The Arts

Theatre of the Liminal – Where the Real and Imagined Worlds Meet

A six-day festival of Kerala’s Kudiyattam, one of the oldest forms of theatre in India, is on in Delhi. Leading practitioners Margi Madhu and Indu G. and scholar Sudha Gopalakrishnan reflect on the richness of a mythological universe brought into being by human emotions.

A couple of flowering banana trees near the outdoor stage and flower garlands magically conjured a verdant forest – the Panchavati of the Ramayana. A low and luminous crescent moon that had just emerged from black-browed rain clouds seemed to be part of the stage arrangement, too. At dusk, as the mesmerising beat of the mizhavu drums and the light of the oil lamp cast a spell on the audience, the curtain was lifted to reveal the presence of an actress, resplendent in hues of white, red and golden, as if sculpted from the rays of the sun. The capture of the viewer’s senses was complete. The six-day festival of Kudiyattam, the last living tradition of Sanskrit drama in performance, had commenced on the lawns of the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi.

Organised by Sahapedia, an open online resource on art and culture in India, with Seher, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the IIC, the six-day festival (August 16-21) showcases ‘Surpanakhankam’, the second act of Saktibhadra’s play Ashcharyachudamani – when Ravana’s sister Surpanakha falls in love with Rama and asks him to accept her, setting off a chain of events leading to her mutilation by Lakshmana. Performed by Nepathya, a Kudiyattam training gurukul run by leading practitioners Margi Madhu and Dr. Indu G., the act is being shown in its unabridged form in Delhi for the first time.

The stories are from mythologies, but the characters seem strangely human. They love, fight, rage, pine, grieve, agonise and reflect in a way so familiar to us, their state of mind communicated through a richly layered theatrical language of powerful facial expressions and gestures (Kudiyattam is on UNESCO’s list of the intangible heritage of humanity). The mode of enactment is gradual – a performance may take as ‘short’ a time as six nights or go on for a month to reach a spectacular climax. Like most stories, Kudiyattam performances have a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order, creating a fascinating back and forth rhythm.

Sudha Gopalakrishnan of Sahapedia, a scholar and author of a book on Kudiyattam, and Margi Madhu and Dr. Indu G. of Nepathya talk to Chitra Padmanabhan about the journey of Kudiyattam from the temple precinct to secular space, and about approaching an ‘old’ art form through contemporary eyes.

Excerpts from the conversation:

In an accelerating world characterised by fleeting and fragmented experiences, turning to Kudiyattam, which unfolds over several nights, can be seen almost as an act of resistance.

Sudha Gopalakrishnan. Credit: Ayan Ghosh, Sahapedia

Sudha Gopalakrishnan: Yes, it is an attempt to show that in this clock-crazed time there are immersive experiences that can be more enduring. It relates to the form’s own history as well. When exactly it started is not important; what is important is to note that somewhere along the way a form with a non-linear narrative developed – a narrative going back and forth, much like the way memory works.

It was a form through which epics could be relived from multiple perspectives and complex ideas behind Sanskrit drama could be brought to full ripeness – in their own time. For centuries, as a temple art form Kudiyattam catered to a limited few who had the time, energy and sensitivity. It would be interesting to know what Madhu thinks about it.

Margi Madhu: Kudiyattam is not about telling a story in the usual manner of storytelling. It is about entering the mind of the character and trying to establish what he or she is thinking and feeling. That cannot be measured in terms of physical clock time. It depends on the actor as to how much time he or she needs, or wants to take, to show that to the audience so that they feel they know the character.

How do you work that out, considering the time constraints of performance spaces nowadays

Margi Madhu. Credit: Special arrangement

Madhu: Nowadays we rehearse. Earlier there was no concept of a rehearsal. Once during a tour abroad, my guru Ammannur had just finished enacting the first segment when the two-and-a-half hour time slot came to an end! The organisers could not extend the time.

Gopalakrishnan: Having said that, in the 1960s, when the art form transitioned from temple patronage to institutions, the need of the hour was to create performance capsules. It was not possible to abridge an entire act, but it was certainly possible to show a small part of it – taking up one sloka/verse in, say, two hours, treating it as one segment. The world was changing, the form was getting secularised and democratised – the idea was to attract new audiences.

And now?

Gopalakrishnan: Now it is the other way round. In the 1990s, Madhu – he was a young performer then – enacted the entire Ashcharyachudamani through one whole year, episode after episode, and act after act. It was for the first time that something like this had been done.

