Koodiyattam or Kutiyattam (pronounced [kuːʈijaːʈːam]) is a form of sacred theater traditionally performed in Hindu temples in the state of Kerala, India. Performed in the Sanskrit language or an early form of Prakrit, it is believed to be at least two thousand years old, making it the oldest living theater tradition in the world. Koodiyattam blends ritual, sacred traditional precepts, and rehearsed elements with creative improvisation. Complicated gesture language, chanting, and exaggerated expressions of the face and eyes are complemented by elaborate headdresses and makeup.
Until the 1950s, Koodiyattam was performed only by men of the Chakyar caste and women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste in sacred theaters, called Koothambalam, on the grounds of the Hindu temples of Kerala. Concerned about preserving the tradition, Koodiyattam master Mani Madhava Chakyar began staging performances outside the temple in 1955. Mani Madhava Chakyar’s troupe performed all over India and helped to popularize the art form. In 2001, Koodiyattam was officially recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The word “koodiyattam” is derived from the Sanskrit word Kurd, meaning to "to play," and the theater form is believed to have been introduced into India by the Aryans. King Kulasekhara Varma Cheraman Perumal, who ruled over Kerala from 1090 to 1102, reformed Koodiyattam into its present form, and his Aattaprakaram (Actor's Manual) is considered the most authoritative publication on Koodiyattam. The tenth century chronicles of the Varman dynasty record the art form in its advanced stages, and the dance is mentioned in Ilangovan's 1500-year old Tamil classic, Chilappathikaram, as "Kerala Chakkian Sivanadanam." The fact that the art form was so well established at the end of the eleventh century has led scholars to estimate that it has been in existence for roughly 2,000 years, making it far older than Kathakali and other theatrical forms that retain Sanskrit elements of content and structure.
Koothambalam (“temple theaters”), special theater halls for Koothu and Koodiyattam performances, were constructed on temple grounds according to the specifications of Bharata Muni’s Nātyasāstra and considered to be as sacred as the temple sanctum itself. The structures are usually about 16 m (52.5 ft) long and 12 m (39.4 ft) wide, with a platform, 4 m (13.12 ft) square, supported by pillars in the center. During a performance, the stage is decorated with fruit-bearing plantains and bunches of coconuts, and festooned with fronds of the coconut palm. An offering of rice is placed on the stage, which is lighted with a nilavilakku (a metal lamp symbolizing the divine presence, with three wicks to represent the Hindu trinity). A mizhavu, the percussion instrument used to accompany Koodiyattam, is placed at the rear of the platform within a railed enclosure, with a high seat for the drummer. Famous Temples with Koothambalams include the Guruvayur Temple, Vadakkumnathan Temple, and the Koodalmanickyam Temple. The Kerala Kalamandalam houses a beautiful Koothambalam.
Koodiyattam was traditionally performed as a religious ritual in the Hindu temples of Kerala. Its precursor is thought to be Chakyar Koothu, a narrative monologue performed in original Sanskrit with interpretations in refined Malayalam language, combining stories from Hindu epics (like Ramayana and Mahabharata) and Puranas with gossip and commentary on local events.
Only men from the Chakyar community are allowed to perform Koothu and Koodiyattam inside the Koothambalam. Female roles are played by Nangyarammas, women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste, and Ambalavasi Nambiar men play the mizhavu. The name Koodiyattam ("playing together") suggests a combined performance of Chakyar and Nangyar. Chakyars, said to be of Aryan origin, are Brahmins; having mixed with Namboothiris, they are elite temple servants associated with the priestly caste. Some Chakyar families maintained secret manuals codifying the rules and conventions of Koodiyattam. Nambiars, members of the local matrilineal society, are traditionally Sanskrit scholars and academics. Koodiyattam is unusual among classical theater and dance forms for its early use of women performers.
