Chavittunatakam: Maritime Dance Drama of Kerala

in Article
Published on: 27 August 2018


As the echoes of church bells linger in the dying twilight, the villagers tidy up and have an early dinner. Because, for some, their son might now be metamorphosing to a juggernaut dragon— attacking furiously, terrorising the village—and for some, their daughter might be yielding a mighty sword charging at the dragon, saving the village.


As the chenda crescendo fills the air coloured in dull amber, they see the mythological lore recreated on the wooden stage. Stamping hard and jumping high, the performers sway with the beats while they recite the stories to an audience who know the story by-heart; after all, they have grown up hearing them. These songs, called chuvadi, are the lyrics of the dance drama called Chavittunatakam.


Chavittunatakam, literally 'the stamping drama’, is believed to be a novel method created by the Portuguese missionaries to teach Christian doctrines according to the Roman papacy to the ‘new’ Christian converts.  


Historical backdrop: Spice route


Since time immemorial, there had been well-charted inland routes and waterways for trade, specifically of spices, between the Far East and Europe as early as 2nd millennia BC. With the fall of empires and the advent of new power orders, the trade routes kept on changing. The quest for finding a spice route to various regions had pushed the discoveries of countries—for trade and colonisation—to a new world order as we see it today.


With the increasing belligerence between the Church and the Arabs that led to religious military campaigns called Crusades, these routes began to get heavily affected. The Arabs were a massive force in the Indian Ocean. Arabs had also strengthened the trade relations between Kerala, and an ‘Islamic commercial superstructure’ was developed there. Their authority to control the trade and the tension created at the end of Crusades prompted Manuel I, the king of Portugal from 1495 to 1521, to charter voyages:


1. To set up a base for a military campaign against Muslims, which was hushed up.

2. Participate in the hefty trade on the Indian Ocean waves.


Kerala was believed to be the ‘the land of Christians’. Long before the ‘discovery’ of India by the Europeans, there were well-established trade routes from Kerala to different parts of the world. It is believed that it must be through one of these routes that the apostle St. Thomas had come to Kerala. By AD 52, the first followers of Christianity had their church in Kerala, in the now Paravur Taluk, Kottakkavu Mar Thoma Syro-Malabar Pilgrim Church. The Roman papacy extended collaboration to the Kerala Christians and managed to do so by the Synod of Diamper held on June 20, 1599. The synod had come up with rules and guidelines for the Christian code of conduct and, most importantly, the signatures of all the representatives and priests from churches in Kerala after taking the oath of acceptance of the supremacy of the Roman Church over the Nestorian Church. The converts from AD 52, who are now called ‘ Syrian Christians’, were a strong force in the trade of pepper. They were a part of the Christian guilds which were chiefly responsible for supplying the goods to the Arab merchants.


Arab merchants had maligned the Portuguese goodwill among people and they were reluctant to sell goods to them. Complying with the request of the King of Portugal, the religious head of Christians, Bishop Mar Jacob, requested Christians to sell the goods to the Portuguese. This had led to huge clashes between the Arab merchants and Christians coupled with religious tensions, which eventually turned the game against the Roman papacy. The oath of acceptance of the supremacy of the Roman Church was later repelled with the Koonan Kurishu Satyam (the Bent Cross Oath) of 1653.


Meanwhile, St. Francis Xavier visited Kerala in 1544 and 1549 with the Portuguese navigators. His missionary endeavors had successfully converted a lot of fisher castes, especially Mukkuvas and Arayans. They were Christians who believed in Roman papacy with Latin rites and were called ‘Latin Catholics’. The conversion to Christianity was achieved by the evangelists, but it proved to be difficult to erase the caste system so deeply embedded in them.


While bringing together various Christian sects under Rome, which would let them control the trade, failed, the caste system was ousting the new converts from attending the church. In fact, new Christians were not allowed to worship with Syrian Catholics’ until 1914. This led to the construction of separate churches for Latin Catholics in Kerala and the subsequent coronation of the same by the Roman papacy.


Search for identity


In the 16th century, the Christians attended temple festivals and enjoyed temple arts like Koothu, Kutiyattam, etc. In order to bring them out from the temple and to have a distinct culture of their own, the missionaries amalgamated various art forms and produced an art form which is believed to be Chavittunatakam. Sabeena Rafi, the first art historian to write a comprehensive Chavittunatakam compendium, is of the opinion that it may have been evolved way before the Synod of Diamper (1599). She believes that the drama presented by ‘the theater group’ in the Synod as recorded by Gouvea, the secretary of Portuguese Archbishop and Viceroy, Dr Aleixo de Menezes, must have been Chavittunatakam; his journals provide insights to the religious and political situations of Kerala in the 16th century.


Believed to include elements from the acrobatic Kalaripayattu (the martial art which existed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu), the Greek classical Opera, the Kannadika dance drama Yakshagana, and the Tamil dance drama Naattuva, the signature style of the drama involves dancing while stamping hard on the wooden stage.


