Abhisekanataka as performed in kutiyattam

Please use these notes when reviewing the last class and when studying for the midterm exam.

Kutiyattam is a genre of performance which means "acting together" or "combined acting." This implies that all the necessary actors for a play appear onstage for the play or act of the play being performed.
It is one of three related genres of performance.
The others are:
1. nangyar kuttu, a genre performed only by actresses of a caste of Hindus in Kerala who hold the hereditary right to perform female roles in kutiyattam as well as those in nangyar kuttu; and,

2. cakyar kuttu, a genre of performance in which those of the cakyar community don the costume and makeup of the vidusaka (clown) and hold forth in lengthy explorations of material from religious texts, as well as liberally criticizing politics and politicians today.

In the case of all three genres, nambiar men are required to play the special drum associated with these arts. The drum is call mizhavu.

As the above indicates there are three castes of Kerala Hindus who are associated with these arts: cakyar, nangyar, and nambiar. It is said that the cakyars were male children of the illicit union of a Brahman woman and a non-Brahman man. Because this is a matrilineal society, the men inherit from their mothers, not from their fathers, hence they were allowed to be invested with a sacred thread the same as that worn by other high caste Hindus of the region, such as the namboodri. The nambiar's hail from the same situation as that mentioned above but have not been invested with the sacred thread. Nangyars are the wives of nambiars. There are exceptions to all this but it is not necessary to explain them here.

The members of all three of these castes are considered temple servants.

Abhisekanataka was written by Bhasa. It is 7 acts long. Abhiseka indicates ritual bathing, and natakam refers to one of 10 play forms found in Sanskrit drama. Nataka is considered the principle form among the ten. More plays of this genre have survived from ancient India than any other. "The chief characteristics of the nataka are that it has as its subject matter a well-known story concerning the exploits of a hero who is either a royal sage or a king; the dominant sentiment of the work should be either love or heroism; and surviving examples contain no fewer than five and no more than seven acts each." (Richmond)

Little is know about Bhasa. He probably lived between 300 and 400CE. 13 plays are attributed to him of which Abhisekanataka is not among his best, in my opinion. Kalidasa, considered the greatest of Sanskrit playwrights, appears to have thought highly of Bhasa and wrote a verse praising his play Svapnavasavadatta.

The events in Abhisekanataka are drawn from the popular Hindu epic Ramayana. More about the epic later.

Nevertheless, kutiyattam actors perform Act 1 of this work and have titled it, "Balivadham" (The Death of Bali). The content of the act tells us why it is so titled.

When performed Balivadham is divided into 5 days. The process is as follows:
1st Day: Sri Rama's Purappatu
2nd Day: Sri Rama's Nirvahana
3rd Day: Sugriva's Purappatu
4th Day: Sugriva's Nirvahana
5th Day: Kutiyattam

This means that the performance of the act as you have read it is not given until the fifth day.

Purappatu means "entrance" and usually lasts about an hour or so. It contains a bit of ritual action, dance-like movements, use of complex eye and facial expressions revealing the sentiments of the character, and stylized gestures. All are accompanied by the mizhavu drum and the small bell-metal cymbals.

Nirvahana indicates the elaboration of the events prior to the events expressed in the act. It starts with a series of questions that are posed about past events, progressively going further and further back in time. The questions are expressed in gesture and not spoken. Then the actor explores the answers to these hypothetical questions beginning from the remote past and working up to the present. During this segment the actor does not speak or chant. All verses related to the content are chanted by the nangyar who plays the cymbals. The actor simply elaborates on the verses with gestures and facial expressions conveying the sentiments being explored.

In order to perform Balivadham kutiyattam actors depend on texts written in old Malayalam, the language of the region. These texts are anonymous and undated. They are called attaprakaram and kramadipika. At this point it is not necessary for you to know the difference between the two kinds of texts except to say that they provide details about the performance procedures and what verses are to be used for both the purappatu and the nirvahana and at what point in the performance they are meant to be used. Quite obviously it takes someone trained in kutiyattam to interpret these texts, thus the cakyars normally provide instruction to their students in how to read and perform the plays. Even when translated, outsiders are not likely to make a great deal out of what is said or be able to perform a play.

Different svaras are indicated for the chanting of the verses mentioned in the kramadipika and attaprakaram. In class we heard the actor playing Sri Rama chant his first verse at the top of page 34 in Tarkan svara which suggests the heroic mode of expression. At the bottom of p. 34 Sugriva chanted his verse in Korakkurunji which is associated with monkeys because he is a monkey. On page 35 Rama's brother Lakshmana's verse is in Cheti Panchama which sounds milder and more gentle and respectful. At the top of p. 36 Sugriva uses three different svaras in just two lines: Veladhuli which indicates weeping, Dukhagandharva which is forceful and more dynamic in sound, and Viratarkan which expresses his anger and irritation. Of course the act contains many more varieties of emotion that are expressed by the different svaras that kutiyattam actors use to convey the emotional quality of the text being performed. What I played for you are only examples.

Carefully review the xeroxed material I gave you in class which begins with a description of Purappatu, the character enters. Note that it was drawn from a PhD dissertation done at the University of California, Berkeley. It was written by John Steven Sowle whose thesis was titled: "The Traditions, Training, and Performance of Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Drama in South India," 1982. pp. 185-194. Dr. Sowle is a professional NY director and studied to perform kutiyattam in Kerala from master artists.

You saw video examples in still shots with some chanting that illustrated the modified version of Balivadham that was taken to Paris to be performed at the Theatre of the Nations. A short clip from a DVD was also shown in which you saw Rama's first appearance on the stage in the kutiyattam portion of the show. He was accompanied by Lakshamana, Sugriva, and Hanuman.

Besides Sowle's work I called your attention to the following:

Venu, G. Production of a Play in Kutiyattam. Irinjalakuda, Kerala: Natanakairali, 1989.

Richmond, Farley P. and Darius L. Swann and Phillip B. Zarrilli. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.