The Gaze on Koodiyattom

Koodiyattom, the ancient temple art of Kerala, is attracting more attention with Sashi Paravoor’s acclaimed film Nottam (The Gaze) on the dance form, writes M.S. Unnikrishnan

Koodiyattom brings out the ultimate in abhinaya
Koodiyattom brings out the
ultimate in abhinaya

Koodiyattom is an ancient temple art of Kerala which preceded Kathakali by a few light years. Yet, this vibrant theatre form, set to Sanskrit lyrics, has been mostly confined to the stages of the temples and select art venues across the Malabar area of Kerala. And not many even within or outside the state were aware of its existence, beyond its immediate environs.

Koodiyattom brings out the ultimate in abhinaya as this dance form is much more classical and elegant, in form and content, than Kathakali, another ancient temple art, which has become the virtual mascot of the ‘God’s Own Country’.

People outside the state might have heard about thespian Mani Madhava Chakyar, who was the ultimate exponent of Koodiyattam, but little of the art itself he perfected and performed with mastery.

Koodiyattom was on the verge of extinction when Unesco (United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared it as one of the 20 heritage art forms in the world, to be preserved and protected, in all its pristine purity. Suddenly, the world, particularly the cultural czars of the country, took note of the dying temple art practised by just eight ‘Chakyar’ families in Kerala.

The dance form is much more classical and elegant, in form and content, than Kathakali
The dance form is much more classical and elegant, in form and content, than Kathakali

Performing Koodiyattom is the prerogative of the Chakyars but they face the harsh realities of today’s world, which offers nothing much to the practitioners of this ritualistic classical art form, with the accompaniment of three classical percussion instruments—mizhavu, thimila and edakka. Naturally, keeping alive Koodiyattom in its pristine form has been a daunting task, which only the Chakyar families can ensure, though their numbers are dwindling. Moreover, only women—just a handful now—enact the role of women in Koodiyattom and their numbers are not growing either. (In Kathakali, males enact the female roles).

Interestingly, even the cultural czars do not want ‘outsiders’ to take up Koodiyattam to widen its base for the fear of ‘diluting’ its form and polluting its beauty, as they had done with Kathakali a few years ago. Secretary in the Union Ministry of Culture K Jayakumar voiced this concern when he said he feared that half-baked artistes would try to perform Koodiyattom for the uninitiated to do more harm than good to its preservation. Koodiyattom got a shot in the arm, like a Godsend, when Sashi Paravoor made an acclaimed film on it, named Nottam (The Gaze). It took Sashi four years’ painstaking reserach before finalising the script, and mounting the sets to shoot the film. And while shooting the film, tragedy struck when female lead Margi Sathi’s husband N. Subramanian Potti died of eloctrocution. Margi Sathi is not a professional actress, but the doyenne of Koodiyattom, who agreed to do the film only because of the backing of her husband and other male members in the family. The film is naturally dedicated to Potti, who himself was an accomplished edakka player.

Sathi set aside her personal tragedy to complete the film, which is not only a classic, but has helped revive the interest for the salvation of Koodiyattam in all its glory.

Jayakumar, who has penned lyrics for over 100 films, paid the ultimate compliment to Sashi Paravoor’s labour of love when he noted that the "film has fully adhered to the grammar of Koodiyattom".

Nottam has not yet been commercially released, but it has already won several awards. Sashi will be financially ruined if it does not make the cash registers tingle at the turnstile. Sashi had burnt his boat badly when he made a human-interest film on an AIDS-affected woman, titled Kaattu Vannu Vilichappol (When the Wind
), but nobody showed any interest in the stark subject, and the film sank without a trace. Rs 45 lakh went down the drain but Sashi was not deterred. He mustered the courage to make a film on Koodiyattom, egged on by friends, and inspired by Mohan Lal’s classic role as a Kathakali artiste, played to perfection by the star, in the national-award winning movie Vanaprastham.

The beauty of Nottam is that Sashi has not only focussed national attention on Kodiyattam for its revival, but has managed to extract matchless performances from acclaimed actors like Nedumudi Veenu, Jagathi Sreekumar,
M R Gopakumar, Margi Sathi and a handful of greenhorns, portending commercial success for the film
as well.

All the actors have given natural performances, living up to the exacting abhinaya standards of Koodiyattom. Veenu, who plays the central character of Vasudeva Chakyar, the protagonist, had noted in an interveiw that "I started each shot with a prayer, appealing to the gurus of Koodiyattom to give us their blessings". Veenu’s masterly abhinaya is the high point of the film, and he gives it a fitting climax by feigning his death ‘perfectly’ at the end. Veenu’s last shot enacting Bali’s death in the story Bali Vadham looks ‘real’, and the supporting cast heave a sigh of relief only when he twinkles his eyes to come of out of the comatose mode and give his abhinaya that matchless touch, before "The End" comes. The two-hour long film espouses the need to use modern technology, like Internet, to widen the scope and reach of the stylised art form, as well as focussing on the unspoilt life in the villages where water-harvesting, traditional method of farming, etc have been a way of life, and continue to be so, gelling finely with the changing times and modern gizmos.

The unspoilt locales, soulful music by Jayachandran (sung by Yesudas, Chitra and Jayachandran) and evocating acting are the other compelling features of the film.

The message the film conveys is: Ancient art forms like Koodiyattom can survive and succeed by moving with the times, yet sticking to the core values, so that its pristine nature is not compromised. For the Chakyars, Koodiyattom is a sacrosanct act, and Sashi Parvoor’s film too says that — the art form should be kept sacrosanct. "The Chakyars are unsurpassable for their histrionics", Veenu noted.