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Inventing of a Notation System for Mudra: The language of Dance and Theatre in Kerala - Part 2
- G. Venu

April 27, 2019

Inventing of a Notation System for Mudra: The language of Dance and Theatre in Kerala - Part 1

It was in 1977 that for the first time the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi organized a dance workshop which was directed by Guru Gopinath. Guru Chandrasekharan, Kalamandalam Gangadharan and myself were assistant directors. All the gurus of classical dance styles in Kerala participated in the lecture demonstrations and encounters in the workshop. It was after my discussions and interviews with prominent figures in Mohiniyattam including Kalyanikutty Amma and Satyabhama that the idea to study in detail the mudras in this style evolved in my mind. The field work towards this end was done by my wife Nirmala Paniker. Nirmala had trained under Kalyanikutty Amma for a long time, and as part of our study of the mudras did a short term course at Kerala Kalamandalam. It took us four years to complete the work on notations that analyzed the hand gestures in the then existing repertoire including Cholkettu, Padam, Varnam, Slokam and Saptam.

Pazhoor Damodara Marar, Nirmala Paniker and G. Venu at the Mohiniyattam workshop

I have done various studies on mudras, but perhaps the study on analyzing the mudras of Mohiniyattam gained more importance than the others. Nirmala Paniker and myself took up the study particularly because the teachers and exponents of Mohiniyattam of those days, were themselves confused about the teaching methodology of this art form, whether to base it on Hastalakshanadipika or on Abhinayadarpanam.

From this study it was confirmed that most of the hand gestures of Mohiniyattam were based on Hastalakshanadipika. It took us four years to compile it in a book form. In the year 1983, Natana Kairali published 'Mohiniyattam - Attaprakaram with Notation of 207 Mudras and Postures' as bilingual - in Malayalam and English as well. In 1995, a more elaborated one with the title 'Mohiniyattam, The Lasya Dance' in English was published. The same work was published in Malayalam in 2004. These days, most of the Mohiniyattam dancers are using it. They have given us credit often by saying it in public that they find this work very useful as reference when they search for mudras for any dance item they wanted to choreograph.

From the book 'Mohiniyattam - The Lasya Dance'

Kutiyattam internalized for me the vigour and vitality of all the folk and ritual arts of Kerala that I had seen and known, as well as the governing Indian concepts of Natya or theatre. Kutiyattam is an art form our ancestors evolved long back to present Sanskrit plays using indigenous styles of conception and representation. While the acting concepts in Kutiyattam follow a stylized Natyadharmi, the fundamental premise this theatre has is that the total experience in the mind of the spectators evoked, must be realistic. There are a number of stories about such dramatic situations that the Chakyars and Nangiars had created in their performances. I had often visited the Kuthambalam to see Kutiyattam about which I had heard largely through such legendary stories. But the Kutiyattam performed as part of Atiyantiram (annual routine performance) that I had seen then were all lifeless. It was only when I saw Ammannur Madhava Chakyar's performance in the Thrissur Kuthambalam, I realized that the tradition of abhinaya of Kerala is still very much alive in Kutiyattam.

The Kutiyattam that was performed was Toranayuddham. It is the third act of Bhasa's play Abhishekam that is presented as Toranayuddham. I reached there to see the performance of the last day. Ammannur Madhava Chakyar performed the ensuing scenes of Ravana who hears about the monkey that had destroyed his Asoka garden and killed his son Akshakumara and thousands of demons. He appeared as Ravana immersed in deep thought, sitting on the throne. When he sat like a hero, his eyes focused on the lit lamp. In deep contemplation; the pupils slowly moved down and I also entered into the thoughts of Ravana. The four hours of his performance depicted Ravana's strategies to protect Lanka, his victory and proclamation of suzerainty over the three worlds, the episode where Mount Kailas blocked his way when he flew away after stealing Pushpaka Vimana, his subsequent lifting of the mountain and the lover's quarrel between Siva and Parvati at that time. I do not know how time flew. His spectacular ability to perform centered on the eyes, the way the emotions generated penetrated the heart, and the hand gestures translated into the language of the soul were eventful as they tied up the three worlds in a revelation for me full of liveliness. But what saddened me most was the fact that here this art was performed by such a great artiste in front of a mere handful of people in this Kuthambalam, unknown to the majority in Kerala.

The next day, I went to Vadakkumnathan temple to meet Madhava Chakyar. He did not foresee much of a future for Kutiyattam as an art form. The payment for the performances in these temples was very meagre, so it was increasingly difficult to earn a livelihood with this. The kind of orthodox circumstances that moulded their way of life made it difficult to perform elsewhere and on top of that, the new generation was not interested in learning this. All these aspects were discussed then.

