Kutiyattam: In Conversation with Margi Madhu

Kutiyattam: In Conversation with Margi Madhu

in Interview
Published on: 14 August 2018
Interview conducted by Kutiyattam artiste Indu G. in Kerala in 2015


Indu G.: Namaskaram! You belong to the second batch of artistes who moved out of the Gurukula system to institutionalized learning. With the establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam (1965) began the history of institutionalized learning in Kutiyattam. Then Margi was started in Thiruvananthapuram. You got your training at Margi, and also you are from a village that has a long tradition in the art form. Could you tell me about the circumstances in which you shifted your training from the traditional way to an institution?


Margi Madhu: Usually we consider the year 1965 as the beginning of institutionalized learning in Kerala Kalamandalam. Later institutions like Margi and Ammannur Gurukulam in Irinjalakkuda came up.   


I.G.: Was Margi started in 1981?


M.M.: Yes, in 1981 and Ammannur Gurukulam was started in 1982. But in these institutions, the teaching methods and performance patterns remained the same as how they were taught in a traditional family. Caste intermingling did not happen in families; the art remained confined and exclusive to the particular community.  The actors—the Chakyars—and the drummers—the Nambiars—did not rehearse together; they met only on stage. But in other institutions except in Kalamandalam, they had the chance to learn and perform together.


I.G.: What was the difference in Kalamandalam?


M.M.: As Kalamandalam is a government institution they follow a prescribed syllabus. But I think in the beginning Painkulam Rama Chakyar did not follow a strict syllabus. The syllabus was prescribed later, different topics were set for each year and the duration of the course was also fixed. Initially they started with a diploma course. The students have to study for six years for the male roles and four years for the female roles. The mizhavu course also is for four years. After the completion of six years they were supposed to leave the institution. But Margi and Ammannur Gurukulam did not follow this course system. They didn’t enforce that certain topics should be completed within the stipulated period of time. They followed the Gurukula tradition of teaching. It all depended on the Guru. If he was satisfied only he would move on to the next sloka.  My ancestors belonged to the Ammannur family who originally is from Koppam village near Pattambi. When they had a run-in with the king they had to flee the village. They finally settled down at Iruvangulam at Muzhikulam. I was born and brought up there. My village has a rich tradition of Kutiyattam and Kuttu. My father was Padmasree Muzhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar. A branch of the Ammannur family went and settled down at Irinjalakkuda in Trissur (1874). I learned Kutiyattam under my father along with my school education. It was mandatory for the Chakyar boys to debut with the entry of Sudhtradhara in Bhasa’s play Balacharitam, and the two slokas of Nirvahanam. I learned all those basics at home. In those days I used to get stipend from Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy. I trained for nearly two and a half years. In 1981 Kutiyattam department was started in Margi. Actually Margi was founded by D. Appukkuttan Nair in 1965. He was well-versed in Kathakali and Kutiyattam. He retired as a Chief Engineer from P.W.D (Public Works Department). In the beginning Margi concentrated only on arranging performances. When the Kutiyattam department was started there in 1981, my father was invited to join the faculty. His elder brother Padmabhushan Ammannur Madhava Chakyar joined as a visiting professor there. He took classes for six days in a month.


So my brother Margi Narayana Chakyar, my father’s nephew Margi Rama Chakyar and I were the first students to join Margi. All three of us were trained in the basics of the art form. We had to get up at 4:30 early in the morning and recite slokas by standing in low stance. From 8:30 in the morning we were taught parts of Purappadu. Sanskrit classes—Sidharoopam and Amarakosham—were taken in the afternoon. We practised eye and hand movements in the evening. We trained in Ramayanasamskhepa. The teaching methods in Margi were the same as how we were taught in our family. The only difference for us was that the change of the location. But at home the learning did not happen on a regular basis as the elders went out for performances and the teaching was disrupted. But in Margi the teaching happened regularly. When my father went for performances, Pothiyil Parameswara Chakyar took charge. My teachers made us do the same movement or sloka again and again till we got it correct and he was satisfied. The purpose of the training at Margi was not to complete the topics but to practise till the teachers were satisfied. Ammannur Gurukulam also followed the same system. Here in Nepathya also the same system is being followed. Unlike Kalamandalam the other institutions are not bound by a syllabus. They follow the traditional training method.


I.G.: As you said, though the institutions started to teach Kutiyattam they all followed the traditional methods of teaching. The days were dedicated to the learning of Kutiyattam only. Now the students continue with their school education along with their training in Kutiyattam. Does this put more pressure on them? Does this affect the growth of Kutiyattam as an art form?


