Ottamthullal or Ottanthullal is a performance art from Kerala, India. This art was founded by kunjan nambiar one of the prachina kavithrayam in Malayalam. The art form was created during the 18th century by legendary Malayalam poet Kalakkaththu Kunchan Nambiar. The story goes that Nambiar, who was playing the mizhavu for a Chakyar Koothu show, dozed off in the middle of the performance, thus inviting ridicule from the Chakyar. The humiliated Nambiar vowed to come up with an alternative art form to Chakyar koothu, and conjured up an Ottamthullal show that also made fun of prevalent socio-political equations and prejudices of the region.
Ottamthullal, over the centuries, has a (mostly) single actor, donning a green make-up and wearing colourful costumes (which once prompted Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to once remark that Ottamthullal is “poor man’s Kathakali”) and reciting the thullal lyrics (dance songs), all the while acting and dancing himself. The art form has of late found practitioners from among women too, and is occasionally staged as a group dance form with each artiste representing a character in the storyplay.
The story was “Kallyana Sougandhikam” an extract from Mahabharata where Lord Bhima travels to collect a rare flower by name kallyana sougandhikam. Seeing his elder brother Hanuman on the way, he was engaged in lengthy conversations as Bhima does not recognizes his brother etc. It was the language people heard for the first time in a performance which had none of the unusual intricacies of Sanskrit. People were thrilled to hear the verses in the plain language they use in their day to day life.
Kunchan Nambiar lavishly used the similes to insult the land lords and other so called very reputed personalities of that time as Bhima’s image was pictured like them foolish and arrogant landlord. People were thrilled, but the chakyar was not. He went to the king and complained against Nambiar. The king of Chembakassery who knew about the pranks of Kunjan Nambiar and ordered that from that day onwards no “ottamthullal” will be performed in the Ambalapuza temple compound (even now this order is obeyed by the temple).
But the king did not ban the art as it is in the case of the present ministers. The thullal performances and the lyrics used in it spread like wild fire it became an essential performance in all temple festivals barring the Ambalapuzha temple.
The art of thullal was not created from the vacuum. Kunjan Nambiar adopted much from the existing tribal performances and gave it a great shape adding his sarcastic style of lyrics as an icing on it. He later improved it in to three styles “oattan”, “seethankan”, and “Parayan”, the three had minor changes in its dress and style they were derived from the performances observed by castes like “Kanian, Pulaya and Paraya” respectively.
In thullal the performer himself sings and says the story. The troop which accompanies the main artist repeats the same when each sentence is completed. This gives the people a chance to clearly follow what is said and enjoy the satire to the maximum.
Later when Ambalapuzha was conquered by Travancore, Kunjan Nambiar moved to Thiruvananthapuram, there he happened to meet and befriend with great artists in Malayalam literature like Unnayi Varier and Ramapurathu Varier etc.