Age-old dances of koodiyattam and nangiarkoothu carried on by a new generation

We talk to Sooraj Nambiar, Aparna Nangiar and Saritha Krishnakumar – the leading young faces of an Indian art form that is 2,000 years old.

They are the leading young faces of an Indian art form that is 2,000 years old.

Sooraj Nambiar, Aparna Nangiar and Saritha Krishnakumar are three of the young artists who are proud torchbearers of koodiyattam, a form of Sanskrit theatre. And they are keen to spread appreciation of it around the world.

Koodiyattam is known for its elaborate costumes, dramatic make-up and highly stylised “abhinaya” or facial expressions and gestures. Mastering this traditional Kerala classical theatre style is no easy task – it involves years of physical training and lessons in the ancient language of Sanskrit.

So how did these young artists become involved?

“I started learning when I was 10,” says Nambiar, who is now in his early 30s. “The Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam in Kerala’s Irinjalakuda town was scouting for new students and the eminent koodiyattam artist Venu G asked my grandmother to enrol me there – and before I knew it, koodiyattam became a part of me.”

Traditionally, koodiyattam was taught in the “gurukula” tradition, in which students lived with their teachers and dedicated their life to the art. Nambiar’s training closely followed this.

“We had an early morning class at 4am, so we slept at our guru’s house,” he says. “But my house was nearby and we attended regular school as well,” he says. “From 4am to 6am was ‘sadhakam’ – firming the body by standing on bent feet with a straight back while reciting Sanskrit verses.”

This was followed by yoga sessions. At weekends or during the summer holidays from school, more time was devoted to koodiyattam.

“During holidays, from 9.30am to noon was time for ‘choliyattam’, where we learnt parts of plays and new characters,” says Nambiar, who now teaches at the gurukalam. “Then from 2.30pm to 3.30pm we had Sanskrit classes. At about 8pm we did ‘kannasadhakam’, or eye exercises for an hour.”

Aparna Nangiar, who was born into the illustrious Ammanur family of koodiyattam greats, started learning the dance at the age of 7. She has done her M.Phil and PhD in Sanskrit, too.

“Koodiyattam is heavy on dialogue or ‘vachikabhinaya’ and therefore sound knowledge of the language is essential to carry it forward,” says Nangiar, who also teaches at the gurukalam.

Nangiar and Krishnakumar, who is in her late 20s, are also devoted to nangiarkoothu, a women-only offshoot of koodiyattam that emerged in the 10th century.

“Since Nangiarkoothu is a solo act, we get more freedom and space to experiment, with creative liberties, and also add to the feminine narrative,” says Krishnakumar.

Like their gurus, the younger generation of performers strive to showcase koodiyattam on international stages and at theatre workshops.

Nambiar represented India at the World Theatre Project in Sweden in 2009, where he worked with actors and directors from countries such as China, Indonesia, Italy and Mozambique. His acting prowess in the nine-hour staging of the classical play Shakuntalam in Paris earned him high praise.

Nangiar and Krishnakumar have showcased koodiyattam and nangiarkoothu in several countries, including South Korea, Malaysia and Japan.

“Only when you interact with varying cultures and artists do you understand your own art form in greater depth,” says Nambiar, who has been conducting workshops in schools and colleges.

Nangiar is a big believer in fresh ideas, having choreographed new plays, including Navarasa. "But only if you learn the old traditions with utmost discipline can you develop new ideas and compositions," she says.

Koodiyattam faces grave challenges, including fewer dedicated students and smaller audiences in India – the results of increased materialism, shorter attention spans and the lack of economic security.

“Everyone wants maximum results in minimum time, and that’s a problem, because one has to devote at least 15 years to achieve anything in this field,” says Nambiar. “Secondly, there’s no guarantee about the monetary benefits. We currently have the means of livelihood but the future is uncertain.”

So how has this affected the performance of koodiyattam?

“The most visible change is the time factor,” says Nangiar. “Plays enacted in four to five hours are being staged in around two hours. It’s challenging to trim it down without diluting its essence.”

There has also been a huge change in the way it is taught.

“Students now spend just about two hours a day on koodiyattam,” she says. “We learnt according to our guru’s convenience – now it’s the other way round.”

As for the audiences, Nambiar says: “Kerala sees very poor attendance. But we find bigger audiences outside [India]. In fact, more people turn up in Dubai than in Kerala.

“We do koodiyattam for the sake of koodiyattam. It’s our belief that if you sincerely carry forward this rich legacy, the art won’t let you down.”

• Sooraj Nambiar, Aparna Nangiar and Saritha Krishnakumar will perform and give talks as part of the International Koodiyattam and Kathakali Festival. For more information, visit www.traditionslive.org

artslife@thenational.ae