A 2000 year old art form and still going strong- That is Koodiyattom for you. Literally meaning, ‘Dancing Together,’ and officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, ‘Koodiyattam,’ or ‘Kutiyattam,’ is a form of Sanskrit theatre traditionally performed in the state of Kerala. It is the only surviving example of ancient traditional art form in the state.
History refers that Koodiyattom is an amalgamation of the ancient Sanskrit classical theatre of India and the regional theatre. Koodiyattom owe its origin to Kulasekhara Varman Cheruman Perumal, an ancient King of Kerala, who ruled from Mahodayapuram (modern Kodungallur) reformed Koodiyattam, introducing the local language for Vidusaka and structuring presentation of the play to well defined units. He himself authored two major Koodiyattom plays which are still in vogue; Subhadraharana and Tapatisamvarana and made arrangements for their presentation on stage with the help of a Brahmin friend of him called Tolan. Along with these, the plays traditionally presented include Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra, Kalyanasaugandhika of Nilakantha, Bhagavadajjuka of Bodhayana, Nagananda of Harsa, and many plays attributed to Bhasa including Abhiseka and Pratima. The Kutiyattam performance was confined to the temple precincts of Kerala in specially constructed theatres called Koothampalams.
The main instruments used in Koodiyattom include, ‘Mizhavu,’ ‘Edakka,’ , ‘Kurumkuzhal,’ ‘Sankhu,’ and ‘Kuzhithalam.’ Mizhavu, the most prominent of these, is a percussion instrument which is played by a person of the Ambalavas Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma playing the ‘kuzhithalam’ (a type of cymbal).
The tradition prescribe that Koodiyattam should be performed by Chakyars (a subcaste of Kerala Hindus) and by Nangyaramma (women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste). As the name Koodiyattam itself implies "playing together" and suggests a combined performance of Chakyars and Nangyars. The main actor is a Chakyar who performs the ritualistic Koothu and Koodiyattam inside the temple or in the Koothambalam. Chakyar women, Illothammas, are not allowed to participate. Instead, the female roles are played by Nangyaramma, wife of the Nambiars.
Koodiyattam was an art form performed by the elders of the Chakyar community and being taught to the youngsters of that community till the 1950s. It was only later in 1955 that Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar performed Kutiyattam outside the temple for the first time. For this, he faced many problems from the hardline Chakyar communitty
Traditionally, the main musical instruments used in Koodiyattam are Mizhavu, Kuzhithalam, Etakka, Kurumkuzhal and Sankhu. Mizhavu, the most prominent of these, is a percussion instrument which is played by a person of the Ambalavas Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma playing the kuzhithalam (a type of cymbal).
In his own words,the late Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar had once said;"My own people condemned my action (performing Koothu and Kutiyattam outside the precincts of the temples), Once, after I had given performances at Vaikkom, they even thought about excommunicating me. I desired that this art should survive the test of time. That was precisely why I ventured outside the temple.”
Then, in 1962, Dr V Raghavan, a noted art and Sanskrit scholar invited Guru Mani Madhava CHakyar and his disciples for a performance at Madras. Thus, for the first time in the history Kutiyattam was performed outside Kerala. There, for three nights there, they presented scenes from three plays ‘Abhiṣeka,’ ‘Subhadrādhanañjaya,’ and ‘Nāgānda.’
The performance of the maestro Mani Madhava Chakyar made great impact on the people and art critics so that Kutiyattam and the maestro became famous outside Kerala also. People outside Kerala was able to witness the extraordinary talent of the maestro. After their first performance at Madras, the group was invited and performed Kutiyattam at various places of North India like New Delhi and Banaras (1964). It made the critic to accept his authority in Rasa Abhinaya, Natyasastra and Kutiyattam.
After the maestro’s first tour to New Delhi, he was awarded immediately with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1964 for his "contributions to Chakyar Koothu and Kutiyattam", which became the first national recognition to the maestro and the art form.
He along with his troop did Koodiyattam performance in places like Madras (1962, 1973 & 1977), Madhura (1962), New Delhi (1964, 1966, 1974, 1979 & 1983), Varanasi (1964 & 1979), Bombay (1973), Ujjain (1982), Bhopal (1987) etc. His recognition for his performance outside Kerala was so much that the President of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan invited him to perform Kutiyattom at Rashtrapathi Bhavan in 1964 and was very much impressed by his acting proves.
Mani Madhava CHakyar choreographed and directed acts of the plays like Kalidasa's Abhijñānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra ; Bhasa's Swapnavāsavadatta
and Pancharātra; Harsha's Nagananda for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam.
In the early 1960’s Mani Madhava Chakyar’s fame reached Poland and to Maria Christoffer Byrski, a Polish student’s ears. She was doing research Indian theatres at Banaras Hindu University . She came to study Koodiyattam from the maestro and became the first non-Chakyar/nambiar to learn the art form. She stayed in Guru's home at Killikkurussimangalam and studied the art form in traditional Gurukulam way.