Living Legends – A Spell-binding Performance of Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre

Posted by Lakshmi Sadhu & filed under Theatre.

Bali's wife Thara, queen of Kishkindha.
Bali's wife Thara, queen of Kishkindha.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of Kutiyattam is its insistence on carrying through a natural rhythm without compromise, without cutting corners, without rushing on to something else that is waiting with its own demands. I think I live my life in this constant rush toward death, almost never allowing a single movement of the body, or a single passing thought of any power or novelty, or even a single deep breath or tender gesture, to complete itself without being cut off too soon ~ David Dean Shulman

Stage at the Chan Centre.

Stage at the Chan Centre.

On July 9, Western Canada was for the first time graced with the mesmerizing and visually arresting performance that is characteristic of the ancient Sanskrit dance form of the state of Kerala, India – Kutiyattam (or Koodiyattam).

Organized by the 2018 Indian Summer Festival, The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at University of British Columbia saw a little over 850 attendees enraptured for three hours as the dance master practitioners from the world renowned Sanskrit theatre troupe Nepathya, a Kutiyattam school in Moozhikkulam in central Kerala presided by guru Margi Madhu Chakyar, enacted Act 1 of the play Abhisekanataka, “The Consecration”. The act is titled Balivadham, the “Death of Bali”.

Historical origins and context

The literal meaning of Kutiyattam is ‘combined acting/acting together’, and is the oldest surviving form of ancient Sanskrit Theatre, dating back to around 2000 years.

In Kutiyattam, single acts are excerpted from great Indian epical dramas, given a title, and then performed independently. Long passages that elaborate preceding, or side narratives, or comment on the dialogue are interpolated into the main text. This can extend the production of a single act for up to 41 days of several hour long stagings.

Balivadham in the original Kutiyattam version normally takes 5 days to perform all aspects of the act. However, for the purpose of its first showcase in Western Canada, the act had been concentrated down to 3 hours.

Prof. Dr. Heike Oberlin.

Prof. Dr. Heike Oberlin.

Prof. Dr. Heike Oberlin, a lecturer and performer of Kutiyattam herself, emphasized in her opening speech introducing the performance for the night, that the audience for this form of theatre are not looking for new stories or works, but for, “the most refined bhava rasa interplay and acting in which the essence of emotions are evoked by the actor’s act”.

Historically, this highly refined form of theatre was created and intended for and by a highly educated elite.

The dialogues are represented and enacted through highly stylized hand gestures and facial expressions, and chanting in various registers. Depending on the school and manner of counting, there are 21-22 manners of recitation.

The character and mood of the speaker determines which register is used. A king in love, for example, will recite his lines in a different register than an infatuated demon.

Highly stylized mime and elaborate hand gestures relying heavily on a expressive use of the eyes play an important role in tandem with the vocal interpretation. Kutiyattam excels in the unique practice of translating and reciting texts simultaneously.

Sneak peak only for Schema Magazine: Performers getting their make up and costumes ready before the show

Sneak peak only for Schema Magazine: Performers getting their make up and costumes ready before the show


After the verbal and gestural performance, each passage and each verse receives an additional commentary executed through gestures.

In this way, entire backgrounds or side stories can be interpolated in pantomime into the performance. Such a technique naturally extends the performance time, thus single acts are taken from plays and elaborated on stage over several days.

Performances of koodiyattam plays were traditionally staged in theatres called koothamablams located inside conservative Hindu temples. Until the, approximately 1950s-60s, Kutiyattam was primarily performed for the particular temple’s divinity.

Today the performances are mostly given on secular stages, the audience is a colourful mix, and the plays are considerably abridged. However, a select few still perform Kutiyattam solely at ritual theatres in temples. Kutiyattam is a vibrant form of theatre — not a museum piece — and a true masterpiece of “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” as recognized by UNESCO in 2001.

Traditionally the performers come from the Chakyar or Nambyar families. The male actors are the Chakyars, while the Nambyars play the copper drums in the background called Mizhavu.

The women of the Nambyar caste play the female roles and basic rhythm on small cymbals called kuzhithalam.

Today’s students of Kutiyattam come from other families, even other countries. Historically speaking, other theatres across South India do not feature men and women on the same stage; in fact, men played the roles of women too, but this is not the case in Kutiyattam.