When the Parichamuttukali and Margamkali played by Christians, who were considered the 1st century converts, gave them a cultural identity, Chavittunatakam became the light of the Latin Catholic cultural beacon. This art form was practised by the 16th century Latin Catholic converts from Chavakkad, towards the north of Kodungallur to Quilon, who were under the leadership of Portuguese missionaries. These included parts of Kodungallur—Pallipuram, Gothuruth, Thiruthipuram, Thiruthur, Mathilakam; Kochi and nearby areas—Vaduthala, Palarivattom, Chittoor, Kothaad, Palluruthih, Ernakulam, Manasseri, Kumbalangi, Vaippinkara, Venduruthi, Ponjikkara, Vallanchira, Ochanthuruthu, Idavanakkadu and Njarakkal. But many of these places now have lost the art to time.


Different places had brought their own style to the dance drama creating two distinct styles in Chavittunatakam—thekkan (northern) style and vadakkan (southern) style. Thekkan style is followed by Gothuruth, Thuruthipurath, Kurumbathuruth and the regions closer to Kodungallur. Vadakkan style is followed by artists of Kochi and further southern regions, such as Alappuzha, Palluruthy, Kumbalangi, Vaippinkara, Venduruthi and regions close to Ernakulam.


Authorship of the Chuvadi


Believed to be performed in the Synod of Diamper in the 16th Century, the origin of Chavittunatakam is unknown though the lore attributes it to a mythological monk named Chinnathampi Annave. Among the many myths around him, one is that he came from Tamil Nadu, stayed in Kochi and Kodungallur for 17 years and went back to Tamil Nadu. Some people believe that he was a Portuguese missionary who knew Tamil. There are no existing records about him apart from the stories that circulate in the villages.


There are many myths associated with him. It’s believed that when he sang, a cross in the Mattancheri Church bent towards him. The lore attributes him singing this as the first Chuvadi—the recital of the text of Chavittunatakam. This cross, known as the 'Koonan Kurishu' or the slanted cross, has a very significant role in the history of Christianity in India. However, this might be an attempt to replace/remove another history associated with the koonan kurishu which is the denunciation of Roman papacy and the independence of Mar Thoma Christians. The koonan kurishu is supposed to be the cross that was used by the Mar Thoma Christians to denounce the Portuguese kingdom in 1653. One was supposed to hold the cross and denounce papacy. Since thousands of people were present for the denunciation, a rope was tied to the cross and everybody held that rope and took the oath. It is believed that the cross got bent under this pressure.


Whatever the myths are, it is believed that the most famous of the Chavittunatakams of them all—Kaaralsmaan and Brijeena Charitham were written by Chinnathampi Annave.


Chuvadi and the performance


Chavittunatakam comes with a long history—a history longer than that of the Malayalam language.


Written in Praak Malayalm lipi, the ancient Malayalam script, Chuvadi is sung in pidgin Latin and Senthamil with music accompaniment. The highlight of the accompaniment is the resounding of the stamp by the performers on the wooden stage along with other musical instruments. For male roles that require heavy stamping, usually chenda and elathaalam are used; for female roles, the instruments are mrudangam, tabla, fiddle, flute and bulbul with soft rhythmic steps performed by the artiste. The costumes are according to the stories played.


The central figure of the natakam is the ashan, the master/director. He is also called annave out of reverence, in remembrance of the creator Chinnathampi Annave. They are the carriers of the Chuvadi book, the book in which natakam is written. Chuvadis are usually handed down from generation to generation by the master to the favourite student or his offspring. Even though females play Chavittunatakam, female ashans are unheard of. There aren't any referencse of the Chuvadi being handed to the female offspring/female performer. There is a distinct nature of steps for each character in the story, and there is no assignment of sex to perform gender specific roles. But women playing the role of women is attributed to the time of Sabeena Rafi. Artistes claim that the first Chavittunatakam where women played the role of women was in Geevarghese Charitham Natakam played in 1956. The artistes also point out that there was an all-women troupe in Gothuruth in the 1960s.


Almost half a century ago, the artistes for the play were selected after a year-long rehearsal at the kalari (school)—though here, school may refer to the front yard of any house and the timings of the school may vary depending on the availability of the ashan. The ashans usually picked the teaching hours after their work, mostly in the evening. Men and women of various ages were selected and were given training, which included teaching them the basic Kalaripayattu steps, the dance with various mudras (structured hand gestures in classical dances) and songs. The entire drama was to be learned by heart by the trainees. The final call on the actors and singers are decided by the ashan at the end of the year. This tradition has now been lost to time, though ashans decide on the cast at the end of the short practice sessions spanning a couple of months.