M.M.: In those days Kutiyattam was taught whole time only at Kalamandalam and Margi. At Ammannur Gurukulam, the students carried on with their school education along with their training in Kutiyattam. The traditional routine was followed only in the weekends. Now the same system is being followed in Kalamandalam too. This shift has made Kutiyattam lose its depth. When the students dedicate their whole time to the art they become thorough in it. Another thing is that it is doubtful how familiar the current generation is with their repertoire. They have to learn new acts because the present times demand so. They learn fast and perform well enough. But when a chance for a repeat performance comes up they have to go through it again. They have to practise again as they are not thorough with it and have not gone deep into it. This is more true of today’s young artistes than it was of my generation and the generation after mine. When Ammannur Jineesh and Sooraj up to Usha who all belong to the generation succeeding mine, learned the art together with their college studies. But they did not have to face so much pressure as the artistes face now.  Even when they attended college they were able to concentrate on their Kutiyattam training in the weekends.


The present generation choose to take up engineering and medical courses. After completing Class Eight they begin to attend entrance coaching centres and find increasingly less time to devote to Kutiyattam. Moreover they have to deal with immense pressure from their parents. Of course the intellectual capacity of the students has increased manifold.  But the new Kutiyattam performances lack depth. The artistes before me like Kuttettan, Painkulam Rama Chakyar or my father had more time than me to learn and perform Kutiyattam. We got fewer stages. Now the opportunities are very limited. So the time devoted to it is also less. When an act is taken up to study the students are unable to plumb its depths because of the lack of time. The current trend is that if a new play is taken up it is choreographed and performed within a matter of two weeks. They don’t really study it deeply. It is not their fault. But this is what is happening now.


I.G.: When we talk about the cutting down the scale of Kutiyattam performances, we had two Gurus at Margi who resisted it. They had to resist the challenges of the times to protect the repertoire or the invaluable treasures of knowledge? How did they withstand the pressure of the new age audience and try to protect the old styles at the same time?


M.M.: Editing Kutiyattam performances started with Kerala Kalamandalam. Painkulam Rama Chakyar started this. It was a necessity of the times then. When Kutiyattam was performed in temples there were no time constraints. There was good audience too who could appreciate it. Nowadays lengthy performances do not attract much audience. I saw a movie which was taken in 1972. My father, uncle Ammannur and Parameshwara Chakyar were performing Kutiyattam in the Kuttampalam of Vadakkunnathan. It was packed. This was in 1972. So I am doubtful when they say in those times a full-scale Kutiyattam performance might not have got audience. But it was considered the need of the times and some editing was needed when it was performed on the public arena to a not-knowledgeable audience. As far as Painkulam was concerned, he wanted the beauty of the art to be the presented and not its depths. This is what I have gathered from reading the many articles on him and also from watching the performances of his disciples. He was more concerned with the aesthetics of the art form. So he cut down its scale taking good care not to lose its visual appeal. It helped very much in the survival of Kutiyattam. Otherwise it might not have survived like this. At the same time a talented man like Ammannur was not ready to compromise with anything. He was not concerned with the knowledge level of the audience or personal benefits. Recognition came to him only after he turned 60. That happened not because he was less talented but only because of his non-compromising attitude. He was not ready to make changes in the art for the asake of the audience. In a recent interview with Sarojini Nangiaramma she said that the Kuttu performed by Ammannur Madhava Chakyar could only be understood by scholars. He was not ready to dilute his performances for the layman. That resolute attitude was clearly the main reason why such deep performances survive today. Same was the case with my father. He was very adamant that we should not deviate from the way the Gurus taught us. Such insistence was beneficial to us in Margi then. D. Appukuttan Nair also was of the same view. That a performance should adhere to the tradition rather than cater to the taste of the audience. That is why we became very familiar with the whole repertoire of Kutiyattam.


Even when new acts were choreographed—Painkulam Rama Chakyar had given into popular demand and clipped acts to two days—here in Margi we constructed the full-scale performance starting with Purappadu. If we take the acts which are designed by Painkulam we can see that nearly 80% could be learned in one or two days. But the three Kutiyattam acts which were choreographed in Margi follow the tradition strictly. They are like how it was performed in olden times. The presentation is spread over many days. The imperishable wealth of Kutiyattam is protected by the constant proximity with it. It may not be as popular and may not be praised by the audience but for an actor it is very important. Once the knowledge is gained it will not be forgotten. The problems of scaling down the performance is that though a talented and knowledgeable actor can do it, a person who learned in the condensed way will not be able to expand it. I feel that now they have become aware of it in many institutions. As far as I know, Kerala Kalamandalam where the Kutiyattam department started in 1965 could present a full-scale Kutiyattam performance including the denouement only this year. It took nearly 50 years to return to the tradition. For Rama Chakyar it was necessary to change with the times. But the awareness was dawned only after 50 years. But Ammannur was not ready for that. How long this art form will last is a big question.


