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Theatrical links between Koodiyaattam and Kathakali
by C P Unnikrishnan, Kochi
October 6, 2003

Many of us know several aspects of a number of subjects. At times it's interesting and useful to put them together and review them, for, time would have changed concepts and facets. In the field of theatre changes during the last two to three decades have been fast and vivid. Thus it would be relevant to have a review of Koodiyaattam and Kathakali purely from the angles of their theatrical elements.

The unseen elements
1. Koodiyaattam undoubtedly is much older a form than Kathakali. Scholars have traced its roots to claim an antiquity of 1000 years or more. The all time known authentic text on Indian Theatre is Bharata's Natyasasthra. In Kerala, when compared to Kathakali, Koodiyaatam is the theatre, which shows a closer adherence to the norms seen in Bharata's Text. The existing arguments quoted by D Appukuttan Nair, that the roopakas of Bhasa, used in Koodiyattam, were written before Bharata's Natyasasthra and that Koodiyattam lays emphasis on Natyaadharmi while Natyasasthra stresses on Lokadharmi are not forgotten. However, in this paper there is no scope for a debate on the said arguments. Kathakali is relatively a child and its youngest days may be traced back approximately to four and a half decades from now.

2. While we have Koodiyattam existing as a theatre, Krishnanaattam evolved as an audio-visual order, more in line with the concept of devotion to Krishna. It is centred only around Krishna and the predominant sentiment or emotion is devotion. Kathakali, believed to have evolved after Krishnanaattam (not going into the argument that Krishnanaattam evolved after Kathakali) is closer to Koodiyaattam. In fact, the subject-wise scope of Kathakali is far more than that of Koodiyattam.

3. Episodes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavatha are already on the stage. Several Western themes like King Lear, Hamlet, John the Baptist, Sohrab and Rustum etc. have been tried out. The story of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindi version of Kuchelavrutham were also on the stage. With all these, what still survive are the episodes from the Indian epics. Rarely, the more recent plays based on the episodes from our epics do find acceptance on the stage. To quote, one is Karnasapatham, written by late Sri. Madhavan Nair under the pen name Mali.

4. The above factor appears relevant when we look into the plays adopted by the school of Koodiyaattam.

5. The experts in Koodiyattam had prepared detailed Production manuals and Acting manuals (i.e. Kramadeepika and Aattaprakaram) for all the plays. In the school of Kathakali only the lyrical contents (i.e. the Aattakatha] were prepared. Of course, recently Sri. Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair (Rtd. Principal, Kerala Kalamandalam) brought out two parts of his book, titled Kathakalivesham. Part one has the manuals for the invocation items viz. Thodayam, Purappadu & Pakuthippurappadu. Part two has the manuals for Subhadraharanam, Narakasuravadham & Bakavadham.

6. In Koodiyattam as well as in Kathakali, the experts have opted for only certain selected acts or parts to be presented on the stage. This may be due to consideration for the general audience.

7. Let us consider the basic objectivity of Natya as the fifth Veda and the requirement specified by Indra and the Dikpalakas to lord Bramah.
Drusyam shravyam cha yal bhavel
Na vedavyavahaaroyam
Samshraavya: Soodrajaatishu
Tasmal srijaaparm vedam
Panchamam saarvavarnikam (ver 7; Ch 1; B.N.S)

The fifth Veda is expected to be entertaining, audio-visual, and accessible to all classes of people. Though at present or in the near past, the population capable of understanding the Sanskrit language has become thin, in Koodiyattam, there are certain provisions, like the Vidooshaka explaining or clarifying a content area in the vernacular language or certain inferior characters like the Soorppanakha uttering very down to earth regional language. However, the objectivity of Koodiyattam is recognisably different from that of Kathakali. The theatrical structure of Koodiyaattam also includes transmission of certain sociological, philosophical and metaphysical norms to the aspirants.

8. Those plays, which included the Vidhooshaka intentionally, delivered to the audience the relevant areas of the sciences like Arthasaasthra, Kaamasasthra, Aayurveda, Astrology and Mokshasasthra. Such an attempt is not consciously made in the theatrical structure of Kathakali. It deals more with exposition of the dramatic elements. The three modes of acting viz. Prabhusammithatha, Kaanthasammithatha and Suhrudsammithatha, the grand masters had chosen Kaanthasammithatha as the one most apt to achieve the experience of pleasure. Despite the variations in the chronological shades, both Koodiyattam and Kathakali have taken this aspect into consideration. Transitional phases might keep them concealed. But it is easy for any serious searcher to discover.

