Lessons from Kutiyattam

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on June 06, 2021

Steady gaze: The eyes play an important role in Kutiyattam, in which seeing and imagining is the foundation for everything, including the navarasas   -  THE HINDU/ KARUNAKARAN M

Zoom lessons on the ancient dance open up a trove of artistic antiquity and wisdom

* A quick online search gave me the genesis of this course formulated by Venu G

* The exercises in rasa proved that there could be no theatre without form

* Psychological realism did not start with Stanislavski. It started a little earlier by a couple of thousand years with Kutiyattam


About 20 years ago, I had my first experience of a Kutiyattam performance. This was arranged as part of a seminar in Thrissur that I had attended. The venue was an exterior space, and it was a still summer night. Once the performer made her entry, the stillness of the night extended to the performer’s presence behind the ceremonial lamp, seated on the traditional bench throughout yet so compelling.

What followed was an experience in the theatre that I have never had before. Images flashed before my eyes of Krishna entering Dwarka and his biological mother, Devaki, seeing him for the first time as a young man. Although, in fact, all that was in front of me was a lit lamp and a performer masked by elaborate costume and make-up. The earthy colours of the costume, the beating of the mizhavu and the dual flames from the oil lamp directed you towards the performer’s eyes. There was a whole world of storytelling, emotions and actions told in the language of gesture and eye movement.

Last month I chanced upon a flyer announcing an online course titled ‘Navarasa Sadhana’ by Guru Venu G. Anyone familiar with traditional Kerala theatre will know of Venu G or Venuji as he is fondly called. A friend of mine had joined a workshop some years before at Venu G’s school Natana Kairali in Irinjalakuda, a small town in Kerala. But an online course? I was curious more than anything else when I applied for the course. Apparently, the batch was full, and I was fortunate to get in at the last minute. The course turned out to be, both literally and figuratively, an eye-opener!

A quick online search gave me the genesis of this course formulated by Venu G. The module celebrated its 50th batch just a month I joined. This sadhana is unique because it draws from one of the world’s oldest dramaturgical texts and Kerala’s vibrant folk traditions. Kutiyattam literally means ‘performing with the other’. But this course was clearly not a basic Kutiyattam exercise. To learn the oldest living theatrical form would take a lifetime. Venu G has specifically designed this to meet the actors’ training method for modern times. In most of the urban drama schools that I have taught in or visited, teaching systems have a foundation in Euro-centric methodology, mostly Stanislavski, Lecoq and Michael Chekhov. So the importance of this course and its proposed practice as a training tool was not lost.

On the first day, I felt a wave of excitement when Guruji introduced us to the famed Kalamandalam Hariharan, who would play the mizhavu for us in class. What a privilege! The opening lesson engaged us with our imagination in an instant. We were asked to imagine the lamp in front of us. The zoom barrier was broken, and I felt the aura of the Master. The lesson in imagination continued. A simple vertical movement of the eyes gained enormous significance when we were told to look up at the sky and down into a deep well. My imagination and my eye took a tremendous leap into the unknown with what followed. Guruji asked us to stay with the vertical movement of the eye, but now to see Heaven above and lower down the netherworld. A subtle shift forward or a straightening of the spine while looking down suggested the height and depth of these polarities, but the eye had to see it to be truthful. This first and basic lesson of seeing and imagining was the foundation for everything to come, including the navarasas.

The famous sutra by Bharata states that vibhava (causes), anubhava (consequences) and vyabhichari bhava (transient moods and states of mind) when combined, would ensure the generation of rasa — the ultimate aesthetic experience for an audience. I did have a rough understanding of the 33 transient moods before, but the few that Guruji assigned to us as homework opened up so many possibilities. The first assignment was on experiencing nirveda or despondency. We were told to make a video recording of our exercise and share it during class. All students shared diverse experiences. The Master never gave us feedback. Nor did he ask us to reveal the source of evoking nirveda. He was not interested in delving into the private world of the individual. Therapy is not the purpose of training. Each individual has to draw from their own imagination or experience and discover the truth for themselves. This small experiment proved that psychological realism did not start with Stanislavski. It started a little earlier by a couple of thousand years with Kutiyattam. I cannot claim to have fully understood this complex relationship between manodharma (heart-felt experiences) and natyadharma (the theatre conventions). Still, these simple discourses open the mind to myriad possibilities. That is the kind of wisdom Venu G’s teaching possesses. Arriving at simple truths that resonate and help send the artist on their journey.

The exercises in rasa proved that there could be no theatre without form. Acting needs the body, the text, and the environment (angik, vaachik, aharya abhinaya). The playing of the mizhavu, with its varying tempos and intensity provided the perfect environment to transcend the barriers of virtual classrooms. There were some interesting choices for text, showing Venu G’s progressiveness. For example, to portray the rasa of heroism, he chose the scene where Ravana lifts Kailash mountain. When one of the students asked him if Ravana’s pride needs to be conveyed, he gave an insightful thesis on the egocentric nature of all heroes! The bulk of the exercise on veerarasa (heroism) was Ravana’s gaze at the mountain, the scale of the task being an experience in itself. There was hardly any movement except for Ravana looking at the mountain’s girth, height, and valley depth. The mizhavu stirred feelings in me that I have never felt before. The intense beating rising to a crescendo provided a pathway to imagining the might and arrogance of this hero. Sometimes I wonder whether the meaning of Kutiyattam is not what transpires between two or more actors on stage but draws attention to the special relationship between the beating of the mizhavu and the performer. The two are inseparable in this form.

This short workshop raised some fundamental questions for me. Here I am practising a certain kind of cantonment theatre with very impoverished roots, and a treasure trove of artistic antiquity and wisdom lays open before me. Urban theatre artists like me must learn to exploit the riches lying in our own ancestral backyard.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

Published on June 06, 2021

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