I.G.: I have heard that in Margi people like D. Appukuttan Nair, Konchaniyan Sir and poet Ayyappa Panikker were generous with inputs like scholarly suggestions. I also have heard that critical run-ins between D. Appukuttan Nair and Ammannur helped in the growth of Margi. Do you remember such any personal experiences?  


M.M.: Certainly, as I said before, my uncle used to teach in an uncompromisingly traditional way. He did not listen to any one’s suggestions. He had a clear understanding of what to teach, how much to teach and how long it would take to go to the next topic. On the other hand D. Appukuttan Nair was a scholar in classical arts. He was acquainted with the new form of arts like Noh (Noh theatre) of Japan, art forms like Kabuki, Kathakali and other art forms of Kerala. He was widely read and was academically strong enough to share ideas on wide variety of new subjects of the modern world. At the same time, he was from a traditional family and used to conduct Kathakali. As a person who had experienced both the traditional and modern world, he used to offer suggestions. This created difference of opinion between him and my uncle sometimes. All these were healthy disagreements and discussions. As far as I was concerned I learned much more from their discussions on art and aesthetics than I learned from my uncle directly. Moreover, in those days the audience at Margi comprised of the intellectual cream of Kerala society. Scholars like D. Appukuttan Nair, Poet Ayyappa Panikkar, V.S Sharma, Kochaniyan Thirumulpad, Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Dr T.N.N. Bhattathiripad came for the performances. There might not be more than 50 people in the audience but all of them were very knowledgeable in the subject. Those experiences of performing in front of such an audience have enable me to go bring in new ideas. I am able to see Kutiyattam in a new light because I have been exposed to both—learning in the traditional way and performing in the new way before an audience.


For example, I was doing the entry of Shankhukarnan in Thoranayudham. It was my second or third performance at Margi. It was the sloka Malayalila meaning wind from Malaya mountain does not come and blow here. I was showing the mudra of Malayaparvatham (Malaya mountain). For a student of Kutiyattam the mudra and eye movements to denote a hill whether it is Kailasa, Mainakam or Malaya mountain are the same. I showed the mudras and the eye movements indicating the size of the hill. After the show Kochaniyan Sir said to me, 'Madhu, if you are showing Malaya hill as this big, how will you show Kailasa? Even though the mudras are the same you should really understand the text before performing. You should recognize the size of Kailasa and Malaya and then demonstrate the mudras aptly. The size should be right in your mind’s imagination’. Such scholars were a treasure to Margi. But my uncle didn’t give me such suggestions when he taught me. He wanted the eye and the hand coordination to be very clear to the student. He never tried to enter the mind of the student. He believed that each one had to develop his own imagination so that the ideas that emerged out of a batch of students would be diverse. But according to the new method the ideas or discipline should be uniform. The students of the same class should act in the same way. Ammannur did not want this. According to him if there were three students in a class, they should act in three different ways. According to him the class should not show uniformity to the audience. In Kutiyattam the legs of all actors need not be move in unison like the soldiers do. All the actors or actresses will have their own imaginations. So he tried to discipline only the body and not the minds of the students.


I.G.: Did Ammannur give suggestions on the rasas, practice or comment on the performances? If so did they help you in improving your acting?


M.M.: As I said he never tried to tame the imagination of the students but he used to pay attention to the body. I will tell you one example. When the act of carrying the Mount Kailasa has to be performed, the normal thought process would make us think that our facial expression has to communicate its size and weight to the audience. Once when I was trying to emote how heavy it was, uncle rebuked me. He said, 'What are you showing? If you are taking a heavy object like a mountain the heaviness should not come in the face. The heaviness always comes in the chest. Take a stone and see where the heaviness comes'. When I followed his suggestion I realized he was right. The heaviness should come in the chest first. But he gave such suggestions very rarely. But whenever he did, the suggestion would be very insightful and minute. He would never compliment you directly. But he would praise you when in conversation with others. Once when Narayanan and Sooraj were trying to act the role of an alcoholic, my uncle told them to act as I performed the role. But he never paid me any direct compliments till his death. But he was always very quick to point out the shortcomings. But he would say that an actor should be told about the highlights and shortcomings of his act. About his style of teaching I would say that he believed in provoking the student so much that the best would come out of him. He would hurl abuses at the student and provoke him to do better. If the student succeeded in the action after repeated attempts he would then scold more in an attempt to get him to perfect the act. He would tell us that despite what we managed to learn to act in the class, we would be able to show only one fourth of it on stage because then we would be burdened with the discomfort of costume and make-up and the heat from the lights. So we have to bring out the maximum in us in the class. If we showed a mudra a bit differently from what was taught in the class and if he liked it, he would try it out secretly. If he noticed us watching him he would stop instantly. If he liked our improvement he would be silent. And if he did not he would rebuke us. He would say, 'What are you showing? This is not the place to show whatever you like'. That was his method of teaching.


