More than a fantastic mythological tale  
- Aparna Sharma, Glamorgan  

July 29, 2005 

It is unequivocally a privilege to witness a Kudiyattam performance the pinnacle of poise, practice and a rigorous performance dynamic. Proclaimed by the UNESCO as a 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity', and recognised as the oldest, existing theatre form in the world, Kudiyattam is a highly evolved and deeply engaging art form that presses the edges between performance and inhabitation.  

Kudiyattam rests on a multilayered and complex dynamic, with the performance serving beyond the functions of narration. In her recent hour-long performance at Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre, Arya Madhavan evoked more than merely a fantastic mythological tale depicting the killing of the mythical demoness, Poothana by the baby lord Krishna. 

The incredulity of the tale aside, which involves a plot on behalf of the demoness to kill the baby God (feeding him upon lining her breast with poison), the performance was composed of a gripping play between presence and absence, threaded by sharply defined movements and improvised body formations. In Kudiyattam, the performer's vocabulary is, at the first instance, minimal and concentrated. It does not seek mimicry. Rather, the performer concentrates emotion into the mudras, catapulting the performance into a realm of movement poetics, curiously real and abstract at once.  

Arya's solo piece was marked by a fluid ease of transmigration between the characters implicated within the narrative. From the demoness, Arya would migrate to the bystander or the householder. Her emphatic traversal coupled with symbolic and contemplative utilization of the performance space contributed to the drama arising in the juxtaposition of characters.  

A further dialectic arose with the absence of any props in the performance. Ornate yet precise mudras served indicatively inviting the viewer into the dialogic between the performer's body, the narrative and the carving of the performance space. Though the audience and performer at Chapter were situated in a direct equation, facing each other; Arya's inhabitation of the space was defined rather fuzzily. Maintaining characters in keeping with the spatial definition, she occupied distinct areas and instituted relative equations of temporality, nearness and distance.  

When Arya seated herself as the demoness to the kill the baby, or as she looked afar seeking her destination, the subtle, measured and open-ended definition of the subjects and space pressured reading. Every moment of the performance was often followed with a maintained stay, peppered with gestural and emotive repetition, spilling the performance as dynamic and improvised. This propelled variations in the pace of the performance too. Between slow and repetitive movements and others marked by a prompt rigour, a lyrical dimension arose, whose rhythms the audience could not resist.  
Kudiyattam has been performed for over 2000 years in the temple theatres of the south-west Indian state, Kerala. Over the centuries, its methods and discipline have been closely maintained in keeping with tradition. It has been understood as more than drama or performance, rather a means of devotion through cultivation of pure energy. It is in this context that the act of performance extends from evocation towards inhabitation. In this process, breath surfaces as crucial. Arya's occupation of varied characters was facilitated by her control, near mastery of breathing rhythms, complementing the particular bhavas she was emoting. Breath was not an aside, but a tool for the correspondence between emotion, character and performer.  

Kudiyattam is not a method of performance. It is a wide creative framework that situates the artist in tough discipline between method and expression. It is to Arya's merit for weaving her performance within the discipline, the specificity of her narrative and including improvised moments of response towards the audience. Poothana Moksham was presented to a predominantly white, western audience at Chapter. Its rigorous formalism achieved in transcending the barriers of language or culture and though it may not have been deciphered entirely, it was provoking enough to engage audience attention despite the complexly imbricated cultural specificity of the piece. 

Aparna Sharma is an experimental filmmaker presently studying in the Film Academy, University of Glamorgan, UK.