That triggered a trend of ‘going back’ to Kudiyattam to understand its depth and complexity. Kudiyattam is like an ocean – there are Sanskrit texts, or plays. Then there are choreographic texts and texts on stage arrangements which are preserved in families where the art has been practiced through generations, as in the case of Madhu.

Madhu: Nowadays, artistes are trying out new choreographies (he has choreographed five works that have not been attempted in Kudiyattam before, among them Bhasa’s Karnabharam and Dootaghatotkacham). They are based on epics or Sanskrit plays and have to be in Sanskrit. Whether they are new choreographies or existing productions, each artiste approaches the atta-prakaram, or stage manual, differently.

Gopalakrishnan: It gives an actor the freedom to interpret the character. Except for the finale when there are two or more actors on stage, on most days of the performance there is one actor on stage who recapitulates how he/she has reached the present situation. Each moment of reminiscence unleashes a flurry of emotions, reflections. While performing this act of nirvahanam, or retrospective, the actor assumes different characters, signalling through a coded movement that she is doing so. For instance, when the character of Hanuman portrays Sita in his recollection, you feel this is how Sita must have felt. You forget that the actor is wearing the garb of Hanuman.

Madhu: Doesn’t that happen in our day-to-day lives as well? When a person suddenly gives way to anger, he becomes a totally different person. Similarly, wearing the costume of one character we slip into the role of another.

Gopalakrishnan: Think about it – an actress performing Sita becomes Sita; then assumes the character of Rama who happens to be thinking about her. At the same time, she is also another woman asking Rama why he is so sad. Traditionally, Kudiyattam is Kerala’s only performance art where a female actor played a female role, unlike in Kathakali and other forms like Ramlila. Also, female Kudiyattam performers had equal rights in terms of income received from the temple.

Dr. Indu G. Credit: Special Arrangement

Indu G: They could play a male role in female costume, but without adopting a male guise. That is what I did on the first day of our performance, in a segment taken from Uttararamacharitam. Most of the time, the audience saw Rama on stage as he remembered Sita through several incidents.

As a viewer what strikes you about a Kudiyattam performance is the centrality of the body – the sheer ability of an actor to summon the facial expressions and gestures of not one but several actors to create a universe in itself – not for a few minutes but for hours that stretch to days. What kind of discipline does that demand?

Madhu: In the first four or five years, the guru prepares the body of the actor. It involves a painful initial period of learning postures, and of body massages. Then the guru probes the student’s mind but does not impart any instructions about emotions. He wants the student to draw his emotions from his own experiences.

I would say a minimum of ten years is needed to prepare the body to be able to do something. Of course, the training continues throughout.

Gopalakrishnan: It is not as if the training ends and the acting commences.

Indu: While learning dance in childhood, I was taught something new every day. There was a sense of moving forward with every class. With Kudiyattam it is totally different. You may be repeating the same basic posture for the first few months, chanting Sanskrit slokas as you do so. You can add more slokas but the posture remains unchanged! For the first two-and-a-half years you could be doing just the nityakriya, or the preliminary ritual. The mind has to be strong to bear it.

To stay in the same posture for one-and-a-half hours daily, you need to forget about the body and focus on the mind because, at first, the body is rigid and the only sensation is of pain here, there, everywhere. It is difficult not to feel breathless and tired. With daily practice you get over all that. Remember, during a performance you have to bear the costume’s weight as well.

Gopalakrishnan: It is a method of preparing the body and mind for the complexity to come. Moreover, it’s not just what the guru shows you but what you imbibe when you watch gurus perform on stage.

It’s like an osmotic process.

Nepathya Sreehari as Rama on the first day of the performance of ‘Surpanakhankam’. Credit: Credit: Ayan Ghosh, Sahapedia

Gopalakrishnan: Absolutely, absorption rather than a one-to-one relationship. It’s a very long, complex and powerful process. I have heard Madhu say: “The guru tells you – ‘now you just do it that way’. What way?” So many things come into it – what way did the guru do at ‘that’ time? What does the actor bring to it?

Madhu: There is another aspect also. The form may be old but the actor belongs to his time, his concerns are contemporary. That itself gives a contemporary edge to the form.

As a contemporary performer engaging with Kudiyattam in a democratised space, how easy or difficult is it to create an audience connect, considering that audiences may not share the same cultural space as in earlier times?

Indu: From childhood an impression is created that Kudiyattam is an elitist art form that the so-called ‘common’ people cannot understand. If they were encouraged to be open-minded, it would be easy for them to connect. It is about human emotions and situations after all.

