Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Kudiyattam lec-dem a revelation

By Siddhartha Jagannath
The Music Academy
Chennai, 17 December.

The lecdem by Sri Rama Chakyar on the musical aspect (vachikam) of Kudiyattam an ancient art form from Kerala made me understand for the first time the saying Kavyeshu natakam ramyam. Rama Chakyar and his troupe have preserved this tradition of Sanskrit theatre and proved to us that the saying indeed holds good. They also showed us the true meaning of “sangeetam” as viewed by a typical 12th century rasika (geetam vadyam tatha nrityam sangeetam uchyate.).

The performers were a group of artists from Kerala, and the main artist a pious exponent of Kudiyattam. He was accompanied by two younger men named Sangeet Chakyar, a dancer, and Sajit Vijayan, a mizhavu player. The gentleman who explained the art form in a calm tone was a person  aptly named Kaladharan.

Kaladharan who explained the art form in a calm voice started by touching upon the history of Kudiyattam. The earliest we can date Kudiyattam, he said, was to the 11th century, although he believes it has been alive for many  hundreds of  years before that. The earliest works found are two plays by king Kulashekara Varman. He credited the brahmins of Kerala for having preserved this artform. Kaladharan said that Kudiyattam performers usually presented only Sanskrit plays by poets of the calibre of Kalidasa and Bhasa. The troupe then presented the vachika aspect of the art. 

When Kaladharan spoke of the ragas of Kudiyattam, I expected Carnatic style ragas to emerge, but to my surprise found that Chakyar recited verses with the three svaras: udatta, anudatta and svarita and with different combinations of duration (similar to hrasva, dirgha, and pluta). Later, Kaladharan explained that these ragas could not be identified with Carnatic or Hindustani ragas. They probably have their roots in the Sama Veda. He said that that these ragas could at best be called swarams. As Dr. Ramanathan later added, the ragas in Kudiyattam are based almost entirely on the rasa which is to be conveyed to the audience and not at all on any technical aspects of music as we know it. The rasa (like soka, raudra or veera) that the artist was trying to depict was evident just from the recitation by Chakyar.

Soon the actual demonstration began. It started with Rama Chakyar demonstrating a sloka in the raga Sri Kanti (this raga is normally sung at the beginning like a mangala raga) from a play of Kulashekara Varman. Kaladharan said that this was a normal way of recitation with no emphasis on any particular bhava. The next item was a verse in the raga “Veeratharka” from the “Abhisheika Natakam” of the poet Bhasa. This raga brings out the roudra rasa. 

They then moved on to a sloka from the Naganandam play of Sri Harsha in raga Arthan. This sloka brings out the sringara rasa. They presented yet another sloka on sringara rasa from the Abhisheka Nataka of Bhasa. Kaladharan stated that the raga Kora Kurunji was used when the vanaras were speaking. One of the best ragas was Dukha Gandharam which brought out sorrow. The way Rama Chakyar shook his cheeks and quivered his voice was simply fantastic. The verse had been extracted from a work by the name of Ascharya Choodamani. 

Verbal acting, Kaladharan said, was of three types. They were moolal or humming, padal or singing and slokam or recitation. These three were done by women behind the curtain. All these were demonstrated swiftly and fluently by Rama Chakyar. The slokas performed here as an example were from Mattavilasam by Mahendra Pallavan.

Now on to the stage came Sangeet Chakyar and Sajit Vijayan to demonstrate the angika and satvika aspects of the art in Veeratharka raga. Sangeet had every square micrometer of his perfect body under his control. The way he vibrated his cheeks was astounding. I had no idea we even had so many muscles in the cheek! He had every sinew under his command and his erect posture made me aware of my own crumbling posture as I struggled to sit upright in those cosy chairs of the Kasturi Hall. His back glistened with sweat as he shook. 

Unlike dancers of popular dance forms that we see today, he had no embelishments like anklets, makeup, fancy costumes or jewellery. His bloodshot eyes with minimal eye make-up, his square shoulders and hand movements were all that was needed to bring out the sentiment he was intending to project.          

Sajit Vijayan accompanied Sangeet Chakyar on the beautiful pot-like drum called the Mizhavu. He too seemed fit like a Kudiyattam dancer with his hands beating the drum effortlessly. Kaladharan explained that the two main talas used in this system of art were Champada (Adi) and Adanda (Misra Chapu). Then it was Sajjit Vijayan’s turn to do a solo, akin to a tani avartanam.  A thoroughly enjoyable tani was performed by Vijayan although it was brief. 

(Schoolboy and music student Siddhartha Jagannath is our youngest contributor).          

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