Kutiyattam: In Conversation with David Shulman

Kutiyattam: In Conversation with David Shulman

in Interview
Published on: 14 August 2018
The interview was conducted by Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan on January 9, 2015 in Thrissur, Kerala.


Sudha Gopalakrishnan: Prof. Shulman, it has been a great privilege for me to ask you about your experiences with Kutiyattam. You have been coming to Kerala for the last six years to understand, to experience Kutiyattam. What made you come and fall so much in love with kutiyattam?


David Shulman: That is certainly the right word. I fell in love. One falls in love without a reason. If you have a reason you can’t fall in love. But I can tell you how it happened. I had seen Kutiyattam several times before over the years in different places including Irinjalakkuda and the States. I liked it but wasn't fully captivated by it. But in 2006 I saw Nangiarkoothu performed by Dr G. Indu for two hours at a conference at Angamally. I was coming from Andhra Pradesh. I landed in Angamally and within a few minutes it began. She was doing Pootanamoksham. In the first hour I didn’t notice it. My mind was full of all kinds of things. But then I opened my eyes and I saw her dancing. I thought it was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. We spoke to her after the performance. She asked us to come to Muzhikulam the next day. My colleagues and myself. We went there and we talked to her. We heard from her what we actually hear from everybody else. That there is no scope for full-scale performances. That they have to make do with very small segments of one or two or three hours. So I said to my colleagues that we must find some way to enable them to do full-scale performances again. But I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to bring my students to Kerala to watch Kutiyattam. I went to the president of the Hebrew University and I told him about Kutiyattam, that there is this classical tradition and it is endangered. I explained to him what it meant, the beauty of it and he understood. I said I needed ten thousand dollars to take my Sanskrit students to Kerala to see the performance and to pay the artistes. And he gave me the money. That is how it began. Afterwards there were further grants. 


S.G.: To go back to your experience when you first saw Indu performing, how much could you understand, because it is a highly coded language in spite of the text being in Sanskrit? What was your experience of seeing the performance in the most specific way?


D.S.: At that time and also the next time when I actually came and saw the complete performance—we saw Asokavanikangam—I knew nothing of the abhinaya. I knew next to nothing. I couldn’t really decipher the mudras. Pootanamoksham is a lot of what we could call mimes. Very intelligible in a way. It was not hard to understand what she was doing. Later when we came back—we came back in 2008 with a group of students—Madhu (Margi Madhu) and Indu introduced us gradually us to the art. They prepared materials for us, prepared booklets following the attaprakaram, the course of the each performance. Every day they would give us a lesson in the abhinaya and take us through that night’s performance. Little by little we came to learn the language. They began teaching us the Ramayanasamkshepam.


S.G.: Yes, through the mudras…


D.S.: Some of us could even do it. Some of my students were particularly good at that, you know. Slowly we came to learn the language.


S.G.: So you devised a new learning methodology. It is a good way of learning. You read the performance text, see the way the mudras evolve in the morning, see the same performance in the evening. That is the perfect way to understand, to learn and imbibe the beauty of the form, I think.


D.S.: It is a good way. We don’t always remember everything that we see in the morning when it came to the actual performance in the evening. By now it is easy for us. Little by little we came to understand the language. We also discuss with them what it is all about, what is happening, you know all the technical questions. It took some time but by now we have some idea.


S.G.: This also led you to the research into the history of the kutiyattam and the textual traditions—the prabandhas—in a very in-depth way.


D.S.: Actually, I want to write a short book about the performances that I have seen. There are introductory books on Kutiyattam. Your book is there. There are other books available too. I don’t think another book is needed but just a very few attempts to give what I feel is a few sustained interpretation of the actual full-scale performance, how it comes together, what is the structure of ideas, what its expressivity is, what it is trying to tell us, how it fits with the other Kutiyattam players, the inter-textual side of it, the sources,…I don’t know enough. But I am hoping to write a book about three or four of the performances that we have seen. I gave a series of lectures in Paris a few months back about these performances. So if I have a few months relatively free I think I will be able to complete it.


S.G.: Now that you are writing a book, how do you think it has evolved? Would you consider it a break-away from the pre-dominant Natya Sastra tradition or as a local interpretation? How do you think it became the form that it has now?


D.S.: I think it is very much of a Kerala art form, a south Indian art form. It has some very archaic elements, some of which go back to the Natya Sastra, there is no doubt about that. Everyone likes to say about kutiyattam that it is a very ancient tradition and that it has survived only in Kerala. There is some truth in that. There are many things we can say that go back to the early sources including technical devices, structural elements in the performance, all kinds of things that we can recognize from the Natyasastra, also from Abhinavagupta’s commentary on Natyasastra.

