In memory of a late maestro 
- Renu Ramanath, Kochi 
August 5, 2009 

The Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda, recently observed the first death anniversary of the late doyen of Koodiyattam, Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, with a week-long festival of Koodiyattam performances based on Bhasa's celebrated Sanskrit play, 'Abhisheka Natakam.' 

The commemorative programmes, titled 'Gurusmarana - Abhisheka Natakam Festival,' was held at Madhava Natya Bhoomi, the performance space of the Ammannur Gurukulam dedicated to the memory of the late Guru, who passed away on July 1, 2008. Though at a ripe old age of 92, the master's demise had meant the end of an era of great guru-s and performers in the history of Indian classical theatre. All the seven acts of 'Abhisheka Natakam,' composed by the legendary playwright Bhasa, who is supposed to have lived sometime between 2nd Century AD and 2nd Century BC were presented at the festival in the format of Koodiyattam.  

Nowhere in the recent future has all the seven Acts of 'Abhisheka Natakam' been presented on consecutive days at the same venue. 'Abhisheka Natakam' is one among the three Ramayana plays that have a revered place in the traditional repertory of Koodiyattam, the other two plays being Bhasa's 'Prathima Natakam' and Shakthibhadra Kavi's 'Aascharya Choodamani.' These three plays have given rise to the 'Ramayanam Kramadeepika,' a comprehensive Production Manual for the story of Ramayana.  

'Abhisheka Natakam,' narrates the story of Ramayana from Rama's killing of Bali, the monkey king of Kishkindha till the Abhishekam (coronation) of Rama after vanquishing Ravana.  The seven Acts or 'Ankam-s' are 'Balivadhaankam,' 'Hanumaddoothaankam,' 'Thoranayudhaankam,' 'Samudratharanaankam,' 'Mayasirassu,' 'Prathamadwitheeyaankam' and 'Abhishekaankam.'  Among these, 'Balivadham' and 'Thoranayudham' were considered important by the Koodiyattam artistes for centuries. The Attaprakaram-s (the traditional Acting Manuals) and Kramadeepika-s (Production Manuals) for these two Acts were in existence for a long time. Among the remaining Acts, 'Hanumaddoothankam' and 'Samudratharanankam,' were performed under the direction and guidance of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar himself. All other Acts had been directed by Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar, the senior Koodiyattam performer and the late maestro's nephew.  

The first Act, 'Balivadham,' had been made memorable at numerous venues by Guru Ammannur who had specialised in the graphic enactment of death stage by stage through special breathing techniques gifted to him by another maestro from a distant past, Kodungalloor Kunjunni Thampuran. At his first death anniversary, the role of Bali was donned by his nephew, Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar. Sooraj Nambiar performed Sugriva, with Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar as Hanuman. Ammannur (Margi) Rama Chakyar performed as Sreerama, with Kapila as Tara. The highlight of the performance was the percussion accompaniment on mizhavu provided by VKK Hariharan, along with other members of the Ammannur Gurukulam percussionists. When Hariharan takes his seat behind the mizhavu, the instrument becomes more than a mere accompaniment.   

'Hanumaddoothankam,' the Second Act, narrates how Hanuman reaches Lanka, finds Sita imprisoned by Ravana in his magical garden Asokavanika, witnesses Ravana beseeching Sita for her love, finally presenting himself before Sita with the message from Rama. Its first performance was held about 12 years ago, with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar himself playing Ravana. Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar was Hanuman and Usha Nangiar, the eminent Koodiyattam artiste and disciple of Guru Ammannur, donned the role of Sita. For this performance also Usha Nangiar appeared as Sita, astounding the audience with her magnificent stage presence and controlled bhava-s. Her Sita was the incarnation of grief, yet without losing even an iota of her royal dignity. The sheer explosive force of her words while portraying an indignant Sita issues the threat of her lethal curse at Ravana's advances at her jolted not only Ravana but the spectators as well.  Usha once again proved her mastery over the medium of Koodiyattam performance.  

'Thoranayudham,' the third Act, also popular in the traditional repertory, was presented flawlessly, with Margi Madhu donning the role of Ravana. Sooraj Nambiar, was Sankukarna, who arrives bearing the news of the destruction of the Asokavanika by a mere monkey.  Saritha Krishnakumar played the role of Vijaya, the Dwarapaalika of Lanka. Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar was Vibhishanan, and Margi Sajeev Narayana Chakyar, as Hanuman. Madhu's portrayal of the 'Azhakiya Ravanan' (The Adorned Ravana) was detailed and exhaustive. He chose to perform 'Kailasodharanam' and 'Parvathi Viraham' elaborately. Margi Sajeev Narayana Chakyar (as Hanuman), Sooraj Nambiar (as Sankukarna), Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar (Vibhishana) and Saritha Krishnakumar (Vijaya) were the other actors.  

