Tradition and Modernization: Kutiyattam – Aparna Nangiar

Aparna Nangiar, a prominent figure from the younger generation of Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu, and a member of a traditional family deeply rooted in these art forms. She continues to carry forward this rich heritage through her performances and research. She is associated with the ‘Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Koodiyatta Gurukulam’ in Irinjalakuda.

Excerpts from the interview:

What were the changes that came about in the world of collective performances in the past few years? How have these changes affected the individuality of art as it continues in the current circumstances? Or have these changes contributed to a more beautiful evolution of the art form?

Over the years, several changes have indeed taken place. Different individuals bring their own improvisations and subtle variations. These changes are a part of the natural progression of art. When old stories are performed again, subtle changes, both consciously and unconciously, come into play. Additionally, in this era, many experimentations with new ‘stories have occurred. We have been primarily taught five important stories during our learning phase: Thoranayudham, Balivadham, Shoorpanakankam, Dhananjayam, and Samvaranam. During my learning years, any personal changes were not encouraged. We had to learn and practice in a strict conventional way.

During that period, several new choreographies took place in Koodiyattam, including the revival of old ‘Attaprakarams’ and the creation of ‘new attaprakarams’ for new stories. ‘Kalyanasougandhikam’ was the first of its kind, choreographed by my ‘Ashan.’ Venu master’s ‘Shakuntalam’ followed, and later came ‘Naganandam.’ My father, Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar, choreographed ‘Mayashirassu’ from ‘Abhisheka Natakam’ during this time. Certain ‘kriyas’ like ‘ketti njalal,’ which had not been in use for many years, were also reintroduced into the repertoire. These changes occurred gradually over several stages.

Additionally, another transformation involved editing the plays to suit the requirements of new platforms, especially outside Kerala and India. Some artists may not find these alterations artistically satisfying, but they may accept them due to the necessity of the times. Currently, I can observe differences in my father’s ‘Kalari,’ as he is someone who closely adheres to tradition. The various changes I implement might deviate somewhat from his expectations. The next generation is likely to follow a different path from mine.

What were the new changes that occurred as your contributions in this art? Similarly, what is still continuing without any changes, and what you feel to be changed for the sake of the contemporary time?

The initial experience in a reformation that involved all of us was the performance of Shakuntalam by Shri. Venu G. It was his initiative to involve the younger generation. During that period, there was a sense of freedom to express our artistic individuality.

My subsequent experience was in Dhasham Kooth, also known as Chutalakoothu. This performance was traditionally believed to take place after the death of a Brahmin who had conducted the ‘Agnihotram’ ritual from the Boudhayana community, at a specially arranged ‘Koothumandapam’ near the grave. The last recorded performance occurred approximately 150 years ago by a Nabgiar from ‘Vilvattam.’ However, the specific style and ‘Attaprakaram’ were unknown. I had a desire to perform the other portions of ‘Sreekrishnacharitam,’ as typically we only went up to the ‘Subhadraharanam’ portion. By coincidence, I received a request from Nandikkara Mana to perform ‘Chutalakoothu’ after the passing of Narayanan Nabutiri.

So, I decided to take on this challenge and consulted other senior artists. A complete ‘Attaptrakaram’ was not readily available, except for a few written notes I acquired from Mizhavy player Ravunni Nabiar. Dr. N. Narayanan assisted me in selecting the Shlokas. There was a legend associated with this play; performing the entire story was believed to help the widow of the departed soul attain ‘Moksham.’ I cannot say whether this is logically correct, but there is a ritual aspect connected to our art form. Therefore, I decided to proceed. Several elements of ‘Chutalakoothu’ were distinct from the usual ‘Nangiar Koothu,’ such as the inclusion of the ‘Mudiyakkitha’ portion, which was not typically a part of Nangiarkoothu and was usually performed by male artists. I aimed to execute it in a pure and traditional manner. This endeavor gave me immense satisfaction, as I was able to revive a forgotten tradition. I continue to refine this choreography, paying meticulous attention to details.

