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Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Theatre

  •  Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Theatre
  •  Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Theatre
  •  Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Theatre

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2001)

Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, which is practised in the province of Kerala, is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. Originating more than 2,000 years ago, Kutiyattam represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala. In its stylized and codified theatrical language, neta abhinaya (eye expression) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) are prominent. They focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character. Actors undergo ten to fifteen years of rigorous training to become fully-fledged performers with sophisticated breathing control and subtle muscle shifts of the face and body. The actor’s art lies in elaborating a situation or episode in all its detail. Therefore, a single act may take days to perform and a complete performance may last up to 40 days.

Kutiyattam is traditionally performed in theatres called Kuttampalams, which are located in Hindu temples. Access to performances was originally restricted owing to their sacred nature, but the plays have progressively opened up to larger audiences. Yet the actor’s role retains a sacred dimension, as attested by purification rituals and the placing of an oil lamp on stage during the performance symbolizing a divine presence. The male actors hand down to their trainees detailed performance manuals, which, until recent times, remained the exclusive and secret property of selected families.

With the collapse of patronage along with the feudal order in the nineteenth century, the families who held the secrets to the acting techniques experienced serious difficulties. After a revival in the early twentieth century, Kutiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession. In the face of this situation, the different bodies responsible for handing down the tradition have come together to join efforts in order to ensure the continuity of this Sanskrit theatre.

Kerala is known for its contributions in the field of intangible cultural heritage. It is one of the few states that continues to preserve the ancient Sanskrit theatre art forms of Kutiyattam and Kathakali.

Kutiyattam or Koodiyattam, the predecessor of the renowned dance form, Kathakali is said to be almost two thousand years old. The word Kutiyattam is derived from two Malayalam words, ‘Koodi’ (together) and ‘Attam’ (to dance) which translates to ‘dancing together’. Recognised by UNESCO, it was inscribed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in the year 2008.

The creation of Kutiyattam as we see it today, is credited to Kulashekharan Varma of the Chera Dynasty, though it is believed that Kutiyattam had evolved into an art form before that. This art form is strictly based on the rules of theatre and drama, mentioned in Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra. Based on various Sanskrit plays by eminent dramatists such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, Harsha and Shaktibhadran, Kutiyattam is more elaborate when compared to other theatre art forms. One play can last from five to forty one days, out of which the first few days are spent in introducing the main characters in detail through legends and stories associated with them. The entire play or the actual Koodiyttam from the beginning till the end takes place only on the last few days.

Kutiyattam, from the earliest times has been a temple art form, performed in theatres called Koothambalams. Koothambalams are separate buildings constructed within the temple complex solely for this art form to be performed and witnessed. This structure’s architecture is based completely on the guidelines specified in the Natyashastra. Ideally, Koothambalams have to be rectangular in shape with a square shaped stage for the artists to perform. It is said that the stage is arranged in a manner that when the artists perform they face the temple deity.

One of the most important instruments that accompany the actors in their performance is the Mizhavu, a drum shaped instrument.

Originally, the male characters of Kutiyattam were performed by the Chakyar community of Kerala, whereas the female characters were performed by the Nambiars. The knowledge of this art form was passed down from generation to generation strictly within these communities. The Chakyars use stage manuals such as the Kramadipika and Attaprakaram that explain in detail the physical movements, songs and the portrayal of characters in Kutiyattam. Artists go through several years of rigorous training where they are taught eye movements, facial expressions, footwork, hand gestures along with Sanskrit and Malayalam verses.

For the longest time, Kutiyattam was restricted to the temples in Kerala, until in 1960 when for the first time it was performed outside the temple complex. Today, though it is performed in various places as a staged performance by members of different communities, there are very few families and artists who are experts in this rigorous art form. It is believed that Kutiyattam was revived as a result of UNESCO’s recognition of this art form. Despite the efforts, it remains a dying intangible cultural heritage that needs recognition among the younger generation.