Kutiyattam is the only living tradition of ancient Indian theatre. It is the earliest known form of enacting Sanskrit Drama. The mode of acting claims the pride of 2000 years. This is preserved by the Kerala actors known as chakyars, nangyars and nambiars. UNESCO has proclaimed Kutiyattam as "the masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity".

There are five institutions in Kerala working in this field.

  • Kerala Kalamdalam, Cheruturuthi, Trissur
  • Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smarak Gurukulum, Irinjalakkuda, Trissur
  • Margi, Valiyasala, Tiruvanathapuram
  • Manimadhava Chakyar Gurukulum, Killikkurissimangalam, Palakad
  • International Centre for Kutiyattam, Tripunithura
  • Natanakairali,Irinalakuta
  • Nepathya, Moozhikulam
  • Krishan Nampyar Mizhavu Kalari,Trissur

Aesthetics of Kutiyaattam

K. G. Paulose

Kutiyaattam, which U N E S C O proclaimed as the intangible heritage of humanity, preserves the unique characteristics of traditional theatre of Kerala. It is, perhaps, the lone surviving vestige of the ancient Indian theatrical experiments.

1. Naatyasaastra, the grammar of theatre (2.c. BCE)
Bharata, in his encyclopaedic Naatyasaastra(NS), prescribes a code of conduct for playwrights and actors. He drew inspiration from his experience as an actor and also from the rich tradition he inherited. He wanted to distance himself from the populist mode of presentations prevailed at that time.  To achieve this, he took the performance from streets to the well-guarded theatre-houses, wherein admission was limited to a few hundred spectators, mostly belonging to the higher strata of the society. Secondly, he introduced a kind of stylised acting (naatyadharmi) along with the realistic (lokadharmi) mode of the popular theatre. The appreciation of naatyadharmi required high scholarship and specialised training. The connoisseur had to use his imaginative faculty and finer sensibilities to understand the performance. The third and crucial contribution of Bharata was the stress he gave to saatvikaabhinaya. This enabled him to focus on the aesthetic emotion of the spectators and to develop the wonderful theory of rasa . All the components in a performance are intended to develop the rasa.This concentration on rasa and bhaava elevated theatre to a sublime level. Spectactors were taken to a trans-temporal world, where the supreme bliss they enjoyed was akin to the supreme bliss the yogis experience.
Bharata’s theatre, later on, had its varied manifestations in different parts of the country. The broader relations between maargi and desi on the one hand and the interrelations between desis themselves marked the growth of Indian theatre in its different phases of  evolution. Kuttanimata(8 c.) contains a graphic description of the enactment of the first Act of Ratnaavali, which gives a glimpses of the improvisations on Bharata for over a thousand years. The claim of the director that this method excelled the traditional one handed down by Bharata, need not be dismissed as an exaggeration. Kashmir had close cultural relations with Kerala from ancient times . The developments in Kashmir had its immediate impact in the Southern-most tip of the peninsula. The actors of Kerala were familiar with the Kuttanimata experiment. The greatest development in Kashmir around this time was the doctrine of dhvani propounded by Anandavardhana in his Dhvanyaaloka. Ananda had to face stiff resistance in his homeland. But Kerala accepted him whole-heartedly and introduced his innovative ideas of dhvani immediately, in theatre. This was a landmark in the history of Kerala theatre.
NS had its influence in the South from very early period. Though the Vidhya mountains divided this country as Aaryaavarta in the North and Dakshinaapatha in the south, it could not prevent cross-cultural currents in these segments. Bharata himself refers to Andhras, Dramilas and other inhabitants of the South. Tolkappiyam was strongly influenced by NS.Silappadikaram provides a mine of information regarding performance traditions prevailed at that period. The thematic area of its operation extends to the whole of South India. The story spreads to three important cities of the South- Madurai, Kaverippoopattanam and Kotungalloor. It was in Kotungalloor in Kerala that the Parayur Kuttachakkiyan exhibited his unusual talent by presenting the turbulent thaandava by the right part of the body and the sober lasya by the left simultaneously, thereby playing the dance of Ardhanaareeswara. This tradition was developed after a few centuries by a royal dramatist who ruled Kerala with his capital in the same city, Mahodayapuram-the present Kotungalloor.

