Kutiyattam and its semantic universe

Kutiyattam, India’s only living traditional Sanskrit theatre, has been continually performed in Kerala for at least a thousand years

Kutiyattam and its semantic universe

Manu V Devadevan

The Kutiyattam theatre of Kerala is among the few classical art forms of South Asia that confront us with a strange paradox. It is a genre of dance-drama that is at once nostalgically familiar and frustratingly unintelligible. There is an Arjuna on the stage, but it is hard to say what he is up to. There is a Laksmana and a Surpanakha, a Bhima, a Jimutavahana, a Yaugandharayana, a Vasantaka—characters that are known to us as though they have been in conversation with us for a long time. They have, nevertheless, metamorphosed into mysterious beings on the stage, doing things that would have left the playwright ‘spinning in his grave like a dervish’.

Vasantaka in the Mantrankam of Pratijnayaugandharayana has become Kulukuttunni Sarmman, a gluttonous brahmana jester who is, nonetheless, believed to have attained Sivasarupyam (likeness with Siva)! And the Bhima in the Kalyanasaugandhikamhas more important offices to minister than bringing Draupadi the flower she longs for. He has to witness a python swallowing an elephant in the forest and watch the appearance of a lion that has reached there to intervene, and he has to do these by playing all the characters in the scene on stage—the elephant, the python, the lion, and Bhima—by transforming from the one to the other through a method of acting called pakarnnattam.

Kutiyattam is not a widely popular form of performance; as a matter of fact, it has never been one. However, it has been the focus of considerable academic and artistic interest over the last three decades, especially after the UNESCO declared it as one of the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in May 2001. Funding from the state and non-governmental agencies for promoting the art has increased in recent years, resulting in rich documentation, novel forms of dissemination, and a series of ingenious and inventive experimentations that include staging the plays of Kalidasa (which were not part of the traditional Kutiyattam repertoire), and adaptations of many other texts, such as the Cilappatikaram, Macbeth, Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea, and twentieth-century Malayalam poetry.

Scholarship on Kutiyattam has also made progress, leading to several important publications. While these initiatives have been invaluable in their own right, there is also no denying that our understanding of Kutiyattam today is hardly different in qualitative terms from what it was in the 1970s or the 1980s.

Scholarly assessments have mostly been descriptive in nature, and where this is not the case, the question that has worried scholars is whether or not the Kutiyattam theatre constituted ritual.

This state of affair springs from two basic methodological limitations in existing approaches to the study of Kutiyattam. Firstly, our knowledge of what unfurls on the stage draws, almost entirely, upon the present-day staging of Kutiyattam. Performances in our times, however, are neither located against the backdrop of an agrarian political economy, as they were in the sixteenth or the seventeenth centuries, nor intertwined, dialogically or semantically, with the life-world, self-understanding, values, and cosmologies of the performers and their patrons. Today’s Kutiyattam is an alienated spectacle, objectified and removed from its audience in tune with the commodity logic that characterizes the capitalist political economy. In this new form, Kutiyattam carries considerable semantic weight from the homologies drawn between the genre on the one hand, and categories such as ‘tradition’, ‘Kerala theatre’, and ‘the oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre’ on the other—associations that are vital for understanding any present-day staging of Kutiyattam, but extra-epistemic when placed as templates to make sense of its performance three or four centuries ago. Secondly, existing studies do not contextualize Kutiyattam in relation to other forms of contemporary literary and theatrical practices.

Nor do they place it against the backdrop of the political economy in a compelling manner. Kutiyattam is seen as a self-constituted world in itself, largely of a ritual nature. Where this is not the case, discussions are limited to a thin appraisal of the patron-client relationship that its performers had established with the elites, and tall talk on the long tradition of playwriting and performance—beginning with the plays ascribed to Bhasa, and the Natyasastra of Bharata—from which the genre is believed to have evolved.

That it is the only surviving Sanskrit theatre in India is one of Kutiyattam’s claims to popularity. It is, in Farley P. Richmond’s assessment, ‘one of the oldest continuously performed theatre forms in India, and it may well be the oldest surviving art form of the ancient world. Although the precise links between it and the ancient Sanskrit theatre have not yet been determined, kutiyattam is a regional derivation of the pan-Indian classical tradition, a bridge between the past and the present.’