I.G.: When we take Kuttu, what can you say about its present situation? Though many non-Chakyar students have come forward to learn it and there is the highly talented Sivan Namboodiri on the scene, how strong a hold does Prabandhakoothu over today’s generation? Can you talk about the rigorous physical training involved in Kutiyattam and the continuing domination of the Chakyars in Kuttu?


M.M.: According to our Gurus our traditional thinking is that mind is to be reached through the body-body to mind. In the traditional way of teaching in a Chakyar family of course there was some force involved in the physical training. The child would certainly feel pain when he practised the stance and when he relaxed a bit the teacher would punish him. But when it came to Kalamandalam they started relying on corporal punishment to tame the body. It became a torture. They do it deliberately for improving the flexibility of the young body. Somewhere down the line it turned to a circus, like taming a lion with a stick. Acting is a sattvik activity and it should come from the mind. As a medium it is very important to tame the body in the training of classical arts. But the mind is equally important too. What happened was that in such training system when the attention was fully focussed on perfecting the body movements, the mind did not open up to it. If your body stance and steps are correct then it is said your cholliyattam is perfect. But practising cholliyattam and acting on stage are very different.  


I.G.: Ammannur himself said that once.  


M. M.: Yes, he would often say kalari and stage are different. Corporal punishment do not encourage the student to think. If the body is flexible and movements perfect, okay, then the student is just about an average actor. But for the talent to sparkle on stage then his mind has to be opened up. This is true of Kathakali as well. Even an actor whose cholliyattam is perfect finds it difficult to perform Nalacharitham. It is even more difficult in Kutiyattam. In Kathakali there is at least a concrete structure to the choreography. But a Kutiyattam stage completely belongs to the actor or actress. He or she alone decides how much to expand or reduce.  


I.G.: You said earlier that it was very difficult to be a student in Ammannur’s class. Is there any difference between his style and the new style of teaching?


M. M.: Ammannur did not punish us physically. Instead he tried to bring out the best in us by provoking us. He was using force not by giving punishments. He used words to provoke us. It was not only applicable for body but for the mind also. Suppose we were enacting the role of Ravana. Each of the ten faces of Ravana would have different expressions and we use very subtle eye movements to communicate to the audience to which face the particular expression belongs to. It has to be executed very carefully if the audience has to grasp it clearly. We would do it again and again and he still would not be satisfied. He would ask, 'What is the difference shown now?' And again we would try and again he would ask us the same. He made us do it repeatedly till we got it perfect.


Speaking about Kuttu, it is still in the family tradition. Since 1965 Kuttu and Kutiyattam have gone beyond caste and religion. Many from outside the traditional community started learning Kuttu. But even now the performers who excel in it are from well-known Chakyar families. But being a Chakyar is not a criterion to excel in Kuttu. In Kutiyattam there is a system in the classroom. There can be no practice sessions for Kuttu. One has to listen, ponder over words, and then perform. The nature of Kuttu is that the excellence will come only through practice. There are many people who perform Kuttu. Some of the artistes can perform a brief Kuttu of one day’s performance well. There are also some who use bad jokes and words that are unpalatable for Kuttu and bring down its standards. But it would be very difficult to find a non-Chakyar who can perform a full scale Prabanda Kuttu, e.g., Pachaliswayamvaram with its 57 slokas. This may change after two generations may be.       


I.G.: There are capable artistes to perform character roles in Kutiyattam plays. Same isn’t the case in Kuttu. Why do you think this happened?  


