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Shorter, but still sublime


In the old days, Ravana took 20 minutes just to survey Kailash. That just won't work today, says Sangeeth Chakyar, a rising star of Koodiyattam, the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre

As he strains every sinew to uproot Kailash, eyes bulging and chest heaving with the exertion, the audience leans in anxiously. Will he, won't he? And as he staggers back cradling the mountain, there is a sigh of relief. He has done it, punished the mountain home of Shiva for daring to block his path. To retell an old story whose ending is known to all and still get the audience breathless - that is the wonder of great classical art.

At 28, the rising Koodiyattam star Kalamandalam Sangeeth Chakyar certainly knows how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand. Koodiyattam is the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre that goes back 2, 000 years, an art that works to a rigorous and complex grammar of mudras and facial expressions. You need leisure and patience to allow the stories to unfold langorously.

In the old days, against the flickering lamp in a temple, Thoranayudham, the story of Ravana's might and hubris, could go on for up to four hours. Keenly aware of dwindling attention spans, Sangeeth performs to a more contemporary clock.

Last Saturday, he presented a condensed one-hour Thoranayudham at a World Dance Day event hosted by danseuse Geeta Chandran in Delhi, and brought the overwhelmed audience to its feet. "In a traditional performance, it takes Ravana a good 20 minutes to just survey Mount Kailash - across its breadth, up its peak, into its recesses, " he says. "But to be honest and realistic, no Koodiyattam performance today can go beyond two hours. "

Sangeeth comes from a long line of Chakyars, a Brahminical subcaste of Kerala, that has for centuries zealously hung on to this dance form. A traditional temple art - and thus for many centuries proscribed for the 'lower castes' - it has always been a niche art. In fact, an audience of 50 is considered a bit of a crowd at a Koodiyattam performance. (Kathakali in that sense is more pop, being conducted in Malayalam, and with a more accessible grammar). In the last 50 years, however, the art has been secularised, with women and other castes entering the fold. But it is still primarily the preserve of Chakyars, part art and part a ritual legacy.

Sangeeth is one of the most popular young Koodiyattam artistes today and his calendar is quite packed, both with temple festivals and other secular events. "My mother drilled it into my head since I was a child that this is something my ancestors did and that it is a tradition I should hang on to, " says Sangeeth. "And I have to say that not once since I started learning at the age of 12 did I ever want to opt for another career. " He trained under Painkulam Rama Chakyar and debuted at the age of 13. But how did he get his head around learning for a decade and then doing an elaborate performance to a full house of 35 to 50 people? "The fact is that Koodiyatam cannot work for a mob, " he says. "It isn't that I don't hope for large crowds but I understand that it cannot happen. "

Over the last few years Koodiyattam practitioners, including the masters, have made small efforts to reach out to lay audiences. Performances are often preceded by short lec-dems, written notes are distributed, and projectors used to display the shlokas being enacted and recited. This outreach has helped widen the pool of fans.

The fact that Koodiyattam was recognised by Unesco as an intangible heritage of humanity also brought money and recognition to the art.

"There is certainly a revival of interest in Koodiyattam and we are all reaching out to larger audiences, " says Sangeeth. "But there is only so much and no more you can do to make it popular. To me, an ideal performance is one where I can strike a balance between my artistic integrity and the needs of the audience. "

Even watching a Koodiyattam performance demands a certain discipline. Audiences are expected to be mindful of its temple roots and be suitable respectful. This does not always happen. In college halls and on makeshift temple festival stages, it is naive to expect that kind of connoisseurship, and older gurus have been known to storm off the stage. Youngsters like Sangeeth have a more real understanding of the changing times. "Tradition allows the Chakyar to take off his headgear and abandon the stage, " he says. "But I choose not to respond to rowdy crowds because in a way if you do that you are coming out of your character, right?"

Historically, too, Koodiyattam artistes have been smart about dealing with different audiences. For instance, at a venue where the crowds tended to be less educated, they would pick a story featuring a vidushakan (clown) who spoke in Malayalam to inject a comic element. "You could say that Koodiyattam survived this long because of the vidushakan, " points out Sangeeth. Stories from Ramayana also strike a chord.

The true test of a contemporary Koodiyattam artiste is to adapt to the context of his performance. Next month, Sangeeth will be performing for five days at a highly respected space - the Venganellur Shiva temple near Trichur. The audience here will comprise purists, highly knowledgeable souls who will travel miles to evaluate how intricate the artiste's understanding is of the layers and sub-layers of the character he is playing. At most, there will be 35 viewers but those 35 are unlikely to ask me to hurry up and wrap up the performance, " says Sangeeth. "There, the test will be to bring in as much detailing and virtuosity as possible. "


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