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The Science of Telling Stories

Steeped in tradition, the dances and music are proof of a rich past.

The theatre tradition of Kerala dates back two millennia to Koodiyattom, (combined acting), which was recently declared by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’. The gesture by UNESCO is a befitting tribute to the perseverance and dedication of the actors of this dance form, especially, Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar, the art’s greatest maestro who struggled to keep it alive in the face of heavy odds.

Koodiyattom is performed by a community of male actors called Chakyars and female performers called Nangiars. This art form integrates two other art forms-Nangiarkoothu, performed exclusively by Nangiars and Prabandhakoothu or Chakyarkoothu, the narrative drama of the Chakyars.

Though Koodiyattom broadly follows the rules laid down by Natya Sastra-the ancient treatise on dance and drama-it has a distinctive characteristic with a firm basis on Kerala’s indigenous culture.

Performed in temple theatres, the repertoire of Koodiyattom draws upon the plays of eminent Sanskrit dramatists like Bhasa, Harsha, Shakthibhadra and Bodhayana. The plays have minimal text, leaving the actor ample room to elaborate and improvise. Theatre improvisation is effected through several methods including the use of orchestra to enhance histrionic action and deliberate amplification of events and sequences.

Kathakali or story play is the spectacular classical dance drama based on the guidelines also laid down in Natya Sastra. Kathakali integrates dance, music, poetry and histrionics. Abhinaya (expression) is the heart of Kathakali. Since women generally do not act, the female characters are played by men. Music is in the sopanam style, which is the classical form of singing in Kerala. The themes are taken from India’s rich and colourful mythology.

Theyyam is one of the most outstanding folk arts of Kerala and has its origin in the northern parts of the state. It is performed in every thira or village temple and kavus (sacred groves) to propitiate the deities. It represents a mythological, divine or heroic character. There are over 350 Theyyams in northern Kerala each with its distinct form and story of origin.

The credit for Kerala’s place in the field of Carnatic Music must be given to Swati Thirunal, the ruler of Travancore.

The state has also greatly contributed to the development of folk music. Vadakkan Pattukal (northern ballads) which celebrate the exploits of heroes like Thacholi Othenan, Mappila Pattukal (sung by the Mappilas of Malabar), Vanchipattukal (boat songs) and Vatil Turappatu (song requesting the bridegroom to open the door) are but a few of them. Suddha-maddalam, komb, edakka, elathalam and timila are the five instruments besides sankh (conch) used for panchavadyam. Pancharimelam is mainly confined to temples-the chenda, komb, kuzhal and elathalam are the main instruments used. This can be heard during Pooram at the Sri Vadakkum-nathan Temple compound in Thrissur. A thayambakam performance can be witnessed during festival days, especially when the temple deity is taken out in procession.

Pulluvanpattu is a ritual song in praise of serpent deities, sung by the Pulluvar community. In central Kerala, this ritual offering takes the form of the Sarpamthullal or snake dance. The Pulluvar veena is smaller and native adaptation of the fiddle and is used by the men of the Pulluvar community. Pulluv-arkkudam is a string instrument that produces the sounds of a percussion instrument, generally played by the men (pulluvathy).

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