M.M.: As I said earlier, one can be trained in Kutiyattam in a kalari or class room set-up. All the mudras can be practiced in the classroom. One cannot train in Kuttu like that. Kuttu can be performed only by learning the slokas and listening to several performances. Now a days there aren’t many Kuttu performances to watch and learn. Kutiyattam still retains a knowledgeable audience though limited. But there are very few people now who enjoys Kuttu. A Sanskrit scholar need not necessarily be a good Kuttu artist. He has to understand the beauty of each word and explore it. A Kuttu performer needs to explore the intellectual possibilities of the literature. It cannot be taught in a classroom. When we listen to a word or a sloka we have to think about its different possibilities and how to execute them. But in Kutiyattam, for e.g. Kailasodharanam, can be performed neatly after practising it continuously for three months. But in Kuttu, even if the performer is thorough with the sloka, he cannot go on stage without preparing well. I have seen Ammannur’s performances. When a Kutiyattam performance was imminent he might not refer books, but if he had to perform Kuttu, no matter how many times he had performed the same topic before, he would go through the reference books again and again. And every time there would a new point to elaborate. That is also a very important factor. Everyone in the audience may not grasp all the mudras in Kutiyattam. Still they would understand the story and enjoy the performance. But in Kuttu it is not like that. It is interpreted and explained in Malayalam. If the audience carefully listens to each and every word then they may be able to point out the mistakes as well.


I.G.: You have spoken of many problems in the training of Kutiyattam—how the students find less time to devote to it, how the Sanskrit education is compulsory in Kuttu. How can we address these problem areas and train artistes in the next generation who are competent in both Kutiyattam and Kuttu and can take on the task of training students?  


M.M.: The most important step is that the government should be ready to give good remuneration. Currently only Kendra Sangeetha Nataka Academy grants funds however small for Kutiyattam. No other funds are available for the artistes and institutions. But now they plan to stop whatever funds they provide. They may be right if we think from their perspective. They have been giving the to the Kutiyattam performers all these years. If they had supported dancers, something fruitful would have come out of it. Dancers would have grown artistically, maybe get into films. Dance teachers have no problem in finding students. So they will be able to sustain themselves. But a Kutiyattam artiste cannot take up any other art form. He has to dedicate his mind and body completely to Kutiyattam. If only he can sustain himself and lead a comfortable life the new generation would be keen to take up the art form. Kutiyattam has a bigger audience abroad. But it is not easy for them to appreciate Kuttu. So the Kuttu and the character of Vidushaka can be sustained only in Kerala in all its seriousness.


The students of Kutiyattam should receive sufficient stipends. If a person spends three to four hours in practice in Carnatic music he can become a good singer. But this is not possible in Kutiyattam. It is a combined performance of several characters. So it can be performed only in an institution. For Kuttu learning the slokas and the prose order and revising it several times by understanding the meaning is crucial. When I was learning in Margi I used to recite the slokas to myself even when I was attending to my personal chores. Because we need to think constantly about the introduction, the words used, how much can we explore how much deep should we go. The artistes who perform single Kuttu for Panchaliswayamvaram they could just say the humorous dialogues, recite the required slokas and be done with it. But for a Prabandha to be presented in depth we have to really work on it for a long time. My Guru presented Subhadraharanam in his 70’s. Even at that age, on the day of presentation, he was reading the textbooks from afternoon till the time he was to go on stage. Because it is very difficult to take a word and explain in its order. What I feel is that for the new generation in order to present a Kuttu on a public platform, we have to first make them understand its exact nature. The present day audience think that the person who tells a Kuttu is just a Vidushaka. They call him Chakyar and consider his role to be clownish enough to be used in advertisements. But in reality Kuttu is not just a medium to tell jokes but to introduce serious literature. In other words it is like how a teacher teaches in a classroom. The beauty of the literature from all perspectives—the beauty of the word, the possibilities of the word—all these have to be told in depth. It is said that if someone really listens to a well-presented sloka in a Kuttu he will never forget it. The new generation has to get more chances.


I.G.: Financial?


M.M.: Yes, certainly. There is one more thing. The most important problem of Kutiyattam is that we have to dedicate our whole time to it. A person if he is of average intelligence can perform Kuttu and Kutiyattam. He has to be thorough with the topics and should be able to reproduce them on stage. But then if he is intelligent enough he will be good in studies too. Since a good education reaps more monetary benefits than a career in Kutiyattam he will tend to move away from arts. There might be young people who persevere in Kutiyattam, but it is not easy in this age. What may happen is that it will get to a stage when the talented people will seek other careers and leave it to the mediocre artistes to take the art forward. It should not happen. The government and the society should support the artistes financially. The artistes should feel that they are respected. And Kuttu has to be prioritised so as to foster good artistes.