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Kutiyattam: In Conversation with Ammanur Parameswaran Chakyar

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The interview was conducted by Margi Madhu on November 8, 2015 at Irinjalakkuda in Trissur

Margi Madhu: It is commonly agreed today that the present structure and form of Kutiyattam has been codified by the direct and indirect disciples of Ammannur Chachu Chakyar. Both Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and Painkulam Rama Chakyar were his students. It is mainly these two styles that are followed in Kutiyattam today. We have little information about Ammannur Chachu Chakyar except for some anecdotes and a book by K.T. Ramavarma. You, being his grand-nephew, might have had interacted with him. Could you share some of your memories about him? 

 

Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar: As far as my memory goes back, he had retired from stage and teaching. I too know only what everyone else had heard about him. I don’t have any direct experience with his art. But I can recall one or two incidents. Once I was learning Soorpanakhangam. At the time he was very old and had trouble with his memory. When I was reciting a verse, he stopped me saying that it was a soliloquy and I was not reciting it the right way. Similarly when I was learning Anguliyankam, he had sometimes corrected my mistakes. Once during my school vacations, I was punished for my naughtiness. I had to learn the entire siddharoopam. He would help me with the learning. I never got a chance to see him on stage. When the documentary on him produced by Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi during the tenure of Kavalam Narayana Panikkar was shot here, I was able to watch him performing a little bit. I was very young then and couldn’t understand much. And also, he was old by then and his best was past him.    

 

 

M.M.: Could you tell us what you have heard about him and his style of performance? His enactment of Soorpanakha was well-known.

 

A.K.C.: The role of Soorpanakha that we see today was choreographed by him. He brought in changes so that the character could easily be comprehended by the character. He made the role livelier. He performed every other roles like Ravanan, Bali etc. But his Vidushaka was the most noted.  

 

He is known for the succinctness of his performances. He would recite the koothu for about one and half hours, did not stretch beyond that. His idea was to end an evening’s performance at a point of suspense so that the spectator would be eager to return the next day. He performed Purushartham for just two and a half to three hours. Ashanam was performed for about five and a half hours. Only once did he perform it for six hours. Once, at the Saraswati temple at Avanangodu, he performed Patracharitram for one and a half hours every day for three days, and at another time he completed it in just one and a half hours in a single day. The spectators could not understand how he managed this and where he cut short. He had a talent that few have, to shape koothu according to his requirements.

 

He wanted to improve the structure of acting and that was why he started the gurukulam. He started it for my uncles (Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Parameswara Chakyar). Later Painkulam Rama Chakyar also joined them. Rama Chakyar had learnt AnguliyankamMattavilasam and could manage prabhandam by then. But he wanted to learn more and came to Chachu Chakyar to train in Kutiyattam. The story goes that when Rama Chakyar came here, Chachu Chakyar told him that he would teach him only if he was ready to obey him completely and blindly. That was how he was. He had his own sense of discipline. I have heard all these stories from my uncles. But by the time I came of age he was old and had retired. 

 

Another aspect of his was his rigour in teaching. He would not move on to the next verse until the student mastered every aspect of a particular padam─the posture, limb movements, facial expressions─no matter how long it took.   

 

 

M.M.: What I have heard is that in today’s style of koothu, the way each padam is strictly enacted in detail was developed by him.

 

A.K.C.: There were two styles before—Kuttanchery and Potiyil. The Potiyil style elaborated each verse and explored the range of meanings whereas the Kuttanchery style laid importance on humour. Chachu Chakyar integrated both these styles. But his performance was not specked with humour throughout. Humour was not integral to his performances, it was incorporated only where it aptly suited, and when it was present, it would be there in abundance.   

 

Once I overheard him telling someone that the performer had to completely imbibe the character that he was playing. Rama’s way of talking would be different from that of Ravana’s. So the performer had to fully absorb the character’s bhava into his pronunciation and recital.

 

 

M.M.: It is more like acting.

 

A.K.C.: Yes. But it is not just vachikam or verbal. Koothu is not about just listening, it has strong visual element too. So the facial expressions are also important. That is why koothu has to be seen, not just heard. Chachu Chakyar was successful in achieving this. 

