Kootiyattam - Sanskrit Theatre of Kerala

Unesco hails it as “a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” but few Malayalees are aware of it.

Poet Thomas Gray lamented,

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air

Nearer home we have the pithy Malayalam saying "മുറ്റത്തെ മുല്ലയ്ക്കു മണമില്ല" (the fragrance of the jasmine in the backyard goes unnoticed). This saying could aptly describe the fate of Kerala’s Sanskrit theatre form Kootiattam, perhaps the oldest Indian dance ensemble, which some fear is sinking into oblivion.

koodiyattam sanskrit theatre of kerala

This near-crisis has prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to appeal to the world citizen to be responsible for the protection and promotion of Kootiattam which it describes as “a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

That it may be, but few Malayalees seem conscious of their great cultural heritage. Many are unaware that the more popular Kathakali has grown out of Kootiattam which, until recently, was not seen outside the exclusive circle of a few temples. And Kootiattam itself has evolved from Koothu, a solo dance recital. When one performer narrates the story, it is known as Koothu, but when more than one actor enacts a play, it is known as Kootiattam, meaning ‘acting in unison.’

There is some difference of opinion among experts about the date of origin of Kootiattam though they all agree it is ancient and had flourished for centuries. Some put it as early as 2nd century AD. Among them is K.P. Narayana Pisharoty, the foremost authority on the subject, who says that certain preliminaries point to the art having been in practice for more than 1800 years. Dr K.K. Raja, Director of the Adyar Library and Research Centre, believes that the Sanskrit stage in Kerala goes back to at least 9th or 10th century when King Kulasekhara Varman, himself an actor-cum-playwright, wrote and staged two dramas. He is also said to have reformed the Sanskrit stage with the help of his court poet Tolan. As Dr Raja himself points out if Kulasekhara Varman ‘reformed’ the theatre, it must have been in existence before, which shows the antiquity of this art form. Among his innovations is the introduction of a ‘Vidushaka’ (jester) to explain the Sanskrit passages in Malayalam. Before King Kulasekhara’ time, the dramas staged were mainly written by Bhasa, Kalidasa and Harsha, all non-Keralites. Most of the dramas enacted at the time were episodes from the epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata.

This actor-playwright is none other than the celebrated Vaishnava saint Kulasekhara Alvar whose ‘Mukunda Mala’ in praise of Lord Krishna is rated on par with the scriptures. It may be worth pointing out that he is the only Malayalee Alvar, is highly respected in Tamilnadu and other parts outside Kerala, and is one of the twelve Vaishnava Alvars. An incident related in Swami Tapasyananda’s book “Sankara Digvijaya” (on the life of Sri Sankaracharya (788-820AD), throws light on his extreme humility. Hearing about the wisdom and scholarship of the boy Sankara, who was then only seven years old, the King went to his house to pay his respects. It is said that on seeing the young prodigy, the King realized his innate divinity and prostrated before him three times. He also read three new dramas he had written to Sankara who was impressed with the King’s literary talents.

koodiyattam sanskrit theatre of kerala

Unlike certain folk arts where the traditions were handed down from father to son, Kootiattam had manuals containing exhaustive details and instructions on production and acting technique for each of the plays.

Kootiattam is an art restricted to the temple. But there is some difference of opinion whether it is a temple ritual in the accepted sense. In any case it used to be performed only in the koothambalam, i.e. theatre specially built for the performance within the temple precincts. More than a dozen such theatres are still preserved in good condition. It is said that the koothambalams of Vadakkunath temple in Thrissur (Trichur) and the Koodalmanickam temple in Irinjalakuda are some of the best among them.

The role of the hero or other male characters can be played only by a Chakyar. Female roles are enacted only by Nangyars, the women of the Nambiar community. (For the uninitiated, they are exclusive communities of performing artists). Vocal music for the performance is also supplied by the Nangyars who keep the tala (rhythm) with a special type of cymbals. But the predominant musical accompaniment is the Mizhavu drum which is in the shape of a large spherical pot of copper with its small mouth sealed with tightly stretched hide. The drummer plays with bare hands. Other instruments used include Idakka, a small temple drum played with a stick, and Kuzhal (pipe).

It was mentioned earlier that performance of the Kootiattam used to be restricted to the temple theatres. But no more. The first performance outside the temple was at Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1960. The first non-Indian involvement in organizing a public performance was in 1962. This was arranged at the Kerala Kalamandalam and was organized by Dr Clifford Jones of the University of Pennsylvania whose interest in art and theatre is well-known. Other public performances followed. The first one outside Kerala was in 1963 in Madras followed by one in New Delhi.

As a Sanskrit drama, Kootiattam follows the rules enunciated in the Natya Sastra. This means that all the four components that bring a stage play to fruition are strictly followed. The four rules involve movement and actions of the body, controlled delivery of words in prose or verse, make-up, costume and adornment, and the projection of moods and sentiments. Great attention is paid to the make-up and attire of the performer. Readily available materials such as rice, charcoal, turmeric and certain types of flowers are used. Kathakali adoped the Kootiattam style of make-up, but refined it in course of time.

koodiyattam sanskrit theatre of kerala

The stage is decorated with bunches of plantains, coconut fronds, clusters of tender coconuts and coloured cloth considered auspicious. A tall lamp is lighted, even if the performance is during the day. The purappadu (beginning) and the preliminary rites are performed on the stage before the actual performance of the drama.

Then the performance itself. At a time only a single act from a drama is staged. The actual staging of a whole act lasts three to five nights. The introduction of characters etc can take up to twenty to thirty days.

The speech is limited to a few lines of Sanskrit poetry, but each line is explained and illuminated with hours of finely detailed story-telling. It is a marvel how the Chakyar treats a single scene as a full-fledged drama. The elaborate exposition of a single verse can take up to two hours of acting while a whole play may require up to forty days for total presentation. The face with its delicately wrought eye, cheek, brow and lip movements and the elasticity of the face muscles are used to depict a wide variety of contrasting emotions.

It is a general belief that when an actor identifies himself completely with the character he represents, he gets transformed into that character, albeit temporarily. This story, claimed to be true, is narrated by Mr L.S. Rajagopalan in his book Kudiyattam: Preliminaries and Performance.

It was in the 1970’s. At that time only Brahmins were given prasadam directly in hand by temple priests, others have to pick it up from designated places. The Chakyars, being non-Brahmins, were not given prasadam in hand, but on the first day of a Kootiattam performance, he is entitled to that privilege. A Kootiattam performance was scheduled at the Guruvayur Temple. Sri Kunjunny Chakyar of Kuttanchery went to the sopanam in the costume of Hanuman to receive the prasadam. The junior priest on duty refused to give it directly to him insisting that it was a privilege restricted to Brahmins. The Chakyar kept his cool and told the priest, “You should remember that you are not talking to a Chakyar but to Sri Hanuman.” The priest was not impressed. Kunjunny Chakyar came away without taking prasadam.

As ill-luck would have it, the priest’s young son died in an accident within four days. The news spread panic among the priests. After the incident, the priests were prompt to give prasadam directly to the Chakyars in costume.

Kudiyattam: Preliminaries and Performance - Dr L.S. Rajagopalan
Performing Arts of Kerala - Mapin Publishing
Sankara Digvijaya - Swami Tapasyananda

K.S.C. Pillai, kscpillai@yahoo.com