N P Unni

Kerala has produced many  entertainments  of very high antiquity. Samghakkali, Kuttu, Krishnattam, Mutiyettu, Kathakali, Tira, Tullal etc. are some of the popular forms. The most ancient and the most important among them is Kutiyattam.

Kutiyattam is perhaps the earliest known form of enacting Sanskrit drama in Kerala and it is  different from other forms of dramatic representations known to have existed elsewhere. The very name is suggestive, for `kuti ’means together and `attam’ means acting and so the term yields the idea of acting together.


Kutiyattam  has certainly contributed much towards the cultural progress of Kerala. It has given rise to some of the important movements both in the field of art and in the field of literature. For instance Kathakali ,the dance drama which has the status of being  the reservoir of all arts, owes its origin to Kutiyattam. Dress, makeup, costumes, instruments, steps etc. in Kathakali have been directly borrowed from this art- form . In the field of literature the adoption of local language also in enacting the Sanskrit drama has raised the importance of Malayalam. Sanskrit and Malayalam blended together to produce an artificial, but  lively , literary language styled  Manipravalam  which has been defined as the mixture of languages; the local dialect Malayalam and Classical Sanskrit. The verses to be recited by Vidusaka in staging Kutityattam have been written in this beautiful literary medium .This mixture of two languages belonging to two different language families has made a unique contribution to the growth of Malayalam language.


Kulasekhara’s dramas on the Kerala stage.

Sanskrit dramas are not staged as such in Kutiyattam. Individual acts from well known classical dramas are selected and adapted.Each of such Act is known by a different name. In other words every act which is staged in Kutiyattam is rewritten according to the specifications  of the Kerala stage. Hence very often original verses and lines written by the actors  find a place in the adapted scenes of the classical dramas. Such verses are always written with a view to enhance the theatrical effect of the particular Act. An instance may be cited from the first act of Subhadradhananjayam adapted to the Kerala stage.  

This verse is not found in the text. Dhananjaya is describing Subhadra to Vidusaka who uses the local language Malayalam to reply. He is made to deride the hero when he utters each word.  

                                                  Ast i prastutatarunya   tatraivatyantasundari

                                                  bhagini vasudevasya  subhadra  nama  kanyaka

Dhananjaya          -Asti   (There is )

Vidusaka          -   Who my dear friend ?  Lord Krishna ?

Dhananjaya         -Subhadra nama    (by name Subhadara )

Vid                         -Oh! My friend   I know well. Alas!  You are attracted by that aging Subhadra.  

Dhan                 -Prastutatarunya  (quite young )

Vid          -What?   A young  girl? Oh!  You are   in love with that lame squint eyed teeth protruding                      ugly servant maid?

Dhan       -Atyantasundari. (very beautiful)

Vid          -What ? Very beautiful and young damse ? Let me think about it. Oh!   I know. You are a prince of the Lunar race and the frind of Krishna. Yet you fall in love with a servant-maid. Alas!

Dhan         -  Bhagini  Vasubhadrasya.    (The sister of Vasubhadra.  )

Vid      -  The sister of Vasubhadra?   (laughing)  How pitiable for a learned man like you to love a woman married to somebody. By this time she must have got three or four children.

Dhan       -Kanyaka. A maiden

Now Vidusaka admits his folly and appreciates the choice of his friend.

For such adaptation there are two kinds of stage manuals called attaprakaram and kramadipika  written by theact ors.  Such works are valuable as the sources for history of the growth and development of the Sanskrit theatre in Kerala. These manuals adapt classical dramas by supplying introductory portions and vernacular translations and parodies.    Kulasekhara’s plays became popular as soon as they were composed. The demands made by the flourishing stage of Kerala were great. At a time when original dramas were not forthcoming from the south, his plays immediately  found universal admiration. The reason for the popularity of his plays can easily be explained. The author was by  no means  a mere dramatist. He happened to be the Emperor of the whole of Kerala. From the vyangya vyakhya on Subhadra  Dhananjaya it is clearly known that the author put these dramas on the public stage  only after getting the approval of renowned Brahmin connoisseur of the period whom he invited to his palace with due respect. Only after being assured of their perfection  did he put his dramas on the stage by professional actors

Actors show a preference to the dramas of Kulasekhara since they suited their purpose in staging a drama having a puranic theme in times of festivals. In spite of their indebtedness to other classical works   these plays must have been appreciated well by the audience. A Malayalam poem called Unnunilisandesam 14th c.AD contains a reference to the Kutiyattam performance of the third act of Tapatisamvarana;m ost probably staged in the Taliyil temple. The hero of the poem recalls in a message to his forlorn wife a particular Incident in their life .  We have been witnessing a Kutiyattam  when the  Nangyar acting the role of Tapati who is indignant on account of Samvarana’s love for somebody else,recited her lines in prakrt casting her eyes on me.  And you ran away in a fit of anger never to be seen for a while. Mantrankam   has quoted a verse each from the dramas of Kulasekhara.