In my opinion, what needs to change in the field is the approach of the audience. They should strive to understand the art, its scope, and its limitations. It’s important not to assume that any story can be adapted into Koodiyattam or Nangiarkoothu. We have a rich traditional background, and when we seek to introduce changes, we must also consider these traditions. Only changes that respect and integrate with these traditions will endure and become part of the art form’s legacy, ultimately helping it flourish.

How is the rasika community today? Are they seek for changes or still want the old tradition? To what extent have you considered audience taste?

Certain changes are necessary to accommodate the preferences of connoisseurs at different times, and these changes will inevitably occur. Connoisseurs hail from diverse backgrounds. Presently, those connoisseurs attending a traditional dance performance in a temple differ from those attending a stage show. In general, many connoisseurs hold the opinion that “You should make this art more popular.” However, making it more popular is not always the solution. There are inherent limitations for an art form that carries a ritual tradition, which can make it challenging to achieve widespread popularity. We have received comments suggesting that Malayalam could be used instead of Sanskrit to enhance accessibility, but that approach is not conducive to making the art more popular. After all, it is a Sanskrit drama tradition, and it cannot be treated merely as dance. This tradition is distinct and must be preserved.

As a last generation disciple of the legendery artiste Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, how do you recollect the style of his ‘Kalari’? Is it still continuing today in the same manner as the guru system? How beneficial are these traditions in maintaining cultural elegance?

It is indeed a great fortune for someone to become a part of the lineage tradition, get trained under the tutelage of Madhav Chakyar Ammannoor. From the next step, it is Usha Chechi (Usha Nangyar), who has taught us directly. The first steps are the introductory parts. For women, the beginning was with the roles of Sreekrishna Charitham, which was part of the Balacharitham. That was what was taught first. It took about a year’s time to complete the initial training. After that, the subsequent parts of Sreekrishna Charitham and the female roles in Koodiyattam were started.

Some of the important sections in the temple platform presentation, such as the Purappadu (entrance of the deity) and Kaliyamardanam (killing of the snake demon), were not taught at all initially just for a performance. There was an order to follow. Only after practicing rigorously for about a year, one would be allowed to perform these parts. Learning the roles of Sthree Veshas in Koodiyattam was quite an elaborate process, involving not just acting but also memorizing thirty-six to forty shlokas (verses), reciting them without mistakes, and perfecting the articulation and expressions. It also required taking extra-long Vachika (speech) classes and rectifying any mistakes, refining the diction, and then performing the shlokas on stage. It took at least one year for this whole process of ‘Vachika class’. Intensive ‘eye’ practice was also a part of the system. Even today, the tradition continues in the same way in our Kalari. Training was not meant to create a performer as soon as possible, but to raise a perfect performer.

Today, Nangiarkoothu has gained more acceptance among the Rasikas than Koodiyattam. As an artist who participates in both, how do you feel?

Although it was traditionally passed down through family lineages, today, anyone can learn and perform this art form. Girls are showing a growing interest in learning it, and perhaps because of this, Nangiarkoothu is more widely accepted than Koodiyattam. Additionally, it is a solo performance, requiring fewer artists and less time compared to a full Koodiyattam play. Today’s audiences are not inclined to spend hours watching a performance, and this solo format is convenient for organizers.

Did you have any senior performers who inspired you to experiment with innovations? At the same time, as a Guru, what do you think as necessary for the younger generation, to be innovative while also adhering to the tradition?

Indeed, Usha chichi (Usha Nangiar) was a great inspiration to me. I was fortunate to be a part of some of her new choreographies, which was a truly enriching learning experience. Her thoughts also greatly inspired me. Additionally, I carefully studied the text ‘Sreeramacharitham attaprakaram’ by Margi Sathi chechi. I believe our gurus and senior artists like her always serve as inspiration for the upcoming generations.

As I mentioned earlier, the strict and dedicated training system we followed in our Kalari greatly benefited me and my contemporaries. It wasn’t rushed; instead, it allowed us appropriate time to mature at each level. The same system can also benefit the younger generation in becoming proficient performers. It’s important to understand that Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu have their own training conventions and performance styles. Each ‘Attaprakaram’ requires thorough dedication to both physical and mental practice. We must continue to practice diligently before considering any changes or innovations. Mere performance aesthetics are not sufficient; we must approach the art form with depth and conduct thorough research before venturing anything new.

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