The audio-visual elements
1. If we attempt a comparison among the four methods of acting, it becomes evident that the Vaachika abhinaya by the actor is seen in Koodiyaattam. This component of abhinaya is exclusive to the singers in the case of Kathakali. The relative amount of Malayalam used in Kathakali is much more than in Koodiyaattam. This function of utilising the local language has been exclusively attributed to the Vidooshaka in Koodiyaattam. Verbal rendering, while becoming a significant part of the play in Koodiyaattam, in Kathakali only very insignificant characters like the Bheerus, Mahout etc. speak on the stage. According to several theatre experts, this very cautious preservation of the jester (Vidooshaka) and the intentional use of the vernacular language have been key factors in the survival of Koodiyaattam. But for the Vidooshaka, Koodiyattam would get totally cut off from the common man, though such a group of audience forms only a smaller percentage of the entire rasikas.

2. Koodiyaattam, in its four components of acting may not be strictly adhering to the norms given in Bharata's Natyasasthra. But the method of the serial exposition of a context through the 5 phases (out of the 6 described in the 24th chapter of Bharata's N.S.) can be more legibly seen in Koodiyaattam than in Kathakali. The legible phases are Vachika, Soocha, Angura, Saakha and Nivruthyangura. In fact such an order can hardly be noticed in Kathakali.

3. Bharata says that it is Natyadharmi that has to be employed on the stage. But the highly practical minded sage does specify that if Natyadharmi is found to be weak in attaining the objectives, Lokadharmi has to be employed. The school of Kathakali has been doing it at a faster rate than the school of Koodiyaattam. Perhaps a bit too fast, that but for the shell of Aaharya, it becomes difficult to make out whether what is seen in front of a sincere rasika is Kathakali or just a display of the language of gestures and few facial expressions. The elements of nritha that should accompany the gestures are ignored in several cases. This should never happen to any art form under the name of evolution, progress or the process of updating. Though this discussion has no direct role in the present paper, it is an important aspect of the differences in the theatrical tendencies in the two theatre forms.

4. Since the sequences of Soocha, Angura and the Sakha take time to be executed with caution, the Saatwika component of abhinaya is more meticulously and in detail dealt with, in the school of Koodiyaattam. Especially, with the recent trend in Kathakali, to delineate character interaction in a natural mode, the above aspect of Saamanya abhinaya is becoming more diffused. While Kathakali has been successful in reaching a wider range of audience, Koodiyaattam has been successful as a medium to preserve the Sanskrit - Theatre structure of Kerala.

5. The Aaharya abhinaya component has reached its highest possible limits both in Koodiyaattam as well as Kathakali. The basic grouping of the characters, based on their innate qualities follow the same pattern in both the schools. Both the schools adopt the involvement of the colour and pattern concepts, more or less in the same manner. However, it is obvious that the exaggeration in facial makeup and costumes seen in Kathakali is of a much lesser degree in Koodiyaattam. The overall dilution in the bulk of the Aaharya in Koodiyaattam is undoubtedly due to the prime consideration given to the Saatwika and the Vachika components of abhinaya. This falls well in line with the suggestion given in the 23rd chapter of Bharata's N.S. i.e. Keep the costumes and weapons as light as possible so that the physical strain experienced by the actor is minimum. This is one reason why the weapons look quite out of proportion when compared with the size of the character possessing the weapon.

6. All what has been mentioned above will not call for a theatre without specific Aaharya in Kathakali or in Koodiyaattam. In fact concealing one's identity has been given due thought to, by both the schools. This also falls well in line with Bharata's suggestion in the 23rd chapter. i.e.
Yadha janthu: swabhaavam swam
Talswabhaavam hi bhjathe
Veshena varnakaishaiva
Chaaditha: purushasthatha
Parabhaavam Prakuruthe
Yasya vesham samaashritha:
(ver. 83; Ch. 23; B.N.S)

"When the principle of life discards one body and gets into another body it shows a behaviour apt for the present body. In the same manner the actor who conceals himself with colours and costumes exhibit the nature of the character he has accepted."

1. Koodiyaattam & Kathakali have been together responsible for preserving and updating a lot of Kerala's traditional theatre structure. Both of them have been able to retain the essential metaphysical aura.

2. The two together still stand testimony to the process of regionalisation in theatrical norms, which functioned very efficiently in Kerala. This is in perfect harmony with the concept of Pravrithibhedas mentioned by Bharata, in the 14th chapter of the N.S.

3. The recent revival tendencies in the two theatre forms and the enthusiasm shown by the more recent modern theatre groups in Kerala to study certain fundamentals of Koodiyaattam and Kathakali must be considered as positive trends. They have been instrumental in linking the very old theatre of Kerala to the most modern intelligent theatre of Kerala.

4. It is for the connoisseurs and practitioners to realise the serious and the functional theatrical chain and the web in the two forms, which have been successfully kept nourished. The same must be continued, so that the present mode of preservation, transformation and transfer would continue in future also.

C P Unnikrishnan is a Kathakali actor, critic and research scholar. His research work involves tracing interlinks among the art forms of Kerala based on Bharatha's Natyasasthra.

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