Often Chakyars stage the Kutiyattam of SDh without actually putting Draupati on the Stage. Probably   because she has to appear only in the last scene and even there only for a few moments . In order to present her for a short while a Nangyar  will have to don the costume. But the anonymous author of Natankusa, is not prepared to allow any concession in staging a drama  of such an eminent personality as Kulasekhara . He is of the view that the injunctions of the dramatist should not be violated. This work contains illustrations from both of his dramas in addition to the references to several other dramas adapted for the Kerala stage.  There is a popular saying in Malayalam which refers to the 6th act of TS that one should bow before a Cakyar who has flown and a Nangyar who has floated on water.  The first part refers to the parakkumkuttu  based on Nagananda and the second part refers to the representation of Tapati  jumping in the river Ganges and floating on the water until she is rescued by Samvarana. This is known in Kutiyattam by the name Olukkal, literally meaning the act of floating. It is not easy to depict this scene in which the heroine is being drifted away by the swift currents. Natyasastra has given instructios to enact such events.

Contri bution of Kulasekhara to Kerala stage.

It is accepted on all hands that the golden age of Sanskrit theatre of Kerala was the period of Kulasekhara and that it was during this period that the staging of Sanskrit drama was reformed.  Though the antiquity of the dance drama tradition of the south cannot be fixed with any definite dateline, it is certain that histrionics  received appreciation and sustenance as early as the second century AD; for the Kerala prince Elango Adigal  has given an account of the performance of a Cakyar. Classical Sanskrit dramas might have been staged and well appreciated by the elite from very ancient   period.   Mattavilasa of Pallava King Mahendravikramavarman also was produced on the Kerala stage successfully. Kulasekhara himself have observed that the dramas of Kalidasa ,especially Abhijnanasakuntala have pleased the audience to such an extent that it was difficult for another poet to attract its attention. Further he refers to the well known classical dramatists like Sudraka and Harsha who have won the admiration of the audience. Harsha’s  Nagananda has even givn rise to a performance practicecalled parakkumkuttu.  All these show   the well established tradition of a flourishing Sanskrit stage in Kerala. Such performances must have been on the traditional lines ,the whole drama being produced in the course of a single day.   

There must have been two different , though fundamentally related stages in Kerala, the traditional and the reformed. While the former represented the usual dramatic performances, the latter afforded an ideal medium to enlighten the caste Hindu audience with the exposition of puranic themes.  Thus the stage was shifted from the sparsely attended palace dance halls to the crowded precincts of the sanctum sanctorum.

The Natankusa severely criticises the Cakyars of Kerala for taking too much liberty with the text and for contravening the principles of dramaturgy. The attack is rather one- sided ; all the same it deserves attention. It does not agree with the use of the local language Malayalam in staging Sanskrit drama, for according to it if the dramatist uses prakrt the actor should follow it. The comic episodes enacted by the vidusaka showing vulgar tendency is to be avoided. Here Brahmins are described as indulging in illicit connection with sudra women, which is against the Dharmasastras. Another attack is for disobeying the instructions of the dramatist s.  While staging  the last act of SDh.   Draupati is not on the stage.  This omission according to the critic cannot be tolerated. If the dramatist creates a character,   she must be put on the stage even if it is only for a short while.

Natankusa refers to the royal dramatist of Kerala with great respect. It seems quite probable that if the royal dramatist himself had introduced the use of Malayalam in the Kerala stage the anonymous author would not have condemned the innovation with such vehemence. In other words it is safe to hold that Kulasekhara reformed the stage only on lines that are permitted or rather implied by the canons of Hindu dramaturgy.

For a clear and authentic account as to the part of the dramatist in this reformation ,a close study of the commentaries  is essential. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the vyangyavyakhya commentaries styled Samvaranadhvani and Dhananjayadhvani. A perusal of the VV commentaries presents one with a picture in all vividness  the conception of the stage and stage craft in the days of Kulasekhara. The commentaries are composed with the specific purpose  of explaining the various sentiments ,moods and ideas employed in the dramas of Kulasekhara as well as their mode of representation for the benefit of the actor. Much importance is bestowed on gesture language, for the suggested meaning is to be conveyed through imitative and symbolic gestures. The suggested meaning is employed in these plays specifically to cater to the taste of the elite connoisseurs.               

Expansion of the scope of textual lines  is another noteworthy phenomenon of the Kerala stage. The actor is free to introduce into the performance what he seems fit to the particular occasion. To facilitate the actor who may not be scholar always ,stage manuals are provided . Another peculiarity is with regard to the  purvasambandha. Almost every character who appears for the first time in the play is well introduced narrating the various important incidents in their lif.  The actor donning the particular role must inform the audience of his story up to the moment by the expressive gestures.  Here he is not allowed  any verbal narration. Hence only connoisseurs are able to follow the introductory part. The commentaries supply the relevant details.                   .

It is safer to rely upon more or less authentic   account of a contemporary   scholar than basing one’s conclusion on unfounded traditions. Hence one may be justified   in concluding that the  innovations  contained in VV represent substantially the contributions of Kulasekhara Varman to the Sanskrit Stage in Kerala. It remains an undisputed fact that Kulasekhara is perhaps the only dramatist who dictated rules and chalked out ways as  present   Sanskrit dramas in a new grab. It is only natural for him to do so since he himself has donned the roles of dramatic personae of his own plays. By laying more stress on the representational aspect and providing the actor with a wide facility to show his talents  he has proved that  even a stereotyped Sanskrit drama could serve as a popular recreation.  And in this respect the art has gained its purpose that Natya is the one recreation for people of different tastes.

The text of VV remained in manuscripts. Many scholars put their hands on it. Even the great Ganapati  Sastrikal desired to publish it . It is only now that it is made available to the scholarly world thanks to the efforts of Paulose. Earlier he had brought to light Natankusa which was hailed a historic occasion for theatre. This, undoubtedly, is another such occasion.