After few weeks, I went to Irinjalakuda to see Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. It was a small town with all the trappings of a village. My visit was the result of the sheer amazement that lingered in me seeing him at the height of his powers performing at the Kuthambalam of the Vadakkumnathan Temple in Thrissur. He had a resplendent body: fair, healthy with the rarity of a hint of blue eyes. He was wearing a not so clean dhoti and bath towel covered his upper body. There was no show or pretense to his prowess as an outstanding performer. When he spoke, every word and gesture reflected the nobility and aristocracy of his great tradition. Our conversation continued in the snatches of time found among his daily routine. I ate in the inner courtyard of the nalukettu at night. The simple menu of steaming rice, pappadam, mango pickle, and coconut chutney was heavenly in taste. I was given a mattress to sleep. There was no pillow or bed sheet. I spread the mattress in the passage on the south side and slept. For me this was a second birth. I was used to a life with modern amenities for three decades of my life and now was preparing to accept voluntarily a very different routine. Following this, I travelled from Thiruvananthapuram and spent at least three or four days in Irinjalakuda with Madhava Chakyar. My basic lessons were the long conversations with him. Gradually the air of formality between us vanished. Our conversation continued without interruption while watering the basil, cutting grass for the cow, or while preparing the aniyalam (costume) for Kutiyattam. At some point, I started calling him Madhamman (Madhavan uncle).

In 1977 the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in Thrissur organized a dance workshop, inviting noted dance experts in Kerala to give lecture demonstrations in the workshop. The director of the workshop was the renowned dancer Guru Gopinath, and I was appointed as one of the assistant directors. Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was invited for the face to face discussion program. He came to the workshop only after much persuasion. He tried to excuse himself by saying that he had no experience in giving speeches, but then, in the workshop he earned the affection of everyone in the way in which he answered the questions in his natural and lively manner. He first turned down the request to demonstrate abhinaya without make-up and costumes for he said that it was not permitted, then finally he yielded to our gentle persuasion and showed Karunam (pathos), one of the nine rasas. When he lifted his face after sitting in great concentration, the face throbbing with pain made the audience weep. We all felt that Madhava Chakyar's emoting without make-up was even more powerful.

As my relationship with Kutiyattam became stronger and stronger, I came to Thrissur more frequently. I was then enquiring, around for an opportunity to stay in Thrissur. It was in this period that the University of Calicut started its 'School of Drama' in Aranattukara, Thrissur. Prof. G. Sankara Pillai, the renowned dramatist who was its director, suggested my name as one of the teaching faculty. I had to teach the students traditional concepts of the theatre. Although my area is traditional theatre, contemporary theatre has always attracted me.

My stay at Thrissur proved to be a great blessing to my activities involving Kutiyattam. I became a regular visitor at the Ammannur Chakyar Madhom at Irinjalakuda. Whenever I found time, I would visit Irinjalakuda and learn hand gestures and other aspects of performance from Madhava Chakyar. My studies in those days were like that of a research scholar. The Ammannur Chakyar Madhom was and still is a very orthodox family. The social upheavals in Kerala did not really affect the family which included Parameswara Chakyar, Madhava Chakyar, his mother Sreedevi Illodamma, the four sisters of Parameswara Chakyar, their children, and his nephew Kuttan Chakyar. I gradually became a member of this family having accepted its orthodoxy with all my heart.

G. Venu and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar at the High Commission in India in London [1982]

It is the Ammannur Chakyar Madhom that has given Kutiyattam in the twentieth century to the new generation. It was in the strict environs of the school sustained for a long time by Ammannur Chachu Chakyar that Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Parameswara Chakyar trained in the art form. Madhava Chakyar gradually started showing interest in performing Kutiyattam at appropriate venues elsewhere. Although there was only thin attendance for some of these performances, this did go a long way to establish that the art form 'Kutiyattam' had not died, that it could capture the attention of the world of art.

In 1979, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar won the national award from Sangeet Natak Akademi. With this award, Kerala stood up and noticed Chakyar. He was then 62 years old and all this time he had not received any awards or citations from Kerala. I reached Delhi a week ahead to make arrangements for Chakyar's program on the eve of the award ceremony. The audience in Delhi experienced to the full the subtleties in Madhava Chakyar's performance, especially in his description of the mountain and in the way he switched roles to enact Parvati's loveliness.