 

 

M.M.: Earlier Kutiyattam was taught only in Nambiar madoms (residences). With the establishment of the Kutiyattam department in Kerala Kalamandalam in 1965, an institutionalised training began. You were learning Koothu at home around the same time. Could you talk about the learning process in the madoms?

 

A.K.C.: When Kutiyattam department was set up in 1965, I was studying in Class 9. Ramu Chakyar invited me to join Kalamandalam. Five major Kutiyattams and the Ramayana are the essential dramas that you learn in a year traditionally. He asked me to join the Kalamandalam after completing Class 10. But then I learnt Dhananjaya, Surpanakhankam, Toranayuddhankam and Balivadhankam. This is what we learnt for one year in the traditional way of learning Kutiyattam. For each act you would learn every dramatic technique like purappadu (commencement), nirvahanam (elaboration) etc.  But in Kalamandalam, there is a set syllabus for a year. I learnt Asokavanikankam much later, in 1982. I learnt the Ramayanaprabandham meticulously.

 

 

M.M.: How was the learning routine?  

 

A.K.C.: In the beginning I learnt the Ramayana in the afternoon. Anguliyankam was supposed to be learnt in the evening and the Ramayana in the afternoon. Later the classes were taken in the morning before lunch. Gradually the timings became flexible. I did my eye-exercises and practised cholliyattam (actor recite lines and enact their meanings) as early as 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. Muzhikulam Kochu Kuttan Chakyar was my classmate, friend and guru. Sometimes I would ask him to teach me something and he would oblige. He taught me nityakriya.

 

 

M.M.: You have learnt under your valiachan (elder uncle) [Ammannur Madhava Chakyar]. You have seen his performance and interacted with him the most. Tell us about his approach to kutiyattam and how he prepared for his roles.

 

A.K.C.: He took every role, however minor it was, very seriously and tried to do it with maximum perfection. I remember him always carrying a trunk full of books with him. He collected all the books that were available and referred to them before every performance. He would decide the role that he was going to do in the upcoming performance many days before and begin to train himself towards it. He always prepared for the koothu at night on the eve of the performance. I have heard that Chachu Chakyar also used to prepare at night. On the day of the performance, after his morning bath and prayers he would shut himself in the room and study his books. He did not encourage anyone to converse with him. At about 11:30 in the morning he would come out to have lunch. And afterwards he would continue to practise. When the performance was done with, he would open up and talked till very late into night. Someone once told me that it was very easy to accommodate him as he insisted only on two things—a good cup of coffee and oil-bath. 

 

 

M.M.: What was special about his performances?

 

A.K.C.: When he performed a particular role, we wouldn’t see him, we would see only the character that he was playing. The character would come alive on stage. When he performed we saw only the character that he played on stage.

 

 

M.M.: I have heard that he never bothered about the strength of the audience or their scholarship. These matters never forced him to dilute or elaborate his performance.   

 

A.K.C. Ammannur: Yes, very true. He would never change his way of performing according to the spectator requirements. People can take it or leave it. I have seen that.

 

 

M.M.: Unlike in Kathakali, Kutiyattam uses more strenuous dramatic techniques like pakarnattam where the actor transforms into multiple characters simultaneously. Tell us about the preparations that you undertake to adapt yourself physically to such taxing performances?

 

A.K.C.: There are no special preparation beforehand. I perform it the way I learnt. On some days the performance would be all right. On some other days it wouldn’t work out that well. Once, a theatre group from Sweden attended my Balivadham performance. They searched for me after the performance but they didn’t recognise me who was sitting there in the backstage talking. They told me all this the next day and said how surprised they were to see him without a trace of tiredness after the performance.

 

 

M.M.: Do you think it is because of the rigorous training?

 

A.K.C.: I don’t know exactly. But Chachu Chakyar once told Ammannur Madhava Chakyar that we cannot adopt Kodungalloor kalari style as it is far more rigorous. In the Kodungallor style, once the actor played out a taxing role like Narasimha he would be completely drained out and require refreshment. We cannot exhaust ourselves like that because there would be other roles to play in the same performance. But we can learn from them. 