S.G.: Yes, and also the text like Kuttini mata. People keep striving to find connections.


D.S.: And Dasaroopaka and also other drama texts. All of that is there. But having said that, I don’t know how it happened exactly. But over some generations beginning perhaps around the 11th century or the 12th there were perhaps some generations who were extremely gifted, experimentally daring dramatists and actors in Kerala. Chakyars associated with Namboodiris and experimented and very radically revised the whole structure of the performance. And that is we really see when we see Kutiyattam. We see a continuous tradition with very archaic elements but with kind of new configuration that took shape, crystallised sometime in the medieval period, I think may be around the 11th–12th century. And it took its final form that we see today in the 15th century.


S.G.: So between the 11th and the 15th centuries great transformations had taken place both in the attaprakaram tradition and also in the performance tradition.


D.S.: Totally. They experimented. They took the plays apart. They took individual acts as the unit of performance. And even then, the anga (act) is not performed in the linear way. They completely reconceived the whole idea. So you have the purappadu, the nirvahanam which includes all kinds of internal embedded things and eventually move into the actual Kutiyattam. All of them have some meaning. It is not by chance that they had done it. They thought about it, played and experimented with it. Actually one of the things in Kutiyattam that is very striking is that it continually surprises you. I find myself always surprised, even though I have seen hundred and hundred hours of Kutiyattam by now.


S.G.: Also, how from so many other sources, poems were taken, verses were taken, how three or four languages were used. It is a marvel in that sense.


D.S.: That is true. It is Sanskrit drama. No doubt. But the real language of Kutiyattam is Malayalam. It is a Malayalam play. The attaprakaram language is what they use. Basically it is Malayalam, and in many ways, the Sanskrit used is kind of Sanskrit Malayalam or Malayali Sanskrit. I think, with only two exceptions, all the plays are Kerala plays to begin with. The so-called Bhasa plays—I don’t think they are connected to Bhasa, but it doesn’t matter—are really local or Kerala productions. And of course the Saktibhadra plays, and the two Kulashekara plays. The only possible exception is Nagananda but Nagananda is a play about Kerala, it is entirely about Kerala. For some reason or rather because of that, they kind of assimilated it into the tradition.


S.G.: But what about the other two, Bhagavadjjukiya and Mattavilasa?


D.S.: Again, they are possible exceptions. These are the only exceptions. Even in the kutiyattam tradition, they gave up on producing the Sakuntalam.


S.G.: That was a question that I wanted to ask you. Why do you think Kalidasa’s plays has not found that much favour whereas Bhasa’s plays or whatever we are ascribing as Bhasa’s have become very popular on the stage.


D.S.: if you look at the current repertoire, if you look at the so called Bhasa’s plays, take the popular Asbhisekhanatakam or the Saktibhadra play, I think these are the plays that were written with kind of Kutiyattam performance to begin with. That is why the performances were produced by the actors, the Chakyars. I have a very good student in Jerusalem who wrote on Tapatisamvarana for her M.A. dissertation. She says that that if you look at the Sanskrit text, it is clear that the whole first act of Tapatisamvarana was written for Kutiyattam only. That is they were produced with Kalidasa’s plays were not meant for these kind of performances. I don’t know how they were performed. If you look at Sakuntala, it is single aesthetic work meant to be performed in its entire way, and not in acts. May be not in a single night’s performance, but spread over weeks. I don’t know how they did it. No one knows. But if you look at the Sakthibadhra play, there are individual units. And it is kind of lean, bare structure, you know, compared to the Kalidasa plays. It is kind of that is not an accident. Because it was meant to allow the elaborations. You know, you may not agree with this, but I always tell my students. This is a different kind of textuality, when you look at the kutiyattam texts, what we have it is a different model that what we have in classical sense, Sanskrit Kavya for example. I think the attaprakaram precedes the written text actually. No, not in a technical way. But the truth is the world of attaprakaram—with all the things that go into it, including the additional material that go into it, the elaborations and the meaning of it—I feel that is what fashioned the actual Sanskrit texts that we have. I think the Sanskrit text of Saktibhadra is a kind of condensation of the pre-existing world of theatre which survived into the attaprakaram.


S.G.: It is a very interesting theory.


D.S.: Not that one would agree with this.


S.G.: One has to think about it from that perspective.


