Poothana liberated
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur
e-mail: padma.jayaraj@rediffmail.com

November 9, 2005

Kerala on the Southwestern tip of the Indian peninsula is the treasure land of many traditional theater forms, religious and secular. Some have retained their simplicity and ritualistic character while others like Kuthu, Krishnanattam, and Kathakali have attained a high degree of sophistication and aesthetic refinement. Kudiyattam occupies a unique place among the traditional forms because of its antiquity, its direct link with the classical Sanskrit drama, its unique presentation and its vital influence on Krishnanattam and Kathakali.

A community known as Chakyars has preserved this tradition of acting as their mode of worship, for, Kuthu and Kudiyattam is basically a temple art, liturgical in application. When a single actor performs multiple roles with an accent on story-telling, it is called kuthu; when a group of artistes, male and female, don various roles, the item is known as Kudiyattam. In the Siva temple of Wadakkunathan, Thrissur, Kerala, episodes from the Ramayana is performed for a period of 41 days ending on Saraswathi puja day, every year. Here rituals demand that the Nangiarkuthu has to be staged. Nangiar is the female counterpart of Chakyar. Once upon a time the female principle must have been central to life and rituals in our temples. Yet in the long run, the female performers were relegated to marginal positions.

Today this dramaturgy is well-known as a highly stylized theater all over the world. And Usha Nangiar is a byword for Nangiarkuthu in Kerala. Great artists played a crucial role in bringing this art form from the nrithamandapa of temples to proscenium theatres. To suit modern fast life and tastes, some artistes have choreographed simple themes intelligible to the less learned in its complex mudras. Hailing from a family, deep-rooted in this traditional art form, Usha is trying hard to introduce a complex theater to the laity by introducing known, simple themes and highlighting modern sensibilities through the drama of facial expressions. You can enjoy her performance even when you lack the knowledge of its complex mudras that is integral to Kuthu. The highly stylized hand gestures demand a learned audience, like the audience of classical music, for proper appreciation.

Usha Nangiar presented Poothana Moksham in Regional Theater, Thrissur under the aegis of Thalam that promotes all cultural items in the cultural capital of Kerala. The story of Poothana Moksham is a familiar one, presented by Kathakali artistes as well as dancers. Poothana lives in popular imagination as a female demon, painted in black. But as Usha enacts the role of Poothana, Poothana becomes a round character, an embodiment of all that could be a woman, both the positive and negative aspects. Poothana who is a rakshasi, intrinsically evil, assumes the beautiful form of a woman. In exquisite drama, Usha presents Poothana appreciating her physical charm before a mirror. And with it, there happens that transformation of her character: a merging of the beauty and beast. Yet, somewhere deep within Poothana, is a killer despite her mask. Kamsa has decreed that she kill all the new-born boys. And she enters Ambady where Krishna is a babe in his cradle. In the village of milk maidens, life is pastoral in all its simplicity and beauty.

Without any qualms, the beautiful Poothana enters homes where children are asleep or playing in their cradles, their mothers busy at hearths. It is easy to hoodwink the busy women engaged in household chores. Suckling innocent babes is easier than anything else. In one house, a child is asleep and the mother is busy churning butter. Poothana wakes the baby up and the still-sleepy baby starts sucking. As she suckles the child, the mother in every woman is roused. There is a fleeting momentary pang that flashes on her face. Now, the child is put to sleep!! Realizing that her work is more demanding, Poothana steals away; waits in the shadows to listen for the wailing of its mother. the mother comes to the cradle to take a look at the baby. Why is it sleeping so long? The shocked mother wails in deep despair. Outside beyond the shadows, Poothana is satisfied with the result. The killer moves on in search of the next prey.

Like a shadow, Poothana now enters the next home where the baby is playing alone in its cradle. She fondles the child, and talks to it in baby gibberish, and lifts the baby from its bed. She could see in the far corner how its mother is busy finishing her work before her child calls. The dancer's face beams with the sweetest of all emotions in the world, love for an innocent baby. Suckling is a natural act, human milk of compassion unite a sucking child and its feeding nurse. But here a child is put to sleep through the most wicked act in an ironic twist. Poothana steals away, waits outside until the wailing mother is heard.

Leaving lonely homes behind, she reaches a house filled with many women. While wondering how to get in, she sees a woman looking awed at her beauty. And now beauty is used as a tool to gain mastery in the crowded house. Poothana walks in undeterred, finds the charming Krishna at play. An emotion still unfelt and unknown overwhelms her. Her heart melts to think of what she has to do. A sob is stifled at her throat. No matter what, she cannot kill this babe, an embodiment of loveliness. But terror descends, terror of king Kamsa's might. Fear for one's own life is after all what dominates every living being. So Poothana is play-acting once again. This time with Krishna!! And Krishna is not an easy child. He needs to be coaxed and cajoled to suckle at her breast. Finally when the child holds on, she slowly understands the might of a different child, cast in a different mould. "Be soft," Poothana tells him. For, he tries tricks with his tiny pointed teeth. She tells him so very softly not to bite... again there is another bite... now sharper that almost unnerves her. Yet she must hold on... Slowly another kind of terror strikes her like lightning, the mortal fear of a human being when life is at risk. She tries desperately to remove the child from her breast. Besides, now she is hounded by the fear of discovery. In deep struggle Death enters... Death sure of its prey... but this time the role is reversed! Poothana shrieks in agony, waving all caution to winds. And death, when God gives it, is blessing, liberation, moksha.

Usha's highly dramatic rendering was enhanced by the most musical of percussion instruments, mizhavu by VKK Hariharan, and party, edakka by Kalamandalam Kesavan Kutty and ilathalam by Aparna. The complexity of the mudras offset by the simplicity and depth of varied emotions that we encounter both in art and life, made the performance an aesthetic pleasure.

Usha as an artiste is waging an uphill battle to revive the legitimate ancient position of a female artiste in this male dominant, demanding art. Coming from a family that is rooted in tradition, the daughter of Chathakudam Krishnan Nambiar the late mizhavu maestro, was lucky to learn under gurus like Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Guru Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar and Padmasri Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. Married to the well known, mizhavu artiste VKK Hariharan, she gets all the support an artist needs. And teaching Kudiyattam in Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University, Kalady, Kerala is another contributing factor that helps Usha find fulfillment as an artiste.

Padma Jayaraj is a regular contributor to narthaki.com