G. Venu with Guru Ammannur Parameswara Chakyar (1982)

On another day, at the Triveni Kala Sangam, Chakyar performed a demonstration of the 'Chalakuvalayam' verse. This was organized by me for prominent art enthusiasts in Delhi like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kapila Vatsyayan, Premlata Puri and Usha Malik and others. The performances show how Arjuna imagines the ornamentation; he demonstrates how the maids deck Sri Krishna's sister Subhadra. Within a few days, Chakyar had become famous in Delhi. Madhava Chakyar was awarded Padma Shri in 1982. It was in the same year that his Kutiyattam troupe went on their first trip abroad. The cultural organization 'Centre South-West National Cultural Area of France' in south of France organized an international seminar and theatre festival on the theme 'Encounters North South Cultures.' I was invited to represent India and asked to choose an art form for the program. I suggested Ammannur Madhava Chakyar's Kutiyattam. Within a few days of receiving the invitation to France, Madhava Chakyar was also invited to London to participate in the Festival of India. This program was organized by the Delhi based Indian Council for Cultural Relations. So we combined our programs in France and London.

On June 20th, in Paris at Mandapa, we performed Balivadham. Milena Salvini had organized the event, and also a workshop the next day at Mandapa as part of the background work for the renowned theatre director Peter Brook and his artistes who were shortly to produce 'The Mahabharata'. The main performance was Madhava Chakyar's Parvativiraham. Following this, Kuttan Chakyar and myself demonstrated in brief the style of abhinaya in Kutiyattam. Peter Brook came to us calmly when the workshop was over and said, "I have seen Kathakali. The beauty of its concepts attracted me a lot. But I had felt that there was something missing it. Now I understand". He also said, "Although Kutiyattam represents mythical characters, what has attracted me most is the way it had in great detail internalized in its style of performance, the emotions and thoughts of ordinary people."

On July 26, at the Riverside Studio in London, we performed Balivadham. The theatre management was worried when we explained to them about Bali's death scene in the run through before the performance. The theatre director suggested, "Such an elaborate enactment of the death scene will never be appreciated by our audience. It will be better if you reduce its duration", but Madhava Chakyar who was acting as Bali did not yield to this. The theatre director could not believe what he saw, the packed audience sat with bated breath till the end of the death scene. " of the bravest and most outrageous pieces of acting I have ever seen. Who else would dare take 15 minutes to die on stage, and get away with it?..." wrote the noted theatre critic Kenneth Rae in The Guardian.

By the time we returned after our successful tour abroad, a letter came from the Sangeet Natak Akademi promising to train the new generation in Kutiyattam. The letter was sent on the advice of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. As part of the scheme for the preservation of rare art forms, it sought to give students scholarship and a token salary to the teachers. Then Madhava Chakyar said that I should take up the full responsibility of running the project. Only then does the question of starting the kalari arise, he said. But for me that was the most busy period in my life as an artiste. I was a permanent member of staff at School of Drama. Apart from that my activities with Natana Kairali and my travels also added to it. Though I had started learning acting concepts informally in Kutiyattam, I had not trained systematically. I very much desired to learn Kutiyattam regularly and systematically once the kalari was started. After thinking for many days, I decided to resign from the School of Drama and abandon my busy schedule of activity in the world of art. This risky decision to learn Kutiyattam with full concentration, free from all commitments, was well supported by my wife Nirmala, who is also an artiste. Our daughter Kapila was only six months old.

I stopped all my other activities and set out to learn Kutiyattam. It was not easy to set aside a busy professional career as an artiste that I had painstakingly built and become a full time student. I had to forego a firmly decent monthly salary and other regular income. In those days there were very few people to learn and watch Kutiyattam, I entered this field at a time when even the Chakyars had given up on their family tradition saying that it will not help them make a living.

I rented an old house opposite the Ammannur Chakyar Madhom. This house known as 'Vadakkepattom' had not been occupied for about six years. The doors were eaten away by termites and small bats hung upside down in two of the rooms. I cleaned up two rooms in that big house and made them habitable. In the middle of my first night there I woke up with a start as I heard someone walking on the attic. Since the house had not been occupied for so long, pole-cats used to climb up into the attic. The compound was full of trees. I took to liking the atmosphere in few days. The house rent was two hundred and fifty rupees per month; it was not possible to get a house for a cheaper rent in Irinjalakuda.

It was Madhava Chakyar's desire that this training program should be implemented in a Gurukulam named after his guru and uncle, Chachu Chakyar. We thus formed the 'Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam' with Madhava Chakyar as President. I became the Secretary and the Gurukulam was registered as a Charitable Society.