2. The Vyangyavyakhya (09.c.CE)
King Kulasekhara wrote two dramas taking the stories from the Mahabharata . He did not have much appreciation to the conventional method of presenting Sanskrit dramas that prevailed at that time. The lay men among the audience enjoyed the plain speaking. What about the scholars? They knew the story already. The stage presents nothing new to satisfy their intellectual or emotional thirst. He was thinking of a method of acting that will endear the elite. It was then that he heard of dhvani expounded in Kashmir. Of course, Anandavardhana did it for poetry. Excited, he decided to apply this to theatre. He called the scholars and actors around him and explained to them his innovative idea. He donned the role of each character and demonstrated the way to bring out the hidden meaning. Naturally, they too were attracted to the new method. Thus an innovative improvisation was designed to present Sanskrit dramas in Kerala by the end of the 9th c. CE. This was not known to the outside world. Kerala, thus deviated from the national tradition of N S.

The method by which Kerala deviated from the national stream was two-fold: application of dhvani and retrospective narration. There is nothing new in the story to attract the audience. What they expect from a performance is the interpretation of the silence of the author. The actor has to bring out the silence hidden in the text. It is the suggestive import that transforms the page to stage. In SD, the vidushaka enters asking for alms-bhikshaam datta. He pretends to be hungry and communicates it to the audience through four-fold acting. All are pleased. It is not over. Concentrating his attention on the elites in the front row, he informs them that what he seeks is not food, but a maiden. This is suggested by the feminine gender in bhikshaa. Subhadra is in love with Dhananjaya, his friend. We are here to seek her hand for Arjuna. This is the suggested sense here.

This suggested sense cannot be communicated verbally as it is not in the text. The actor has to create a sub-text from his imagination. Imagination knows no bounds. So the actor can take it to any extent. The revolutionary step liberated the actor, for the first time, from the dramatic text and is permitted a free-play on stage. The second point relates to the medium of communicating the hidden meaning. Kulasekhara prescribes netraabhinaya – the movement of eyes. It is a silent interaction between the the actor and the elite. Both need to be imaginative - the actor to present and the elite to receive.

The other radical innovation of Kulasekhara was the introduction of retrospective narration. The texts always introduce a character with the introduction - tatah pravisati, then enters. When? After what? Spectators have a right to know as to what happened before his/her entry. So every character has to establish his/her present status narrating the previous incidents up to the textual context. This is purvasambandha - connecting the past to the present. The actor now is confronted with a serious problem. How to narrate effectively the incidents related to other characters without verbal communication? Here we have an exhilarating new experience. He permits the actors to transform their roles! Arjuna meets Uloopi. She is enchanted by the handsome youth. How to express her feelings? The actor in the guise of Arjuna transforms himself to Uloopi. Strange indeed! This is the technique of Pakarnnaattam - transformation of roles. These two radical experiments - dhvani and purvasambandha - had far-reaching consequences on Kerala stage. Presentation of inner meaning took a lot of time. Hence it became practically impossible to present a play in full. Kulasekhara insisted on one act in one night. There too only one verse need be taken up for elaboration.When actor became free from the text, he took more time to please the elite. He got ample opportunities to exhibit his histrionic talents. Gradually the text and author were forgotten. The multi-character play, in effect, was transformed to a solo performance. Bharata’s theatre, thus, became an actor’s theatre.

3. Localisation of a national tradition (12-14c.CE)
Kulasekhara had a finer aesthetic sense. This is reflected in all his innovations. Many of his successors failed to imbibe the same spirit. Moreover, his refined stage was confined to his capital and its surroundings. The powerful Northern settlement did not approve him .The tradition there was more logo-centric as is evident from the champus and other literary works. This Chellur tradition was not friendly with the Mahodayapuram practices due to political reasons . After the fall of Chera empire (12.c.CE) both the streams got merged. The eloquent silence of Kulasekhara was mixed up with the loquacious verbosity of the North. The emergence Malayalam language became a good excuse for the protagonists of Chellur. The nanaaloka-laymen- claimed a larger share. All these were at the cost of the aesthetics of Kulasekhara. These developments brought a sea-change on the Kerala theatre. Malayalam language was introduced to the Sanskrit stage. Vidushaka’s role was inflated beyond limits. His humour, wit and criticism endeared him to the masses. He occupied the centre-stage pushing back even the hero of the play.
The indigenous practices prevailed in Kerala also influenced the performance at this stage. Many found a place on stage adding spectacle to the whole performance. Malayalam language used by Vidushaka and the home-grown practices virtually localised the national tradition of Bharata’s theatre.