Plot of Balivadham, the ‘Death of Bali’

Balivadham is the name used in Kutiyattam for act 1 of the play Abhisekanataka, ‘The Consecration’ ascribed to Bhāsa, one of the earliest and most celebrated playwrights outdating Kalidasa.

Bali and Sugriva, the two brothers. (left to right)

Bali and Sugriva, the two brothers. (left to right)

The plot is based on the great Indian epic Ramayana. The act itself was the last day of a performance cycle that traditionally lasts 5 days. During day 1 to 4, Shri Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, a prince in exile and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and Sugriva, brother of Bali, the mighty monkey king of Kishkindha, have their formal entrances on stage, each lasting one evening each. This is followed by retrospective background storylines where, due to a misunderstanding, Bali exiles his brother Sugriva and takes over the throne. The performance at Chan Centre followed the story’s progression after Sugriva’s exile.

Shri Rama and Lakshmana (left to right)

Shri Rama and Lakshmana (left to right)

During this time of hiding in exile, Sugriva meets Shri Rama and they make a deal to help each other. Rama would kill Bali so Sugriva could become king again. Then Sugriva would help find Rama’s wife Sita who was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.

Rama follows Sugriva to Kishkindha, after which Bali and Sugriva engage in a fight when Rama shoots Bali with an arrow from his hiding place, thereby killing Bali. The death of Bali is perhaps one of the most poignant and emotionally saturated performances in Kutiyattam.

For the audience at the Chan Centre, who were a colourful mix of nationalities, the performance was staged with a simultaneous projected screening of the dialogue, translated from Sanskrit to English, in the background.

Audience reactions and future for Kutiyattam performers

For the first hour and a half, the audience were truly captivated by the costumes, and the performance unravelling before them.

The intermission, saw a number of people leaving the theatre without returning for the second half of the show. I wanted to attribute this to the fact that the show was from 7pm to 11pm, a fairy heavy mental commitment exacerbated for those who’ve already had a long tiring day. Combine this with Kutiyattam’s insistence on drawing out every emotional nuance with an earnestness that is so characteristic of this kind of Sanskrit theatre, and it was no surprise that some people not only left, but that yawns and fidgeting became apparent in certain audience members.

We live in a fast paced world where social media and most of our modern entertainment is not only a distraction from the present moment, but is fashioned in a kind of buzzy, heavily stimulating way. This of course means that it becomes harder to keep our attention rooted in the present when experiencing art forms (in this case, Kutiyattam) that insist on drawing out story arcs with a gentle precision and emotional detail, instead of rushing from one scene to the next just to reach the conclusion.

My own experience of the performance at Chan Centre was something of a revelation. In many ways Kutiyattam to me mimicked life itself, because in real life death doesn’t rush, heartbreak doesn’t rush, suffering is always drawn out. You can’t just swipe from one chapter of your life to the next just because you’re displeased with it.

Climax scene of Bali dying.

Climax scene of Bali dying.

The emotional nuances and patience of Kutiyattam are intelligently designed. As I sat in the audience, watching Shri Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and Sugriva looking over a dying Bali, as Bali waited for his final breath to leave him, his every strangled heave punctuating the roaring silence in the auditorium, I found myself experiencing a strange role reversal. You find that you’re no longer the spectator. Instead you became the characters, where every nuanced emotion suddenly becomes your own, and each aching moment stretches into infinity.

While Kutiyattam is now travelling around the world, this is only a recent occurrence. Kutiyattam’s first performance outside India was in 1980, in Poland and in Paris, after which there was a big time gap, according to Prof. Dr. Heike Oberlin.

However, Oberlin is quite hopeful about the future of such an ancient and somewhat endangered art form.

“It’s wonderful that Kutiyattam is travelling so people get to know Kutiyattam. The Kutiyattam artists get inspiration, because it’s quite hard to make living with kutiyattam and it’s hard training for many many years. It’s not over after four or five years, it’s a lifelong learning and training process so this (exposure and recognition on a international stage) gives them a lot of inspiration”, said Oberlin.

Bali enacting the role of Shri Narasimha Swami, the lion-man god (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) during one of the side narratives of the Balivadham.

Bali enacting the role of Shri Narasimha Swami, the lion-man god (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) during one of the side narratives of the Balivadham.

Hanuman, Shri Rama's most sincere devotee.

Hanuman, Shri Rama’s most sincere devotee.

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