Since the kalari in the Chakyar Madhom was occupied by some members of the family, there was no convenient place for the training, so the Gurukulam was started in my rented house. The initiation (Vidyarambham) was on Wednesday, October 27, 1982 between 7 and 9 in the morning according to the auspicious time noted by eminent astrologer Kanipayyur Krishnan Nambudiripad. It was thus that the Gurukulam started functioning. And so the centuries old, uninterrupted Ammannur Kutiyattam Kalari was resuscitated after about twenty-five years. Parameswara Chakyar said that the training should be had in the rigorous manner of the past. He himself took the responsibility of training us in the rendition of sloka in different ragas early in the morning at 4am. This was the decision that inspired and excited all of us. He was principal student of Chachu Chakyar and also very orthodox. He used to perform Kuthu and Kutiyattam only in the Kuthambalam and during celebrations in the temple which had been fixed for the given occasion. His approach to Kutiyattam was of the strict adherent who would not deviate from tradition. So it was a revolutionary event for such a person to offer voluntarily to teach us from that day, to sleep with us and start the classes early in the morning. Madhava Chakyar taught us how to train our eyes, netrabhinaya, and also how to emote the nine sentiments (Navarasa) etc. For the training of the eye, we used to go to his house in the evening. We would sit opposite him as he prayed after his bath and start exercising our eyes and eyebrows. He would give instructions to us time and again, and so we studied hard from four in the morning till nine at night.

Our aim was to rediscover the training concept which had nurtured and groomed a rare artiste like Madhava Chakyar, the period of training decided was for fifteen years. After completing the training, the student may stay back in the Gruukulam and work permanently. If the student gets a better opportunity, he or she can leave.

For me, Ammannur Chakyar Madhom was very different atmosphere compared to my earlier circumstances. It was a world always linked and immersed in Kuthu and Kutiyattam; two prominent Gurus typically of their times whose life was a rare model of the bygone age. They would get up at four, have their bath in the pond and go for prayers at the Koodalmanikyam temple. It was routine for Madhava Chakyar to recite prayers for two hours after this and do about a hundred Surya Namaskaram and then he took breakfast.

We would get up early in the morning, wash our face and feet and then adopt the basic posture essential for loud recitation; feet equidistant, bending at the knees, energy held in the bottom of the spine, and the elbows in the same level as the shoulders, the fist rotated towards the front and then in reverse in front of the chest. The training begins with rendering slokas in the Sreekanthi raga which is suffused with the bhava of devotion. Following this, slokas in other ragas will have to be practiced. The neighbourhood would wake up to our morning rendition.

We would start training Nityakriya by 9 in the morning. Nityakriya is the Purvaranga in Kutiyattam. This whole composition is referred to as Purappad. First behind the curtain is performed Maravil kriya. This is followed with an offering of flowers in Panchpadavinayasa and proper obeisance is paid. Then the tevaram (worship of God) is performed, followed with an appearance on the stage. The Sutradhara's sloka 'Sankhakhiravapuh' in Balacharitam, Valiyokkam and Kunkunam will be followed by a description from head to toe of Siva, the Lord of the Three Worlds, and Parvathi, the Daughter of the Mountain. This is followed with paying obeisance to the Ashta dikpalas, and then floral offering and prostrations offered to the heavens, earth, underworld and all the living creatures there. This is called Nityakriya. If one is to be a performer in Kutiyattam, he or she has to learn this Purva ranga nirtha and only then can there be the first performance on the stage (Arangettam).

Since I had started training in Kathakali from the age of 11 and then continued the quest for the knowledge for 26 years, the Kutiyattam training was higher education in a sense. In all that time, I never lost the enthusiasm of a student. My Arangettam in Kutiyattam was only after learning Nityakriya. For me, my training was with a firm belief that the Arangettam is like a second birth. To the accompaniment of mizhavu drums, I practiced Nityakriya every day. Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar guided me in my training in the Kriyas. Once the Nityakriya training was over, I presented it repeatedly in Madhava Chakyar's kalari to make sure that there were no hitches. Madhava Chakyar then decided that my Arangettam can be had at the third Kutiyattam Mahotsavam. It is a practice after the establishment of the Gurukulam to have a twelve day long Kutiyattam Festival every year. The first festival was in the Kuthambalam of the Irinjalakuda Kudalmanikyam temple and the second one in the Thrissur Vadakkumnathan temple. It was when we were looking for a venue for the third festival that the office bearers of the Thiruvananthapuram based Margi expressed their willingness to provide the same. Since Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was visiting Acharya there we happily accepted their offer. The program was organized in such a way that the students and other artistes of Margi also became part of the festival. I performed the purappad of Sri Rama in Balivadham and entered the world of Kutiyattam as a performer. I was prepared for the stage by Guru Madhava Chakyar, Chathakkudam Krishnan Nambiar, Kuttan Chakyar and Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar. My friends and well-wishers had come to see my maiden performance. By coincidence, in the front row watching my performance was the renowned Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.