D.S.: I said it in a kind of slightly exaggerated way but I think it is something like that. Take the Mediterranean textual model. There is the text. Then it expands a little, then it expands a little more, then again expands… That model doesn’t fit here in Kutiyattam.


Another interesting thing: if you see the live performance as the criterion, you can see the published texts of the play depends upon the elaborations and the performance. It makes no sense without what they actually do on the stage. You can read it of course. You can have some kind of meaning. But the real point of it only comes through with the elaborations and the performance. It illuminates the text, in a way which must have been there before the texts. At least that is what I think.


S.G.: The complimentary exchange that takes place between the performer, the patron and the interested spectator also must have worked its way for embellishing the art, don’t you think?


D.S.: Undoubtedly.


S.G.: These plays were connected to the temple and to very specific rituals. It was confined within the temple. Do you think that kind of confinement also, in a strange way, contributed to the growth of Kutiyattam in those days?


D.S.: I am sure it contributed to its growth. It is a temple art in a way. I don’t agree with my friend K.G. Paulose who said that initially it was a courtly production. I think it was very heavily connected to the rituals. Even today with all the secularism it is still very heavily ritualised. You cannot understand the play if you put the rituals aside. That is another way of beginning to talk about it also. You can ask what a kutiyattam actor is doing. You look at the purappadu. He somehow brings into being a whole world, a whole universe. He creates it little by little, piece by piece, ties it, when he finishes, and offer flowers and all that. He sustains, and repairs and holds this world over the period of performance that could a week or two weeks or a month. That shows you something about what they are trying to do. And also something about the claim on our understanding of the world. What is real, what counts as real. It is a very strong ritual theatre. That doesn’t mean that it is not an aesthetic production in its own right. It is. We do emphasise the aesthetic drive behind it. And I accept that. I think it is true. It is a great work of art. But yes, the initial setting and context is surely the temple.


S.G.: But it is also a theatre of possibilities in an international way. It has a universal language which can be adapted to different contexts, different cultural settings, perhaps. I think to that extent it has immense possibilities of the future of theatre research.


D.S.: I am happy first of all to see that in this generation, the performers are happy to experiment, at least some of them. Kutiyattam has travelled all over the world. There is no doubts if you explain the basics even to an audience who know nothing at all they are quite capable of imbibing it.   


S.G.: And also something like Hamlet with its stream of consciousness approach it is suited to something like Kutiyattam, to expand that mental conflict.


D.S.: Yes it think it is. We saw this DVD, one of the verses from Macbeth was very creatively translated into Sanskrit. Our friend Satish did it. It was taken randomly from the middle of the play, it expanded into nirvahanam and all that. It was wonderful. I showed it to my students in Jerusalem. We were doing a course of theatre. They loved it.  


S.G.: What are your thoughts on how this kind of art is going to sustain in the future? Its future looks very challenging because this huge universe is there but very little research is getting done. Secondly the audience basis is also shrinking. And also how many people do have that kind of patience and understanding? There is some cause of concern surely.


D.S.: There is no doubt the tradition is endangered. All the artists that I met and talked to are all deeply worried about this. It is hanging by a thread, you could say. On the other hand, I am personally very optimistic about the future of Kutiyattam. I will tell you why. Of course they need support. They lack support. It has to come from somewhere. The government is not going to give them support at the level that is required. The best thing would be like some wealthy patrons, like in the old times. Why not? But even without that, let us say in Kerala today, how many proficient Kutiyattam actors are there now? Thirty, thirty-five?


S.G.: Not more. Definitely.


D.S.: I am not sure there were more Kutiyattam actors in the medieval period. May be a little more, May be not. I don’t know. This has always been an art that had a limited audience and connoisseurs. These people were always connected with the temple.


S.G.: The difference was that these people were protected by the temple.


D.S.: Yes, they were protected by the temple. They were part of the temple economy, old Kerala economy. Their future was secure in that respect.


S.G.: They had all the time to devote to honing their skills and art. Now it is not like that.


D.S.:  The young performers now spent many years in learning to perform. Actually small amounts of money will keep the thing going easily into the next generation. I can’t say I am not worried. I am but I am also optimistic about it. 


S.G.: Will you be coming next year too?


D.S.: I hope so. We are at the end of one funding cycle. We had a nice grant from something called German-Israel Foundation. It is a true German-Israeli collaboration. It proved very fruitful. A lot, I think, are coming out of that. The three-year grant is ending now in 2015. We will reapply to them. They have a category like that- grant renewal. If they give it to us we will have another two to three years. If they don’t give it to us we will find some other way. But we will come anyway.        


S.G.: Thank you.