Also widespread is the belief that Kutiyattam has been in practice for 2,000 years. ‘It can’t be ascertained whether this is historically true’, writes Archana Verma, ‘but there is at least evidence that in 1100 CE, king Kulasekhara [ sic ] and his Brahmana minister Tolan [ sic ] reformed the performative acts of Kerala.’ Sober assessments place the origins of Kutiyattam in the age of the Ceraman Perumals (ca. 844–1122 CE). Pragya Thakkar Enros observes that Kutiyattam is ‘believed to have come into existence during the tenth century’. K.G. Paulose traces its beginnings to the historical developments of tenth- and eleventh-century Kerala.

The changes brought about by King Kulasekhara in the eleventh century [ sic ] to the tradition of staging Sanskrit drama, Paulose notes, was in fact not Kutiyattam. Only two centuries later, in the thirteenth century, did Kulasekhara’s theatre metamorphose into Kutiyattam.

This involved the introduction of Malayalam—or Nampyar Tamil, as it was called—for explaining the meaning of the Sanskrit verses to the non-Sanskrit audiences, the development of a rural world centring on temples, and the ‘grand alliance’ that the brahmanas successfully forged with the ruling elites and intermediate groups following the collapse of ‘the centralized administrative structure of the Cera Empire’. In Bruce M. Sullivan’s estimation, Kutiyattam ‘is the only surviving genre of classical Sanskrit theater with an unbroken lineage (parampara) of masters and pupils during the last nine hundred years’.

These positions do not inspire confi dence in the light of the evidence on hand. The earliest reference to Kutiyattam that we know of is from thekramadipika(stage-manual) of the Bhagavadajjuka,12 which is not older than the sixteenth century. To the same period belongs the Natankusa, a text on dramaturgy that locks horns with the Sanskrit theatre of its day in a puritan spirit. No mention of Kutiyattam occurs in any surviving text from the fourteenth, the twelfth, or the ninth centuries. Nor do we have indication in any source for performance on a comparable scale. Attempts to reconstruct a millennium-long history of Kutiyattam are only banal—and oftentimes patronizing—exercises of reading retrospective evidence back into time.

In a recent intervention, Heike Oberlin has like many others argued, but on very different grounds, that Kutiyattam dates back to the eleventh/twelfth century. Basing her argument on epigraphic sources, she posits that the Nannyar and Cakyar traditions of performance were different from each other, that the former was known in Kerala as early as the ninth century, that the latter, known in Tamil Nadu from very early times, was introduced in Kerala only during the twelfth century, that the two traditions came together to form a distinct genre of performance, and that the word Kutiyattam, literally ‘acting together’, may refer to this historical union. This assessment is remarkably original, but no less conjectural. No epigraphic source from the ninth to the twelfth century refers to Kutiyattam by name, nor are things associated with it, such as the purappatu,the nirvahanam, the kuttampalamstage, etc., mentioned. Neither do the inscriptions persuade us that performances extending over eleven, thirty-five, or forty-one days were ever held during this early period. Scholars and performers of Kutiyattam generally believe that ‘acting together’ refers to the coming together of all actors, after the extended preliminaries involving solo performances, to present the play proper.

The story of Sanskrit theatre in Kerala goes back to the ninth century, when a playwright from the region, endowed with a fertile imagination, wrote two plays, the Unmadavasavadatta(which is lost) 16 and the Ascaryacudamani. These plays marked a new beginning. Saktibhadra, the playwright, was aware of the novelty of his enterprise. He began the Ascaryacudamani with the observation that a play from the south was as impossible as the blossoming of a skyflower or the extraction of oil from sand. This was certainly not an innocent claim; for with the important exception of the Pallava king, Mahendravarman, who in the seventh century wrote the Mattavilasa Prahasanaand the Bhagavadajjuka,no playwright is known to have existed in South India before Saktibhadra’s time…

(Excerpted from Two Masterpieces of Kutiyattam: Mantrankam and Anguliyankam, edited by Heike Oberlin and David Shulman, with permission from the publisher)

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