I have always believed that to move forward with activities related to Kutiyattam, I should become a fellow Kutiyattam artiste who has had his Arangettam according to the prescribed rules. Moreover, as a professional, I was all these days a performer and a teacher in the field of dance and theatre. It will be possible to continue in Kutiyattam in the days to come only in this manner. The Kutiyattam troupe has since become very active and receives invitations for performance from all over India and abroad.

The most salutary contribution of Kutiyattam to Kerala's performance art is the narration of story through a system of hand gestures. 'Hastabhinaya' as a branch itself evolved from the potential the hands have to express emotions. While emoting, the eyes and the mind are focused on the figures that are created in the emptiness with the hands. The connection established between the hands and the mind is what produces and sustains the natural emotions.

From the book 'Ramayana Samkshepam - Kutiyattam'

With Kutiyattam training, my research into mudras also made progress. Every day in the evening, when Guru Madhava Chakyar sat for his prayers, I would sit across from him for my training of the eye. He would interrupt his prayers and give me appropriate instructions. After that he would start narrating Ramayana Samkshepam using gestures. He would explain in detail and show very clearly the eye movement and expression for each mudra. He would often detail the advice his teacher, Bhagavatar Kunjunni Tampuran, had given to make the gestures lively. This sort of training went on for three years and only after that did I start putting down on paper the gestures in the form of notation. This is considered to be a most valuable and authoritative document relating to Kutiyattam.

I combined my studies in Kutiyattam with research and stage performance though more importance was given to stage performance and whenever I got time I continued with my work on mudras. I have written and published several books and articles on Kutiyattam, but I could write and publish one on Mudra of Kutiyattam only recently. That was Ramayana Samskhepam published in the year 2013.

Ramayana Samkshepam is the Attaprakaram for narrating the story of Ramayana through hand gestures alone. Its significance arises from the fact that all the important mudras of Kutiyattam are included in this Attaprakaram. It was in 1985 that I had completed a manuscript of the Attaprakaram after studying it thoroughly and notating all the mudras. It was one among the many notebooks I had prepared for my own personal training. While going through this manuscript many years later, it struck me that this could be published as a book. Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, my guru, who taught me Kutiyattam for many years, is no longer with us. Along with teaching me each and every mudra in this Attaprakaram, he used to share with me the memories of his own learning experiences at the Gurukula of the past days. Those days spent listening to him were the most meaningful in my entire life so far. That great actor not only demonstrated each mudra to me through his unparalleled histrionic prowess, but also explained to me in quite an informal manner the meaning of those mudras also. So, each and every mudra, for me, carries with it, the warm memories of my great Master.

My initiation to the study of different art forms began in the year 1955; now at my twilight days I have become a Kutiyattam artiste. I reside at Irinjalakuda, Ammannur Chakyar Madhom. The long journey was never an easy one. Now, when I look back, I know that it was an unusual and exciting experience. I travelled extensively to meet artistes and teachers for the purpose of my studies, research work and performance.

Attempts were made in every period through which Indian dance and theatre emerged, to streamline and to document the fundamental concepts. Perhaps it can be claimed that the largest of such collections is found in India. Without any hesitation, it can be said that one of the great wonders of the world of dance and theatre is Bharata's Natya Sastra. Though the treatise on Natya composed prior to Bharata are not available to us, it may be said that our serious attempts to analyse and study Natya and document such an endeavour has history as old as Indian theatre itself. Following the footsteps of the Natya Sastra, in Sanskrit and other regional languages many treatises were written about dance and theatre. In all these works we will be able to find elaborations on dance and theatre styles and concepts that were in vogue in those times. When we read these works closely, we will find that these treatises were composed by those who had practical knowledge in these styles. It also had to be added here that our ancestors wrote in detail what they were convinced was endemic and rare knowledge essential for the sustenance and growth of art. This was their gift to the future generations. My collection of hand gestures is a small drop in that vast ocean of knowledge.

G. Venu is a performer, researcher and has invented a dance notation system for delineating mudra in dance and theatre in Kerala. He has also devised 'Navarasa sadhana' module as a transformative process for artistes seeking a deeper insight to the depths and diversity of human emotions. He is the Chairman, Natanakairali, Ammannur Chakyar Madhom, Irinjalakuda.

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