Madhu: I don’t think the audience exceeded 50 or so viewers even in the temple premises. The point is this: if you happen to be a connoisseur, then you know the actor and his style. Scholar David Shulman has that connect even though he is from Israel. It seems to me that the number of connoisseurs, then and now, is also more or less the same. There is no change in that.

Does it make a difference to you whether you perform in Kerala, Delhi or Vancouver?

Madhu: That depends on the actor. It does not make a difference to me. I know myself and I know my audience. My duty is to see that I am able to communicate to the audience the emotions of a character, the thoughts playing in his mind. One can attempt something different but at the same time I don’t break the structure of the form.

So, as an actor of your time who is conscious of the debates around gender and caste, how do you approach characters like Surpanakha (Margi Madhu is enacting the role of Surpanakha in the performance).

Madhu: When I play the role of Surpanakha, I do have an awareness of the work done in the areas of Dalit studies and gender. I try to communicate some of this through the character but not in a direct manner. I take the energy provided by that awareness for my performance, portraying her anger towards Rama or Lakshmana in a way that triggers the thought – is it okay for them to treat her the way they do just because she is a demon.

You mean viewers will be able to sense the sympathy?

Madhu: Yes, they will.

Indu: I feel the form of Kudiyattam itself has the space to accommodate more than one interpretation. While the character may be taken from a text, the form does not prescribe how it should be portrayed. The Surpanakha or Ravana of one actor will not be the same as another’s even though they are chanting the same slokas and performing to the same talam, or beat.

Gopalakrishnan: That is why, as a viewer I can see a specific Kudiyattam performance again and again. Each time it is a different experience. With long years of viewing one gets familiar with actors’ ways and can discern the styles of different schools, or institutions (somewhat like a gharana).

Can you, Margi Madhu and Indu G, give an example of a character you have grown into, expressing it differently over many portrayals?

Madhu: When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I would portray Ravana looking at Sita with a lustful gaze (in the episode on Ravana’s abduction of Sita). Over a period of time some kind of a relationship has developed between the character of Ravana and me. Now I can’t – that is, my Ravana can’t – look at Sita with a lustful gaze. Now my Ravana looks at Sita with something approaching love, maybe vatsalya. The relationship keeps growing.

Indu: While performing Sita in the seventh act of Ashcharyachudamani, I am aware there is an interpretation that sees her as a victim of power, with Rama symbolising power. Yet I find that she is ready to live with him despite the fact that he has earlier abused her in choice words. What explains it? I feel as a character she loves Rama but is not sure whether he reciprocates in the same way. I don’t think love can be explained in terms of logic. Someone can ask me – why can’t you show her denying Rama? My answer is, it is not so easy. Maybe over the years…

In the act Mayaseetangam, however, my portrayal of Sita, as she compels Lakshmana to go to Rama’s aid in the forest, has evolved. Earlier, my stress was on showing Sita’s anger, and arrogance, towards Lakshmana for not heeding her, without taking his emotions into account. Now, I often convey that Sita feels he was right in his place, but she had to somehow persuade him to go to Rama’s aid. Sometimes I express a pang of guilt on Sita’s part but at the time my face is turned away from Lakshmana, towards the audience!

Margi Madhu who plays Surpanakha, also enacting the role of Rama, as seen here, on the second day of the performance of ‘Surpanakhankam’. Credit: Kumar Saurabh

Similarly so in my portrayal of Sita in the seventh act of Ashcharyachudamani, when Sita returns to the palace after the agni pareeksha. To Lakshmana, who had abused her earlier, I say in gestures – my little brother, forgive me for the wrong I committed earlier (in the forest) without thinking. For this, I was inspired by an iconic Malayalam poem by Kumaran Asan.

So you can keep adding to the repertoire…

Indu: Yes, one can do so.

So what does it mean when people refer to Kudiyattam in terms of an ‘ancient’ Sanskrit theatre, projecting a sense of fixity?

Indu: You can keep adding slokas from different kavyas. The actor will not chant it because she is obedient to the playwright, cannot utter a word not written by the playwright. But she can enact the idea of that sloka or poem through gestures. I can include it in the manual for the next generation. Each generation adds to the stage manual, or atta-prakaram.

Gopalakrishnan: Feelings and memories are the same. The interpretation comes from a modern-day person’s perspective. In that sense there is no ancient-modern binary here. An actor interprets a character from the here and now. The form is something that has been handed down but, ultimately, it is what you do with it, how you treat it, take it forward. The questions are perennial. Kudiyattam as a form has the elasticity to accommodate them all.