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  • Kutiyattam Festival (Kutiyattam Mahotsavam)
  • Amy Trompetter
Kutiyattam Festival (kutiyattam Mahotsavam). Centre for Kutiyattam (Kutiyattam Kendra), Trivandrum (Kerala), sponsored by Sangeet Natak Akademi (Delhi). Vyloppilli Sanskriti Bhavan Trivandrum (Malayalam, Thiruvananthapuram), 23-28 February 2011.

Kutiyattam, the ancient temple Sanskrit theatre tradition of India dating back more than two thousand years, is sustained only in Kerala, in the southwest corner of India. The art, previously performed only in temples by the upper-class Hindu caste named Chakyar, was brought out of the temple precincts in 1956, and, since 1965, has become a secular form with institutionalized training.

Kutiyattam actors still offer their work primarily to the divinity present in the flame burning downstage center, and secondarily to the audience. Traditionally, a single episode from the Sanskrit plays adapted from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata might take three days to a week to perform. The driving force of the performance is the transference of an internalized vision of sacred narrative from actor to the divine or human audience member through the intricate visual and aural stage languages of rasas, mudras, dance, costume, makeup, chanting, and drumming.

K. K. Gopalakrishnan, newly appointed director of the Centre for Kutiyattam of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, curated the second Kutiyattam Mahotsavam, 23-27 February 2011, at the Vyloppilli Sanskriti Bhavan in Trivandrum. Introducing the festival, he emphasized the importance of showcasing members of the gurukulams (schools), which are training the next generation of kutiyattam performers under the fiscal support of the center.1 A mix of proficient masters and emerging practitioners presented eight varied pieces, selected so that festivalgoers might experience the wide range of kutiyattam's form and content. Gopalakrishnan took pride in the relaxed ambience created by inaugurating the festival with ten minutes of ensemble music by accompanying musicians rather than with the customary Kerala tradition of long speeches by VIPs. All programs started "dot-on-time"!

Mathavilasam Prahasanam (Pranks of a Drunkard), a rarely performed farce from the early kutiyattam repertoire, opened the festival. The plot revolves around the resolution of accusations concerning a lost begging bowl made of a skull. The cast of characters, from ridiculous to sublime, includes a drunken mendicant who is also an earthly representation of God Shiva with powers to expiate sin, his female companion, a lunatic, another mendicant, and a judge. The variety of extreme role types, stylization displayed in acting such eccentrics, and the beauty of elaborate kutiyattam facial makeup and costume ensured audience delight from aficionados to the uninitiated. Performers came from Margi, Trivandrum, which is at the forefront of efforts to revive and spread the reach of the classical theatre arts of Kerala.

The second night's performers came from Pothiyil Gurukulam, a school near Kottayam offering training in koothu folk theatre, kutiyattam, and the mizhavu drum, with Pothiyil Narayana Chakyar in the lead role of the demonic king of the Ramayana, Ravana. The first part of Thoranayudham [End Page 302] (Battle at the Gate), based on Bhasa's Abhisheka Natakam (Coronation Bath), ends with Ravana's sorrow on hearing that Hanuman has destroyed the Asoka Garden. From act 3 we see the elaboration of Ravana raising Mt. Kailasa, just at the moment the goddess Parvathi is accusing her divine husband Shiva of dalliance with the river Goddess, Ganga. A virtuoso performance by Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar of Chacu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, trained by the late Guru Ammanur Mhadava Chakyar of the gurukulam in Irjinalakuda, exquisitely captured the delicate emotional nuances. The Ammanur family is distinguished as one of the few hereditary families carrying on the kutiyattam tradition.

On the third evening, the excellent Kalamandalam Girija entranced the audience with the solo female nangiarkoothu performance of Madhavi. The program notes read: "While the story is rooted in the Mahabharata, Madhavi represents the plight of a woman in a patriarchy where she is a mere pawn in the contests between men for power." Following was a spectacular Surpanakhankam showing Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, falling in love in act 3 of the eighth-century play Ascharyachoodamani based on the Ramayana, with a cast of young performers from the Painkulam Rama Chakyar Smaraka Kalapeedam, a school in Thrissur.

The next evening, the...