koodiyattam, introducing the local language for Vidusaka and structuring presentation of the play to well-defined units. He himself wrote two plays, Subhadraharana and Tapatisamvarana and made arrangements for their presentation on stage with the help of a Brahmin friend called Tolan. These plays are still presented on stage. Apart from these, the plays traditionally presented include Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra, Kalyanasaugandhika of Nilakantha, Bhagavadajjuka of Bodhayana, Nagananda of Harsa, and many plays ascribed to Bhasa including Abhiseka and Pratima. The Kutiyattam performance was performed in specially designed temples called koothambalams.
The use of Buddhist themes for plays is a very controversial and moot issue and seem to be a later interpolation not existing since ancient times for the latter not being a then-legal vedic system.
Mizhavu kept in mizhavana (wooden box made especially to keep mizhavu).
Traditionally, the main musical instruments used in Koodiyattam are mizhavu, kuzhitalam, etakka, kurumkuzhal, and sankhu. Mizhavu, the most prominent of these, is a percussion instrument that is played by a person of the Ambalavas Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma playing the kuzhithalam (a type of cymbal).
Traditionally, Koodiyattam has been performed by Chakyars (a subcaste of Kerala Hindus) and by Nangyaramma (women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste). The name Koodiyattam, meaning playing or performing together, is thought to refer to the presence or more actors on stage who act in consonance with the beats of the mizhavu drummers. Alternatively, it may also be a reference to a common practice in Sanskrit drama where a single actor who has performed solo for several nights is joined by another.
The main actor is a Chakyar who performs the ritualistic Koothu and Koodiyattam inside the temple or in the Koothambalam. Chakyar women, Illotammas, are not allowed to participate. Instead, the female roles are played by Nangyaramma. Koodiyattam performances are lengthy and elaborate affairs, ranging from 12 to 150 hours spread across several nights. A complete Koodiyattam performance consists of three parts. The first of these is the purappadu where an actor performs a verse along with the nritta aspect of dance. Following this is the nirvahanam where the actor, using abhinaya, brings to the audience the mood of the main character of the play. The nirvahanam, a retrospective, takes the audience up to the point where the actual play begins. The final part of the performance is koodiyattam which is the play itself. While the first two parts are solo acts, Koodiyattam can have as many characters as are required to perform on the stage.
The practice was that elders of the Chakyar community taught it to their youngsters and it was an art form performed only by Chakyars till the 1950s. In 1955 Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar performed Kutiyattam outside the temple for the first time.For performing the art forms outside the temples he faced many problems from the hardline Chakyar community. In his own words:
My own people condemned my action (performing Koothu and Kutiyattam outside the precincts of the temples), Once, after I had given performances at Vaikkom, they even thought about excommunicating me. I desired that this art should survive the test of time. That was precisely why I ventured outside the temple.
In 1962, under the leadership of Dr. V. Raghavan, noted art and Sanskrit scholar, Sanskrit Ranga of Madras, invited Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar to perform Kutiyattam in Chennai. Thus for the first time in history Kutiyattam was performed outside Kerala. They presented at Madras on three nights: Kutiyattam scenes from three plays Abhiṣeka,Subhadrādhanañjaya and Nāgānda.
The performance of the maestro Maani Maadhava Chakyar made great impact on the people and art critics. People outside Kerala were able to witness his talent. Then Mani Madhava Chakyar was invited and performed Kutiyattam at places in north India like New Delhi and Banaras (1964). It made the critic to accept his authority in Rasa Abhinaya, Natyasastra and Kutiyattam.
After Chakyar’s first tour to New Delhi, he was awarded immediately with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1964 for his “contributions to Chakyar Koothu and Kutiyattam” — the first national recognition to the maestro and the art form. His supremacy in Rasa-abhinaya and Netrabhinaya and Kutiyattam attracted lot of people towards the art form.
Koodiyattam face makeup
He performed Kudiyattam all over India and popularized the same. He and his troop did Koodiyattam performance in places like Madras (1962, 1973 and 1977), Madhura (1962), New Delhi (1964, 1966, 1974, 1979 and 1983), Varanasi (1964 and 1979), Bombay (1973), Ujjain (1982), Bhopal (1987), etc.
The President of India, scholar and philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan invited him to perform Kutiyattam at Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) in 1964 and was impressed by the guru’s exceptional acting skill. His Kutiyattam performances, lectures and demonstrations at centres like Madras Music Academy in Chennai, International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi, Experimental theatre in New Delhi and Bombay, and National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bombay fetched wide popularity and recognition for his Abhinaya and Kutiyattam.
Naayika (heroine) in Kutiyattam. Female roles are done only by women in Kutiyattam. Vasadatta in Swapnavāsavadattam Kutiyattam.
He choreographed and directed acts of the plays like Kalidasa’s Abhijñānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra; Bhasa’s Swapnavāsavadatta and Pancharātra; Harsha’s Nagananda for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam. He and his troupe performed these Kutiyattams all over India.
He performed Chakyar Koothu and Koodiyattam for All India Radio and Doordarshan for the first time, which helped to attract thousands of listeners to these traditional art forms. It was he who started demonstrations in Kudiyattam to popularise the same.
In early 1960s Maria Christoffer Byrski, a Polish student doing research in Indian theatres at Banaras Hindu University came to study Koodiyattam from the maestro Mani Madhava Chakyar and became the first non-Chakyar/nambiar to learn the art form. He stayed in Guru’s home at Killikkurussimangalam and studied the art form in traditional Gurukula way.