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Koodiyattam (Malayalam: കൂടിയാട്ടം), also transliterated as Kutiyattam, is a traditional performing artform in the state of Kerala, India. It is a combination of ancient Sanskrit theatre with elements of Koothu, a Tamil/Malayalam performing art which is as old as Sangam era. It is officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Koodiyattam (kutiyattam), meaning "combined acting" as it combines dramas in Sanskrit theatre with elements of traditional Koothu. It is traditionally performed in temple theatres known as Koothambalams of Kerala. It is the only surviving artform that uses dramas from ancient Sanskrit theatre. It has an attested history of a thousand years in Kerala, but its origin and evolution are shrouded in mystery. Koodiyattam and chakyar koothu were among the dramatized dance worship services in temples of ancient India, particularly Kerala. Both koodiyattam and chakyar koothu originates from ancient south Indian artform Koothu which is mentioned several times in ancient sangam literature of south and also in the epigraphs belonging to subsequent Pallava, Chera, Chola periods. Inscriptions related to the dramatized dance worship services known as Koothu are available in temples at Tanjore, Tiruvidaimaruthur, Vedaranyam, Tiruvarur, and Omampuliyur. They were treated as an integral part of worship services alongside the singing of tevaram and prabandam hymns. There are mentions in epigraphs those forms of Koothu that are called aariyam when they use languages other than Tamil such as Sanskrit, Pali or Prakrit for plays.
Several ancient kings and members of other professions are listed to have authored several works for these services. There is evidence of these services being done all over ancient subcontinent during time of cholas and pallavas. A Pallava king called Rajasimha has been credited with authoring a play called kailasodharanam in Tamil that has the topic of Ravana becoming subject to Siva's anger and being subdued mercilessly for the same. For examples a fragmented inscription at the door step of an ancient Shiva temple (now non-existent) in Pegan in Burma finds mention of these services.
It is believed that Kulasekhara Varman Cheraman Perumal, an ancient king of Chera dynasty, who ruled from Mahodayapuram (modern Kodungallur), reformed Koodiyattam, introducing the local language for Vidusaka and structuring presentation of the play to well-defined units. He himself wrote two plays, Subhadraharana and Tapatisamvarana and made arrangements for their presentation on stage with the help of a Brahmin friend called Tolan. These plays are still presented on stage. Apart from these, the plays traditionally presented include Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra, Kalyanasaugandhika of Nilakantha, Bhagavadajjuka of Bodhayana, Nagananda of Harsa, and many plays ascribed to Bhasa including Abhiseka and Pratima. The Kutiyattam performance was performed in specially designed temples called koothambalams.
The use of Buddhist themes for plays is a very controversial and moot issue and seem to be a later interpolation not existing since ancient times for the latter not being a then-legal vedic system.
Traditionally, the main musical instruments used in Koodiyattam are mizhavu, kuzhitalam, edakka, kurumkuzhal, and sankhu. Mizhavu, the most prominent of these, is a percussion instrument that is played by a person of the Ambalavas Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma playing the kuzhithalam (a type of cymbal).
Traditionally, Koodiyattam has been performed by Chakyars (a subcaste of Kerala Hindus) and by Nangyaramma (women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste). The name Koodiyattam, meaning playing or performing together, is thought to refer to the presence or more actors on stage who act in consonance with the beats of the mizhavu drummers. Alternatively, it may also be a reference to a common practice in Sanskrit drama where a single actor who has performed solo for several nights is joined by another.
The main actor is a Chakyar who performs the ritualistic Koothu and Koodiyattam inside the temple or in the Koothambalam. Chakyar women, Illotammas, are not allowed to participate. Instead, the female roles are played by Nangyaramma. Koodiyattam performances are lengthy and elaborate affairs, ranging from 12 to 150 hours spread across several nights. A complete Koodiyattam performance consists of three parts. The first of these is the purappadu where an actor performs a verse along with the nritta aspect of dance. Following this is the nirvahanam where the actor, using abhinaya, brings to the audience the mood of the main character of the play. The nirvahanam, a retrospective, takes the audience up to the point where the actual play begins. The final part of the performance is koodiyattam which is the play itself. While the first two parts are solo acts, Koodiyattam can have as many characters as are required to perform on the stage.
The practice was that elders of the Chakyar community taught it to their youngsters and it was an art form performed only by Chakyars until the 1950s. In 1955 Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar performed Kutiyattam outside the temple for the first time. For performing the art forms outside the temples he faced many problems from the hardline Chakyar community. In his own words:
My own people condemned my action (performing Koothu and Kutiyattam outside the precincts of the temples), Once, after I had given performances at Vaikkom, they even thought about excommunicating me.
I desired that this art should survive the test of time. That was precisely why I ventured outside the temple.
In 1962, under the leadership of Dr. V. Raghavan, noted art and Sanskrit scholar, Sanskrit Ranga of Madras, invited Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar to perform Kutiyattam in Chennai. Thus for the first time in history Kutiyattam was performed outside Kerala. They presented at Madras on three nights: Kutiyattam scenes from three plays Abhiṣeka,Subhadrādhanañjaya and Nāgānda.
In early 1960s Maria Christoffer Byrski, a Polish student doing research in Indian theatres at Banaras Hindu University came to study Kootiyattam with Mani Madhava Chakyar and became the first non-Chakyar/nambiar to learn the art form. He stayed in Guru's home at Killikkurussimangalam and studied the art form in traditional Gurukula way.
Koodiyattam has traditionally been an exclusive art form performed in special venues called koothambalams in Hindu temples and access to these performances were highly restricted to only caste Hindus. Also, performances are lengthy taking up to forty days to complete. The collapse of the feudal order in the nineteenth century in Kerala led to a curtailment in the patronage extended to Koodiyattam artistes and they faced serious financial difficulties. Following a revival in the early twentieth century, Koodiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession. UNESCO has called for the creation of a network of Koodiyattam institutions and gurukalams to nurture the transmission of the art form to future generations and for the development of new audiences besides fostering greater academic research in it. The Margi Theatre Group in Thiruvananthapuram is a notable organisation dedicated to the revival of Kathakali and Koodiyattom in Kerala. Also Nepathya is an exclusive institution to promote Koodiyattam and related art forms working at Moozhikkulam. The Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest award for performing artists, to Kutiyattam artists like, Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri (2007), Painkulam Raman Chakyar (2010) and Painkulam Damodara Chakyar (2012).
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