4. Temple Theatre (14-15 c. CE)
Historical period in the South began by 3rd c. BCE, the sangham age. At that time Kerala was an integral part of Tamizhakam. The first wave of settlement of Brahmins here goes back to this age. The second wave, more powerful, was during the Chalukya period, 7-8th centuries of Common Era. With the emergence Chera empire (9-12 c) these settlements came to acquire more importance. A significant development of this period was the emergence of temples in the place of village shrines-kavus. A new form of agamic worship under the guidance of Brahmin priests came into force centred round the temples. These temples were not only places of worship but also of art, culture and everything related to the social life including land and property . When temples grew in size the importance and number of functionaries also increased. This gave birth to a new sub-caste, ampalavasi,  temple servants. The Brahmins entered into alliance with them as also with the sudras. They prevailed upon the ruling class also by conferring on them the status of kshatriya. The Brahmins thus formed a grand alliance between themselves and ruling class on the one hand and between themselves and the lower class on the other . The tenants had already come under their control. The impact of this grand alliance was tremendous. It brought out basic changes in the social fabric of the land. There was a progressive secularisation of the Brahmin community. Most of them concentrated primarily on worldly affairs; only a small fraction continued Vedic studies. Simultaneously, the indigenous groups were progressively sanskritised resulting in the imposition of a priestly Brahmin authority on a secular society. Consequently a large number of temple servants belonging to the varier, pishaaroti, potuvaal, chaakyaar and nampyaar sub-castes acquired proficiency in Sanskrit language and literature.

Attached to the temples there were salai and theatre, the former to cater to the need of education and the latter for singing, dancing, acting and story- telling. Scholars were appointed in temples to recite regularly stories from Mahabharata. This atmosphere dominating the social arena of this age enhanced the demand for and prestige of chaakyaars, nangyaars and nampyaars . Separate institutions evolved around each of them. The decline of the centralised authority of the Cheras and the break-down of the unity provided by Sanskrit due to the emergence of local languages hastened the process of amalgamation. The 12th and 13th centuries witnessed the realisation of this transformation. In these circumstances the Sanskrit theatre moved to the temple premises by the end of the 14th century. Separate theatre-houses began to be constructed attached to important temples.

5. Over-ritualisation (14-20 c. CE)
The immediate effect of this shift of space was two-fold: editing of dramatic texts and over-ritualisation of theatre. The texts and their contents had to be modified to suit to the devotional atmosphere of the holy place. Certain parts had to be curtailed.Budhist characters like Rumanvan were eliminated. Devotional portions were added. It was this atmosphere that gave prominence to Ramayana stories.Ascharyachoodaamani was preferred to Abhinjaanasakuntala .
Another effect of the space-shift was the over-ritualisation of theatre. Drama was considered to be a visual sacrifice. Bharata had prescribed rituals in the beginning. But rituals and ceremonies got a greater role in performance. The performance of Kutiyattam at this stage has three distinct parts:
a) Preliminaries in the form of rituals
b) The retrospective narration (solo)
c) Enjoining to act the dramatic text.

The details regarding the ritual practices are given below:
Before the performance begins, the chaakyaar takes a purificatory bath in the pond attached to the temple. Then he moves to the green-room and pays obeisance to the gods and preceptors. The main priest of the temple bestows his blessings on the actor and gives him a piece of consecrated cloth and a ring made of grass leaves. The lamp on the stage is lit with the wick brought from the sanctum sanctorum. The nampyaar takes his seat behind the mizhavu, sounds the drum and thus announces the performance. The nangiar, seated on the right side of the stage recites verses praising Ganapati, Siva and Saraswati to the drumming of the mizhavu. This is known as goshti. The nampyaar now comes forward, recites the benedictory verse and sprinkles the stage with holy water.

A small curtain is held for the preliminary ritual dance. The sutradhaara enters and standing back to the stage performs the ritual dance behind the curtain. When the curtain is removed, he turns around and faces the audience with a pleasant look. Then he dances taking the conventional five steps (panchapadavinyaasa). He opens his hands which are laden with imaginary flowers and offers to the gods. He goes on to symbolically enact a propitiatory ceremony by offering flowers and water, offers celestial Ganga water to the conch and sprinkles the stage with holy water. He then worships Ganapati and Saraswati. In a pleasant mood he proceeds to the stage and observes the learned scholars waiting for the performance. Paying respects to them he recites the introductory verse and enacts its meaning with gestures.
This is followed by a series of pure dance forms, known as nityakriya. The dances are interspersed with prayers to the deities by the nangyar. The dances are in different charies. This is followed by a tip to toe description – kesaadipaadavarnana - of Siva and Parvati. There is then a long (14 verses altogether) propitiation to the lords of eight quarters. It ends with the praise to Indra and flowers are offered to all the beings - celestial, terrestrial and netherworlds.
The steps for nityakriya are rigidly structured and the actor is not free to make any changes. It is performed by the actor prior to his transformation to the character. After all these rituals the main character enters. Nityakriya dance is done even in the midst of the performance which has come under severe criticism from the author of Natankusa.
6. Naatyasaastra and Kutiyaattam