The whole drama is performed as a sacrificial offering to the deity. To symbolize acceptance of this offering, the door to the inner sanctum of the temple is left open during the performances, and any interruption to the play requires elaborate rituals to propitiate the gods. An evening of Koodiyattam begins at 9 p.m., after the close of rituals in the inner sanctum of the temple, and continues until midnight, sometimes until 3 a.m., just before the commencement of the morning temple rituals.
Koodiyattam blends ritual, sacred traditional precepts, and rehearsed elements with creative improvisation. Performances are long and drawn-out, usually lasting several days. On the first day, initial invocatory rituals are followed by the Purappudu, or preliminaries, in which the actor performs certain abstract cadences of movement behind a curtain. The first day's performance might end with these movements, without the audience seeing any "acting" at all. The next phase is the Nirvahana, a practice unique to Koodiyattam, in which the character introduces himself by presenting his personal history, sometimes including his previous life. The actor is free to choose which of the legends associated with his character he wishes to emphasize, allowing him to explore the character to a degree unusual in Indian theater. The first few days are devoted to introductions of the characters and incidents from their lives.
The complete play, from beginning to end, is performed on the last day. The entire written text of the play will not necessarily be enacted. Although the text of the play is considered "sacred," it serves only as a nucleus, with the actor improvising and augmenting the text, building upon its structure with improvised real and fantastic associations. A play is often "frozen" while the actor uses his eyes, face, and body to explore a range of emotions.
Each verse of the play is interpreted three times. First it is recited and broadly rendered in abhinaya (dramatic form using stage conventions to express meaning). Then it is chanted slowly, with the meaning of each word elaborated in greater detail. This is followed by a longer, freer improvisation based on key words and ideas. Through the use of free Malayalam prose, great Koodiyattam performers are able to give the verses immediate relevance for their audiences, not only entertaining but evoking introspection.
A pivotal role in the performance is that of the Vidushaka (Jester), thought to have been introduced into the drama by Tolan, a Brahmin minister of King Kulashekhara Varman. The Vidushaka serves as a bridge between the actors and the audience, translating the ancient Sanskrit version into everyday Malayalam language, explaining esoteric passages and adding humorous commentary. The Vidushaka’s role is essential in making Koodiyattam relevant for audiences who do not understand Sanskrit, which is no longer a spoken language.
Koodiyattam performers must be skilled in the four main Abhinayas (arts of expression) described in the Natyashastra, India’s great classic on the theater: Āngika (movement of the body), Vāchika (speech), Āhārya (external accessories, such as costumes, props, ornaments and lighting), and Sāttvika (an actor’s expression of real natural emotion, achieved by identifying with some personal experience). Koodiyattam makes use of a stylized, highly evolved mime language that emphasizes facial expressions and hand gestures. Complicated gesture language, chanting, and exaggerated expressions of the face and eyes are complemented by elaborate headdresses and makeup. The ritual application of Aharya Abhinaya (makeup) is used to create an outward expression of each character's complex inner qualities. The symbolic use of color is carefully calculated to make a statement. The makeup of most characters contains both black, representing "evil," and “paccha” (green) which roughly translates as "good," in different proportions.
Koodiyattam repertory includes plays written by Bhasa, Harsha, Kalidasa, Bhodayana, Mahendra Vikrama Pallava, and other Sanskrit poets and playwrights. The plays are mostly based on the Hindu epics, and performances are intended to assist the spiritual advancement of those who watch them, both by providing education about the Vedas, the structure of the universe, the nature of good and evil, and the lives of deities and heroes; and by causing the audience to reflect on their own emotions and experiences. During the performances, the audience enters another world, shared with the deities who are presumably watching the drama together with them.
A Koodiyattam actor can spend hours elaborating on a single verse, making the staging of a complete play impossible. Instead, specific acts of plays, often with names and identities of their own, are singled out for performance.
