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Classical Theatre

The only living tradition of the ancient Sanskrit theatre today is the Kutiyattam, of Kerala, declared recently by UNESCO as the intangible heritage of humanity. Kutiyattam theatre is the continuation of Bharata’s theatre, but it has improvised considerably Bharata’s concepts. The actor in Bharata is an imitator; in Kutiyattam he is a narrator and interpreter too. The actor himself turns out to be a stage on which multiple characters, through the technique of transformation of roles, enact their roles. Also, while indulging in imaginative acting, the actor breaks the frame of the dramatic text and context. Liberated from the text, he creates his own sub-texts providing exciting moments to the connoisseurs on each performance. Bhasa hides many such situations in his plays, which provide ample scope for the actors to exhibit their histrionic talents in different ways.

It is interesting to note that the first major contribution of Kerala to Sanskrit theatre is a play that makes a harmonious blend of the two streams of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Kalyanasougandhika Vyayoga,4 arranges symbolically a meeting between the two brothers – Hanuman of Ramayana and the Bhima of Mahabharata. This is very much popular in almost all theatrical forms like Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Thullal, etc. The major plays that followed – Subhadradhananjaya and Taptisamvarna – drew their theme from Mahabharata. The presentation of these plays marked the deviation from the national pattern5. Shortly after this the Bhasa plays became the favorites of Kerala actors. When Kutiyattam moved to temple premises, Ramayana plays gained dominance, the principal emotion depicted being devotion.

The emergence of Kathakali gave another impetus to the theatrical movements in the classical field. Ramanattam, the proto-type of Kathakali, continued the Ramayana legacy. But at a mature stage later, plays of Kottayam Thampuran brought Mahabarata to the centre-stage. Heroism followed by love as in Nalacharitam, replaced bhakti practised by Ramayana plays. These features have become the main of Kathakali now. The most important pieces in the Kathakali repertory are drawn from Mahabharata. In some cases, they rely more on venisamhara.