 

 

M.M.: What I observed from Chakyar’s performance is that he interspersed strong scenes with a light scene. It might be his conscious technique of recouping oneself after a scene that required straining yourself.

 

A.K.C.: It may be right. As Chaku Chakyar told Madhava Chakyar we shouldn’t exert ourselves completely as we were expected to do this every day.

 

 

M.M.: Ammannur Parameswara Chakyar is an artist who believed that he performed for the deity ritually. What were his specialities?   

 

A.K.C.: He always followed what he learnt. His padapurappadu was very beautiful. This style was simple and appeared very effortless. He did not contribute anything of his own but always followed the old way. He did not worry about whether the spectators were enjoying his performance. For him this was not just an art form, but was a ritual that was his traditional duty to observe. Whatever he learnt from his forefathers he enacted with perfection. Therefore he never thought about fame or money. If they came his way, well and good. He would never seek them out or go after them.  

 

 

M.M.: In Chachu Chakyar’s time uzhichil (body massage) was introduced to Kutiyattam performers. Did you undergo uzhichil while learning?

 

A.K.C.: Yes, but only once. The household was in dire straits when I began learning Kutiyattam. Even the survival looked uncertain because we had lost all our land to the Land Reformation Act. It was only after the 1970s that we started getting financial assistance from the Akademi.

 

 

M.M.: Now that you have been teaching the new generation of artists and watching new productions, how do you view their works? Is there any change in their approach?

 

A.K.C.: When we were young, we were respectful and fearful. Now the young generation is not at all afraid. I would feel tense when I got on stage even after being very experienced. I would always worry about my performance before going on to the stage. Now the young generation are not anxious at all. I don’t know if that is a good thing. But if we are not anxious about performing, how would we try to improve ourselves? Another thing is the current tendency to imitate other art forms like theatre, Kathakali, cinema etc. When we were young we always tried to follow our teachers. Now the focus is too much on body movements. When we focus too much on perfecting the physicality, the effort to mentally absorb the character and project it becomes less.    

 

 

M.M.: You are saying that the current generation gives more importance to the body than the mind?

 

A.K.C.: Both mind and body are equally important in Kutiyattam. But now I feel the body gets more emphasis than the mind in the performance.

 

 

M.M.: Do you think it is because of the influence of theatre? Do you think it is probably because the communication of mental imaginings is lot harder to achieve because of various reasons like lack of adequate scholarship, the current generation has shifted its focus to the body movements?  . 

 

A.K.C.: Physical stances and movements gain immediate attention. It is difficult to act without moving the body. But when the focus is too much on making a framework for the body movements and on perfecting them, the mental aspect becomes diminished.  Ammannur Madhava Chakyar gave prominence to the mind than the body movements or mudras. I have seen that. But when he was teaching us he made sure that we got the posture, the mudras and the movements right. But when he was performing on stage he wasn’t very bothered about the perfection of his steps.  

 

 

M.M.: You have interacted with two generations of mizhavu artists. You have performed with senior artists like Chathakkudam Krishnan Nambiar, Kalamandalam Easwaranunni etc.and also with younger ones like V.K.K. Hariharan, Rajeev etc. What is the major difference between these two generations of artists when they play mizhavu?

 

A.K.C.: Earlier there used to be a particular way or style to play mizhavu for acting. The drummer just followed that style regardless of the acting. That sort of thing had its positive and negative points. But later it changed, the mizhavu player began to follow the actor and tried to make his music suitable to the particular drama that was being performed. Up to a point in time I used to think that this change was good. But now my opinion has changed.   The mizhavu artistes today do not understand the text. In Kathakali  the actors can follow the drum beats. But in Kutiyattam it is not possible.  The speed at which each  actor plays his part varies. The mizhavu artiste has to understand the actors and follow them.  But I don’t think the present generation do that. Of course they can play their instrument very well. They have been trained well. But I don’t know to what extent their music contribute to the enhancement of the acting.. For instance, when reciting from Thoranayudham the mizhavu artiste has to follow the actor, starting from the base and then increase the rhythm as the latter progresses in his narration. But nowadays, that is not the way it is done. The drummer plays at a fast pace right from the beginning.  But the acting starts off in a mellow mode and gradually increases the pace. The mizhavu is played very well nowadays, but one has to think how far this contributes to the acting itself.

