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- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur

December 7, 2010

UNESCO goes through applications from countries like China and Japan. India which can boast of a richer cultural heritage sends very few. After Koodiyattam, the oldest Sanskrit theatre tradition, Mudiyettu is the second Kerala art form being included in the UN list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Mudiyettu is a ritual performance that involves rituals, music, dance, and theater. Evolved at Kali temples on the shores of rivers, it is connected with the worship of the Mother Goddess in central Travancore. A village festival celebrating rich harvest, Mudiyettu is a thanks offering to Mother Nature. It traces its origin to the days of Parasuraman, the legendary founder of Kerala. The caste known as Kuruppu is the custodian of this ritual art. Hence it cannot claim tribal origin. However, Dravidian aspects are there which show a merger of two populations, the ethnic and the settlers.

Today Mudiyettu is carried on as annual festivals associated with certain temples. The ritual art has three stages: kalam varkkal, drawing of the stylized figure of Bhagavathy on the floor; Kalam pooja, ritual adorations and Kalam maikkal, the performance part.

Bhagavathy kalam
Kalam is the picture, a combination of three and two dimensional design on the floor that tells of a mythical event. The deity portrayed is that of an angry Kali on her way to Kailash holding the severed head of Darika, from which blood drips. Traditionally done by fine powder in primary colors, Kali holds various weapons in her many hands (from 4 to 64 as the artists draw in varied forms). Red and black dominate the portrayal. Artistically done, it projects the thrill of violence when it glows under flaming bell metal lamps in the night. All the agricultural products around the Kalam indicate its connection with the Mother Goddess. After the last ritual worship in the temple, the light is carried to the kalam in the temple precincts. The sword associated with Kali, the victory over the demon also is taken out to the sacred spot in a ceremonial procession. And kalam pooja, ritual adoration starts.

Kalam paattu
Kalam paattu is vital to the ritual worship. Accompanied by percussion instruments exclusive to Kerala, chenda (drum), cymbals, kurum kuzhal and kompu (pipes), the singer narrates the story central to the picture. Seeing the blood shot figure of angry Kali, a troubled Siva asks some Kurupu, one good at drawing, to draw her picture. Kali on her way comes across the picture of her violent self. And pacified by the song in adoration, Kali regains her composure. She blesses all those who drew the kalam and those who sang the song. The picture drawn in the kalam is the deity now, sacrosanct.

is the orchestra associated with temples in Kerala. Its function starts from declaring the event in a ritual format, calling people of the village to assemble, highlighting the dramatic during the singing and enactment of the myth. Mostly 5 drums around a huge lighted lamp begin the orchestra. Chenda vadyam accompanied by cymbals is loud rhythmic beats with percussions that create the needed ambience for the performance of a celestial drama about to start. The team perambulates around the temple accompanying the blazing sword, and the flaming red dress of Kali. This ritual procession known as thalappoli is an impressive parade of lights and music that leads to the grand finale, the performance which starts at 12 in the night.

It begins with singing the story of Darika Vadham. The demon, powerful and causing harm to people, has become a menace. And Lord Siva has created Kali for the specific purpose of killing Darika. The fight also goes over a period during which she was struck with the epidemic, small pox. The performer has white pock marks on his face to indicate this aspect. The myth peeps into the social dimension. Darika is the leader of a clan known by the same name for their hooliganism. And small pox was a ravaging menace in those days that killed people en mass. Morally, it is the fight between good and evil, illustrating how the Good triumphs over Evil, ultimately establishing poetic justice. Then the performance starts with heightened drama.

The performance
Mudiyettu is a stylized drama, the roots from which Koodiyattam, the world famous Sanskrit drama, must have sprung. The costume and the masque remind one of Kathakali. The dialogue spoken is a mixture of poetry, prose and nonsensical sounds in old Malayalam, the roots from which the spicy Chakyar Koothu must have sprung.

It has the sophistication of drama divided into seven scenes that move from Kailasam (the abode of Lord Siva, to Asura Lokam (home of demons), and from Earth to Paathalam, the lowest of the three worlds in Indian imagination.

It is in the 3rd scene that Kali, the protagonist, emerges from the front of the temple. The oracle receives the headgear (mudi) of the deity in the middle of rituals and carries it on his head. This act is known as mudiyettu. And then Kali starts in an impressive parade of flaming lights and chiming cymbals, accompanied by drummers, creating an unearthly aura. This scene known as Kali purappad is a stylized dance with tribal features in movements, costume.

The vigor of the battle scene is presented in the format of Koodiyattam. A group of people perform to the accompaniment of loud, quickened beats on the drums, chiming of the cymbals, and blowing of pipes, amidst a magic of fireworks, and battle cries. In the next scene before the killing of Darika, he confesses his wrong doings born of arrogance and accepts death as the natural justice. And then Kali moves towards Kailash with the severed head of Darika, fulfilling the mission of her life.

The magical realism must have scared a primitive community. The good prevailing over evil, humbled the onlookers who went home to the humdrum of their daily routines. The worship of the Mother is a pan-Indian phenomenon. The myth of Kali and Darika Vadham is seen only in Kerala while the story of Kannagi is the popular myth in Tamilnadu. And Durga as Mahishasura Mardhini is common in Bengal.

In Kerala, as a village festival performed in open theatres, Mudiyettu fosters social harmony among different castes and communities. The new status conferred by the UNESCO will bring this art form into the limelight.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to

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