Traditionally, the chief musical instrument used to accompany Koodiyattam is the Mizhavu, a large percussion instrument played by a person of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma (women of the Nambiar caste) playing the kuzhithalam (a type of cymbal). The drums, which have important symbolic significance, set the tempo and the mood, and heighten the drama. Other instruments used are the Edakka (an hour-glass shaped drum), kuzhal (an oboe-like wind instrument), and the shankh (conch shell).
Kathakali, a better-known classical art form of Kerala, emerged from Koodiyattam. Emphasizing dance and music over refined acting, Kathakali incorporated more action and spectacle and used the Malayalam language rather than Sanskrit, making it popular with the general public. Today, Kathakali is performed all over India. Though the aesthetics of Koodiyattam are more refined than Kathakali, it never captured a broad audience because performances were restricted to a few koothambalams and were generally attended only by the higher castes. The tradition was kept alive by the Chakyar community, whose elders taught it to succeeding generations. Koodiyattam was performed only by Chakyars until the 1950s.
In 1955, Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar, in the face of extreme criticism from the conservative Chakyar community, performed Koodiyattam outside a Hindu temple for the first time.
My own people condemned my action (performing Koothu and Kutiyattam outside the precincts of the temples). Once, after I had given performances at Vaikkom, they even thought about excommunicating me. I desired that this art should survive the test of time. That was precisely why I ventured outside the temple.
In 1962, Sanskrit Ranga of Madras, a group founded by noted scholar of art and Sanskrit, Dr. V. Raghavan, invited Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar to perform Koodiyattam in Chennai, the first time in history that Koodiyattam was performed outside its home state of Kerala. On three nights, Maani Madhava Chakyar and his troupe presented Koodiyattam scenes from three plays, Abhiṣeka, Subhadrādhanañjaya, and Nāgānda, and made such an impression that they were invited to perform in North India, in New Delhi and Banaras (1964). Critics acknowledged Mani Madhava Chakyar as an authority on rasa abhinaya, and in 1964, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his "contributions to Chakyar Koothu and Kutiyattam," the first national recognition of Koodiyattam. The President of India, scholar and philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, invited him to perform Koodiyattam at Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) in 1964. Mani Madhava Chakyar’s mastery of Rasa-abhinaya, Netrabhinaya (expression of the eyes), and Koodiyattam helped to popularize the art form.
In an effort to attract a broader audience, Madhava also adapted secular dramas for Koodiyattam, and choreographed and directed acts of plays like Kalidasa's Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Sakuntala), Vikramorvaśīya, and Mālavikāgnimitra; Bhasa's Swapnavāsavadatta and Pancharātra; and Harsha's Nagananda for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam. He and his troupe performed these Koodiyattams all over India, in Madras (1962, 1973, and 1977), Madhura (1962), New Delhi (1964, 1966, 1974, 1979, and 1983), Varanasi (1964 and 1979), Bombay (1973), Ujjain (1982), and Bhopal (1987). Madhava performed Chakyar Koothu and Koodiyattam for All India Radio and Doordarshan, exposing thousands of listeners to these traditional art forms for the first time. He organized regular public demonstrations of Koodiyattam, and invited non-Chakyar and foreign students into his home to study the art form in the traditional Gurukula way.
Mani Madhava Chakyar's disciple and nephew, Mani Damodara Chakyar, is also a renowned Koodiyattam performer, and an exponent of traditional devotional Koodiyattams, such as Anguliyanka, Mattavilasa Prahasana, Mantranka, Ezhamanka (seventh act of Ascharyachoodamani). P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, the son of Madhava Chakyar is considered a living authority on Koodiyattam. The other major living masters of Kutiyattam include Ammannur Madhava Chakkiar, Kidangur Rama Chakkiar, Ammannoor Parameswara Chakyar, Painkulam Damodaran Chakyar Muzhikulam Kochu Kuttan Chakkiar, Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri, and Kalamandalam Rama Chakkiar, Margi Sajeev, and Margi Madhu.
In 2001, Koodiyattam was among the first of 19 candidates to be proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
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