South Indian Classical Arts Tradition and Innovation

This feature was written for the 9th edition of the International Kathakali and Koodiyattam Festival, Dubai’s souvenir ‘Keleeravam,’ focusing on fifty years of innovations and transformations that occurred in eight selected traditional performance forms of South India. The series includes an introduction and sixteen interviews with practitioners, featuring two individuals from each form who represent two different generations within the performance tradition.

South Indian Classical Arts Tradition and Innovation

The Renaissance in traditional arts occurred through revitalization efforts, involving the codification of various defunct practices scattered around. This process embraced preservation and adaptation, gradually gaining more audience acceptance and achieving higher recognition as ‘classical’ in literal terms. The fundamental nature of performing arts is dynamic, constantly evolving, and never stagnant. Everything is meant to be transformed over time. Stagnation would lead to the extinction of the art form, while improper changes could dangerously mislead the tradition.

In this context, the innovations and transformations that took place in South Indian traditional performing arts, such as Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Yakshagana, Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Krishnanattam, and Thayambaka, are explored here. These changes and revitalization efforts have been examined and discussed by two practitioners from each form, representing two generations or two varied styles within the traditional lineage. However, a comprehensive understanding of these transformations cannot be captured solely through the perspectives of these selected practitioners. Instead, it attempts a study the dynamicity of the art forms in the past fifty years.  

The contemporary classical art scene is characterized by a dynamic interplay between the old, often referred to as ‘Traditional,’ and the new, the modern. In this context, the preferences and perspectives of practitioners and connoisseurs who have witnessed past transformations and anticipate future developments become paramount. The diversity in their tastes, the essence of the new genre, and the emerging questions all contribute to the vibrant tapestry of contemporary classical arts, serving as a guiding principle as observed through these individuals’ eyes.

While all eight selected forms are categorized as South Indian traditional arts, their performative styles, connoisseurships, levels of appreciation, aesthetics, scope, and challenges vary significantly. Among these, five are claimed as Keralite arts, although their popularity and audience sizes differ. For instance, it’s doubtful that Koodiyattam attracts as many viewers as Kathakali or Mohiniyattam. Koodiyattam originated within temple premises has come out to public venues, whereas another form, ‘Krishnanattam,’ performed outside venues but later limited to a single sanctum temple and a single Kalari, has a limited spectatorship. Surprisingly, many enthusiasts are unaware that Krishnanattam also has a few performances outside the Guruvayur temple; it’s mistakenly believed to be exclusively performed inside the temple.

Kathakali elevated its status by incorporating aesthetic elements beyond rituals. Most transformations in these art forms have been driven by performers, leading to situations where the artists sometimes garner more acceptance than the art itself. Mohiniyattam, once merely an interlude in Bharatanatyam recitals, has evolved to establish its individuality. It now competes with other forms in terms of acceptance and existence, growing primarily through innovative transformations.

Kerala’s traditional percussion style, ‘Thayambaka,’ is undergoing transformation by introducing new changes and merging different styles to enhance its appreciation. Traditional formats are preserved and promoted while being accepted among connoisseurs. These nuances highlight the diverse and evolving landscape of Kerala’s traditional arts.

Even though they are considered non-Keralite art forms, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi have gained immense popularity among spectators in Kerala. Kuchipudi, rooted in the dance drama tradition of Yakshagana, has achieved a distinct status as a solo form due to innovative and dynamic applications. The journey of Kuchipudi took a magical turn when it broke free from its traditional constraints. Despite the presence of different styles within the art form, it transcended cultural and geographical boundaries, gaining global acceptance. Despite its modern growth, Kuchipudi retains a strong traditional foundation that has been passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps, it is this deep-rooted tradition that has allowed it to serve as a hallmark of Indian classical dances, representing the nation on the global stage.

Yakshagana, originating in the region that is now part of Kerala or has merged with Kerala today, is surprisingly not as popular among Malayalis. Despite its numerous similarities with Kathakali and other traditional art forms, linguistic differences and its cultural significance are often limited its acceptance, especially in the areas south to North Malabar. However, Yakshagana remains a robust and highly popular tradition particularly in South Karnataka and Tulu Nadu, where it continues to enjoy strong audience support.

In the contemporary scenario, both audiences and performers are open to accepting changes and innovations in traditional art forms. However, there is a concern about modernization crossing boundaries, leading to a significant alteration of the art forms from their roots. For example, notable changes were introduced in Mohiniyattam as it moved away from the overused and monotonous ‘Sringara’ nrutham identity. New themes and narratives were experimented with, revitalizing the form. However, this experimentation went to a certain extent, turning the form into a platform solely for new narrative representations. This shift led to less focus on the performative techniques, including the ‘Nritta’ aspect. Similarly, the incorporation of dance techniques from Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi contributed significantly to enhancing the art form of Yakshagana. However, this infusion often erases its traditional ‘Lokadharmi’ aspects, which are essential elements defining the form’s strong identity.

The taste of spectators or connoisseurs plays a significant role in influencing innovations within an art form. These preferences vary from one art form to another, from place to place, and from venue to venue. The audience that gathers at a temple ground to enjoy Thayambaka differs from the core group that attends a Koothambalam to watch Koodiyattam. Similarly, the devotees who sit to watch Krishnattam in Guruvayur temple have distinct preferences from the large crowd that attends Yakshagana Bayalatta in South Karnataka. The perspective of a regular Kathakali enthusiast varies greatly from that of an audience member attending National Dance festivals. These diverse situations and tastes play a crucial role in influencing further changes within an art form.

Innovations and transformations are inherent aspects of tradition. When these variations are accepted, they become integrated into the ‘parampara’ or lineage. This highlights the importance of examining the transformations within traditional art forms, as they contribute to shaping the future of the art form. The sixteen practioners from significantly different art forms are approached with a specific set of questions, focusing on the innovative efforts in compositions and choreography. These questions address the unique aspects of each form, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of the changes and developments within them.

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