Remember the time when we were kids, and night time meant falling asleep to those fantastical stories about slaying dragons, crossing seven seas to rescue the damsel in distress, and then, dreaming about riding unicorns into the Neverland. Stories, that we never got tired of. And more than that, the manner in which they were narrated. In a land where legends, myths and fantastical tales are recounted at every nook and corner, it is only fitting that the art of storytelling be a cultural heritage in itself. And there exists more than one singular form of such storytelling.
Elaborate, intense and surreal, what makes these theater art forms particularly alluring is that they can be experienced only in specific regions of India. And are, significantly, close to disappearing. Representing a way of life that can be traced back to the roots of human civilization, these theater or storytelling forms may not be around for long.
Experience them now to get a glimpse of how truly incredible India’s cultural treasures are. Before they are relegated to the pages of a storybook themselves.
Over 2000 years in existence and the only living specimen, if one can call it that, of Sanskrit theatre, Koodiyattam is a fine example of the meeting of ancient and eternal. While the moniker of Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity given to it by UNESCO in 2001 says it all, Koodiyattam is really an offering of art made to God.
Set against the hauntingly sublime backdrop of Kerala’s temples, mainly Irinjalakkuda’s Koodal Manickyam temple and Thrissur’s Vadakkumantha temple, a traditional Koodiyattam performance spans good 6 to 20 days. Tales from Hindu mythology and Sanskrit plays are enacted in this classical dance drama, which were integral aspects of worship services during the eras of the Pallava and Chola dynasty.
Typically, the performance takes place inside temple theatres or Koothambalam, with a narrator known as the Vidushaka (akin to court jester), who lays out the story’s background, context and paints a vivid picture of the characters involved, in Malayalam. Brilliant and dazzling, the costumes and makeup of dancers seem to be narrating tales of their own. Performed to the backdrop of music thats ecclesiastical in its own right Koodiyattam is a nuanced art that takes anywhere between 10-15 years to understand and master.
Unique and one of a kind that it is, it’s only fitting that its musical instruments be equally unparalleled too. Mizhavu, a big clay or copper jar, and Edakka, hourglass shaped drum, are the traditional musical instruments that give the performance even greater essence and bhava (emotion).
Once the performance begins be prepared to get mesmerised and spell bound by those intense and evocative kohl underlined eyes of the performers telling a tale that has spanned 20 centuries to this day. While soulful music and evocative dance drama may define this unique temple theatre Koodiyattam’s surrealism is intense enough to even awaken the temple gods and you can sense their divine presence palpably.
Mattur (Mathur), a village near Shivamogga in Karnataka, along with Hoshahalli are the only two villages in India where daily conversations take place in pure Sanskrit amongst the natives. Incredible, isn’t it? But wait there’s more to behold and marvel at. Mathur, again, along with Hosahalli is the only place where you will come across a way of singing and storytelling that will make you reminisce about those childhood nights spent falling asleep to fantastical bedtime tales.
Called Gamaka stories are told by way of putting them in ragas drawn from Carnatic music and Kannada folk tunes and then singing it. The act of singing the stories is called Gamaka, which is then followed with an explanation called Vyakhana. While music and melody are important elements of Gamaka it’s the literary content that is at the heart of the act.
Typically the performance begins at sunset when a drum roll signals the start and lasts well into the night, sometimes till sun rise. Gamaka takes storytelling to particularly high, sublime and melodious note.
Kattaikkuttu, Tamil Nadu
Another theatre form that’s storytelling at its lyrical best is found in the villages of Tamil Nadu, particularly Kanchipuram. Called Kattai Kuttu (kattaikkuttu), one of the several dance and music forms native to Tamil Nadu, it is essentially rural theatre that involves dance, acts and music.
Usually enacted out in an open ground with wide-eyed audience set on the three sides, in Kattaikkuttu costume is of particular significance and the garb worn defines the characters persona- whether the celebrated hero or the villainous, well, villain. In fact Kattai refers to the specific ornaments and headgear worn by the performers by which they are recognized.
What makes Kattaikkuttu different from Koodiyattam and Gamaka is the presence of a dedicated and most importantly, well equipped organization, Kattai Kuttu Kadam, devoted to its sustenance and evolvement. Though Koodiyattam and Gamaka are supported by Sangeet Natak Academy and Gamaka Art Academy but the lack of sufficient funds and the years of dedicated practice these art forms take to master makes them less than lucrative to be taken up by the masses.
Kattaikkuttu, however, has been given a new lease of life by Kattai Kuttu Kudam and the self-sustaining model that it has developed and firmly follows has ensured that over the years its audience reach has only increased.
Keeping the art thriving and ensuring its inheritance in the cultural DNA of Tamil Nadu, Kattai Kuttu Kudam, a branch of Kattai Kuttu Sangam, conducts not just classes in Kattai Kuttu but is a platform where artists can get together and adapt and develop Kattai Kuttu for contemporary times. In fact, in the past years elements of ballet have also been incorporated to make it more appealing for the contemporary audience.
Over the years with increasing villagers facing financial constraints and lack of access to resources, Katta Kuttu was fast becoming a lost art relegated to the bygone times However, with the set up of Kattai Kuttu Gurukulam where children from local villages are not just given training in Kattai Kuttu but also academic education along with vocational training in other professional skills, Kattai Kuttu has regained its cultural significance.
You can book a Kattaikuttu performance entirely for yourself and your family and can also choose its theme. Generally, the performances last a total of 45 minutes. They also have a special visitors’ programme wherein you get to explore, experience and be a part of many of the centre’s activities.
In fact if you are an artist and seeking creative inspiration and space Kattai Kuttu Kudam is the perfect place to head to where you can rent out their theatre, attend workshops or conduct workshops of your own and who knows, you might just fall in love with the experience and decide to stay on as a volunteer.
It’s a story that has been told over 2000 years, continuously woven and spun to this day. Watch it now, hear it now and experience its divinity now- before it all becomes a myth, a legend itself.
Then there is the distinct possibility of these art forms outlasting this era too, impervious to all- a living impression of India’s ancientness.
About the author – A travel enthusiast, Kritika loves exploring offbeat places on her own. You can follow her on twitter @Kri_14_M