The next day was 'Samudratharanankam,' another rarely performed act. Though hardly performed in the tradition, the late guru Ammannur himself had directed its production a few decades ago. This act narrates the story of Rama confronting Varuna, the King of Oceans, who was blocking his way to Lanka. As an enraged Rama sends the fiery weapon, Agneyasthram, at the Ocean, Varuna himself makes his appearance, asking for Rama's forgiveness and assuring him a safe passage across the waters. The highlight of this act was the 'Purappad' (Entry) of Varuna. Only the upper body of Varuna is revealed throughout the performance, with the Thiraseela (curtain) covering up the rest, to give an impression that he is rising from the waters. A white cloth held close to the curtain is used to make the effect of ripples, along with long strands of white cloth being thrown up vertically in the air from behind the curtain. Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar appeared as Varuna. Others of the cast included Sooraj Nambiar (Sreerama), Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar (Lakshmana), Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar (Vibhishana) and Ammannur Madhav (Hanuman).  

'Mayasironkam' or 'Mayasirassu,' in which Ravana, in one last attempt to entice Sita, even as Rama and his army of monkeys are invading Lanka, presents two illusory ('Maya') heads of Rama and Lakshmana was the next day's performance. The cast included Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar (Ravana), Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar (Vishalamathi) and Aparna Nangiar (Sita). This act was directed by Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar not many years ago.  

The sixth Act, 'Prathamadwitheeyankam,' was an interesting add-on that is mentioned in the original text of the play as a short intermediate chapter.  Since presenting the battle scenes on the stage was impossible, this scene in which three 'Vidyadhara-s'(divine persons) report the battle scene, covered all important incidents and the final fall of the mighty Ravana. Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar was the Prathaman, the first Vidyadhara, Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar as Dwitheeyan, the Second Vidyadharan and Sooraj Nambiar as Thritheeyan.  
On the last day, after the commemorative and valedictory sessions, was the last Act, the 'Abhishekankam,' in which the coronation of Rama is shown with all splendour. However, the major aspect of this Act is Sita performs the 'Agnipravesh,' (Entering the fire to prove chastity), Agni, the God of Fire himself emerges, with Sita. Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar donned the role of Agni, with Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar as Sreerama, Sooraj Nambiar as Lakshmana, Pothiyil Renjith Chakyar as Vibhishana, Ammannur Madhav as Hanuman and Kalamandalam Divya as Sita.  

The accompaniment for the whole festival was provided by the members of Ammannur Gurukulam as well as invited artistes including Kalamandalam Rajeev, Kalamandalam Hariharan, Kalamandalam Narayanan Nambiar and Kalamandalam Ravikumar (Mizhavu), Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and P Nandakumar (Edakka), Kapila Venu, Aparna Nangiar, Kalamandalam Divya, Archana Nandakumar, Keerthi Sagar and Gayathri P (Thalam).  Apart from VKK Hariharan, the mizhavu artistes, Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar and Kalamandalam Gopinathan Nambiar also participated on different days. For the 'Abhishekankam,' thimila by Thriprayar Ramesan Nambiar and kurumkuzhal by Mulakunnathukavu Anukumar were also part of the percussion. Make-up (chutti) was provided by Kalanilayam Parameswaran, Kalamandalam Satheesan, Kalanilayam Sankaranarayanan and Kalanilayam Haridas.  

Interestingly, this festival coincides with another event of historical importance. It was exactly 100 years ago that Maha Mahopadhyay T Ganapathi Shastri, a scholar based in Thiruvananthapuram had discovered a few manuscripts of Sanskrit plays which later turned out to be the works of the legendary playwright Bhasa. The first manuscripts were found from a home in Manalikkara near Thiruvananthapuram. Shastri, who was the Curator for Publication of Sanskrit Manuscripts under the Maharaja of Travancore, conducted further research, intrigued by the quality of the dramatic texts. The research led to the discovery of a total of 13 drama texts from various parts of Kerala, which Shastri compiled and published as Bhasa plays. The publishing happened during 1915. It was this discovery of a collection of Sanskrit plays, copied in Malayalam script from Kerala that had rekindled the interest in the art form of Koodiyattam during the early years of the last century. Most of these plays were traditionally performed in the format of Koodiyattam, though the Chakyar-s were never aware of the name of Bhasa associated with these texts. They were relying solely on the Kramadeepika-s and Attaprakaram-s (Production and Acting Manuals) handed down through generations in their families.  

The paper presentations and ensuing discussions held every day along with the performances as part of the festival focussed attention on various aspects of the Bhasa plays, with detailed attention given to the particular Anka (Act) performed on each day. The papers were presented by scholars including Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar, G Venu, Dr. EN Narayanan, (SD College, Changanassery), Dr. CM Neelakandan, (Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady), Dr. Kanjad Vasudevan Namboothirippad, (Sree Krishna College, Guruvayur) Dr. MV Narayanan, (Calicut University) and Dr. CK Jayanthi. 

Renu Ramanath is a writer and columnist based in Kochi. She has covered art and culture extensively for The Hindu as a Staff Reporter in the Kochi bureau from 1996, writing reviews and features in The Hindu Friday Review and Sunday Magazine.  Currently she edits Art Concerns, an online journal for contemporary Indian art.