 

 

M.M.: Do you think this is because they want to establish or express the identity of mizhavu?

 

A.K.C.: The mizhavu artiste perfects his performance, but does not contribute to the improving the acting. Such a rendering will not communicate the experience of the acting or its bhava. I think they have to understand and observe what is being enacted on the stage. That itself makes a difference. They can make use of the possibilities of the instrument. But it has to be kept in mind that they are playing to contribute to the acting.

 

 

M.M.: Now silence has become a major technique in mizhavu. Nambiarasan (P.K. Narayanan Nambiar) also mentioned about this new tendency. For instance when the actor displays the sringara rasa of Ravana, he has to show the character in the throes of burning flames of desire.  But here the drummer plays the mizhavu on a slow note. It is understood widely that for sringara the rhythm has to be slow whereas for the raudra rasa the rhythm has to be fast. But doesn’t this contradict Ravana’s mental state? Does the slow pace of mizhavu concur with the actor’s mental state?

 

A.K.C.: Whatever emotion the actor is displaying he will be successful only if the spectator feels it too.  It is the music that attracts the attention first.  Therefore the music has to render that emotion. The fast-paced beating would evoke a roudra feeling in the spectator that would then contradict the actor’s performance.

 

 

M.M.: What about using fingers to play while playing the mizhavu?

 

A.K.C.: That is a recent experiment. Earlier hands were used. I don’t know which is better. The audience has to decide.

 

 

M.M.: Kutiyattam is undergoing a difficult scenario now. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has been giving financial assistance since the 1980’s. The state government has given some financial assistance to Kalamandalam. Other institutions have not received any assistance from the state government. Now temples have almost stopped contributing to the art. Unlike Kathakali, Kutiyattam has not been widely received among the public. Therefore it is difficult to raise funds from the public. For the state government Kutiyattam is only one among the various art forms. The state is of the opinion that since it has been giving aid for the past 20 years, the artistes have to find other sources of assistance now. How will we face such a situation and survive and preserve the tradition?

 

A.K.C.: Earlier the art form was survived because the Chakyar families preserved this as a ritual or as their duty. Even then the financial gain was very less. The assistance was given as land by the temple or by the state. But the Chakyars preserved it as their duty and that is how it was preserved for generations. I don’t know whether such an obligation is present in the new generation. The nature of the performance also shifted from its ritualistic aspects. Therefore it would be difficult to tell how it will sustain itself. If the young practitioners do not get enough financial assistance for their survival, then this art will not sustain itself. It need not be money, but any form of assistance is needed from an agency whether it is the centre or the state or the public. Earlier the quality of life was also different. We performed Kutiyattam to our best ability thinking that it was our duty or obligation and that was how it was preserved. The art form has to be protected and supported for the future, otherwise it will not survive, for sure.

                        .

 

M.M.: The temple festivals were not just rituals to be seen through, but they presented the artistes occasions of serious engagement with the performance form. When Kutiyattam came outside temples and opened to all, it was considered a revolutionary change. But now when we look back how did it affect the performance? No doubt that it was progressive change for the actors since anybody interested could learn it. But what about the performance form? Did the coming out to the public helped in its preservation in any way?

 

A.K.C.: When the MA course was started in Kalamandalam, K.G. Paulose said to me after all these years of teaching Kutiyattam to the public, even now the performances are done only by Chakyars. I had no reply to that. Total dedication is hard to find now. They join Kalamandalam to learn something or the other. If they don’t find Kutiyattam profitable they move on to something else. Earlier the Kutiyattam artistes didn’t have anything else in mind. They were totally committed to Kutiyattam. It was their only means of livelihood even if it wasn’t enough to survive.      

 

 

M.M.: Ammannur family has the right to perform Kutiyattam annually mainly in three temples—Trissur, Muzhikulam and Irinjalakkuda. And over the years five main texts have become the repertoire of the family’s performances in these temples. How and why did this happen?    

 

A.K.C.: It is mainly because of the way we approached it. For whatever reason each play was adapted to the performance over a long period of time. The Ammannur family has always taken them seriously and have adapted and perfected them meticulously.