Back in the time when Doordarshan was not airing entertainment for the household, this drama had given the believers an extravaganza of, by and for their own. Kaaaralsmaan Chavittunatakam, the most famous of them all, is claimed to have had a running period of at least 15 nights. With the advancement of other means of entertainment, especially with the onset of radios and TVs, the duration of the plays reduced significantly. Fortnight gave way to a week-long performance and later to hours. Now, the average duration of a play is around three to four hours, showcasing the supposedly ‘best’, energetic, acrobatic steps for display.


Authorship of and claimant for the Chuvadi                                  


Quite a row is picked between the ashans while claiming the Chuvadi as rightfully theirs—that is each one claim their ashans had picked him worthy of transferring the Chuvadi text and tradition. But it is known that in the early times, the disciples after gaining enough confidence, establishes their own kalari in the places they go.


It must also be pointed out here that it is almost impossible to point out the author of the Chavittunatakam texts. Tracing the authorship of these dramas are difficult due to the peculiar style of naming that existed in those days. For instance, if A's father’s name is B, then A will name his child after B, B will name his child after his father, that is A, and so on. In Malayalam there is a popular saying which explains this tradition very simply: 'Chennan makan Chennappan, Chennappan makan Chennan’ (Chennan's son is Chennappan, Chennappan's son in Chennan). So there is a family tree with just two names. This makes it difficult to place the year and the author of the text.


Texts and the content


Arguably, the most famous Chavittunatakam of them all—Kaaralsman Charithamsupposedly depicts the life of the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, King Charlemagne. As the drama unfolds, the army under King Charlemagne’s paladins fight with the Turk Emperor’s army, the name used in the Chuvadi is King Avudharman.The paladins defeat the army but get killed by deceit.


The drama is divided into five parts:


1. Life of Roldan/Roland, till he is elected as a paladin.


2. Roland becomes the chief of 12 paladins. With the help of Constantine, they take Jerusalem back from the Turks.


3. Roland marries the Turk Emperor’s daughter, Angelica.


4. One of the chieftains try to abduct a paladin’s wife. She kills him.


5. Ganelon deceives everyone and the paladins get killed in Roncesvalles.


A quick review on the historical King Charlemagne and the King Charlemagne in the Chavittunatakam reveal that the latter has more fictional elements than the historical Charlemagne. The historical Charlemagne who was coronated the Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III did not lead any military campaign against the Turks. He did have a military quest which ended up in the unification of Western Europe. He also massacred 4,500 Saxons which is now called ‘Massacre of Verden’ in an attempt to Christianise them from their native Germanic Paganism. The historical Roland did not marry any Turkish princess either.


As we read the text of the natakams now, it’s quite clear the tweaking has been included to teach the Roman doctrines and to insinuate the will of the newly converts against Muslims.


The effect of this has been multifold, and to name a few will be:


1.  The Crusade hangover of the Roman papacy which made sure of the tell-tales of Christianity winning over Islam.


2.  The dance drama used acrobatics and martial arts which were to be useful lest another Crusade.


3. The alternate creation of history and heroism which were taught in such a way that it became their cultural identity, existence and beliefs.


4. Turning the goodwill of the new converts against the Arab merchants and using this for controlling the trade, eventually.


It must be pointed out that many of the Chavittunatakam texts are fictional stories developed on non-fictional/fictional people intended to inculcate the Christian way of living as the Roman papacy envisioned. The missionaries wanted to wean the coverts from the temples and take them to the church (Rafy 1964). Over the years, the natakam was denounced by the Church and was taken over by people of different religions and classes in these coastal areas. The other sects of the Catholic Church looked at it as an inferior art form where the artistes are smeared with make-up, blonde wigs, and gloves, uttering a language which is unfamiliar to them; though the reason for it may be deeply embedded in the rigid caste hierarchy of the society. Since the costumes used and story followed by the artists were of a mixed origin, rather ‘not a Hindu origin, the ‘Classical Indian’ dance forms did not acknowledge the performance for a really long time. With almost no economic support, this art had thrived and survived the test of time keeping the rhythm of the fishermen intact for centuries.


The recent resurrection of this art in the global art arena is due to the inclusion of the same in the Kochi-Muziris International Art Biennale. Famed and represented as the ‘only existing maritime dance drama in the world’, the performance was showcased as a cosmopolitan art form which amalgamated different cultures—Eastern and Western. The inclusion of the art form has seen the creation of new Chuvadis, covering an array of themes, say Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser, Sophocles’ Oedipus and the much lauded Swamy Ayyappan which has taken Chavittunatakam to temple grounds. This has been described as ‘ironic’ by some, as the art form intended to dissociate the converts from the temple is now being played on the temple grounds. The wider audience and bold new themes in the performance are slowly being accepted by the cultural psyche of Kerala, though one must infer that this was due to the sudden global attention on the performance. The future of the natakam is now promising as the art form has been taken under the School Yuvajanolsavam or School Youth Festival ambit under the Kerala State Government.




Rafi, Sabeena. 1964.  Chavittunatakam. Aluva: Avanthi Publications.