Kutiyattam follows the principles of NS, yet it is different from it. The most important deviation is in the mode of presentation.
1) Bharata’s primary concern was natya. Kutiyattam transforms natyam into aattam(dance). Natya    is prose, dance makes it poetic.
2) Bharata conceived a multi-character stage. Kutiyattam prefers solo performance. Kutiyattam developed Kulasekhara’s purvasambandha to nirvahana. This solo acting provides the most exciting moments to the connoisseurs.
3) Imaginative acting hinted by Bharata is fully developed in Kutiyattam. Bharata does not permit multiple impersonation- pakarnnaattam, but in Kutiyattam it gives the most exhilarating experience.
4) Bharata permits the use of local language in a limited way. Vidushaka in Kutiyattam made the maximum benefit out of it. He monopolised the stage for several days. This enabled him to interact meaningfully with contemporary life. But Bharata does not give that much freedom to deviate from the original dramatic text to the jester.
5) Bharata prescribes a rigid structure for drama with five sandhis,sixty four sandhyangas,five arthaprakrtis and five avesthas. Kutiyattam prefers a loose and elastic structure.
6) The actor of Bharata is an imitator. He has two more functions in Kutiyattam-that of narrator and interpreter.
7. Period of Renaissance (1960 CE-   )

For six centuries (14-20) Kutiyaattam remained confined to the holy temples. The chaakyaar, nampyaar and nangyaar alone were allowed to learn and perform the plays in a devotional spirit. This exclusivity was good to the art since they preserved it as kuladharma. But it also caused to suffer a kind of isolation since other sections of the society were unconcerned and even ignorant about the details. Temples provided all facilities for these artistes to flourish. The actors were held in high esteem and their status inside the temple-theatre was next only to the chief priest. Even the king and landlord could not utter a word against the actor. This security emboldened the chaakyaar to criticise the evils in the society. His function was that of the fifth estate in an otherwise closed society. As the society was more or less in a frozen state there was no scope for any radical innovations either in form or in content during this period.

20th century brought several changes in the social fabric of Kerala. The societal structure which supported the art-form crumbled down. Kutiyattam was on the verge of extinction. Many in the new generation were not willing to continue the traditional training even as kuladharma. The ancient form was struggling for survival. The actors, at this juncture, dared to take the form back to the public space. They were successful in their endeavour. The public accepted Kutiyattam, which was hitherto inaccessible to them, in good spirit. This became a landmark in the history of the art-form. The Kerala Kalamandalam founded by the great poet Vallathol for the promotion of traditional art forms of Kerala opened its doors for Kutiyattam. A department was started in 1965 under the great doyen Painkulam Rama chaakyaar and admissions were thrown open to all sections of society. A systematic method of training was evolved. A magnificent natyamandapa was constructed providing a public space for performance.

Kutiyattam got a face-lift both in appearance and in content. The costumes were fashioned to suit modern taste. Plays were re-edited reducing the duration to a few hours. The aesthetics of the performance and taste of the audience were the prime concerns for these restructurings. Many new promising faces began to appear on stage. The most important phenomenon of this period is the powerful presence of women on stage and the resuscitation of nangyaarkoothu, the exclusive performance of women.
An important development of this period was the global attention that Kutiyattam received. Scholars from the West began to turn their attention, even from the sixties, to this wonderful form which was not accessible to them till then. This led the academia in and out, to take up serious research on various aspects of Sanskrit theatre, especially Kutiyattam and its allied forms . Aesthetic study was a neglected area in the history of Kutiyattam. The entry of Kutiyattam to world theatre movement was the glorious moment for this ancient form. Many theatre activists considered the mode of acting in Kutiyattam, especially the subtle netrabhinaya, as the mother of all acting. The declaration as intangible heritage in 2001 crowned all these accomplishments.
Professor (Dr.) K G Paulose(b.1946) was the first Vice chancellor of Keralakalamandalam Deemed University for Art and Culture. He has specialised in Indian Aesthetics, Ancient Theatre and Kutiyattam. There are fifteen books and nearly fifty research papers to his credit. At present, prof. Paulose is a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla.