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From law to theatre

A scene from "Theyya Theyyam"

Kavalam is a small village in Alapuzha (erstwhile Alleppey) of south-central Kerala. Kavalam brings to mind contemporary Malayalam and Sanskrit theatre due to Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, recently the Vice-Chairman of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Kavalam has written 26 Malayalam plays (like "Sakshi", "Daivathar", "Avanavan Katampa", "Tiruvazhittan", "Ottayan", "Karimkutty", "Theyya Theyyam", "Poranadi", "Jabalasatyakaman", "Kallurutty", and "Kalivesham"), in addition to his translations of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", Jean Paul Sartre's "Trojen Women" and Sanskrit plays like Bodhayana's "Bhagavadajjukam" into Malayalam. He has directed in Sanskrit Bhasa's "Madhyama Vyayogam", "Karnabharam", "Urubhangam", "Swapna Vasavadatham", "Pratima" and "Charudatham" and Kalidasa's "Shakuntalam" and "Vikramorvasiyam. These were presented both in India, including Kalidas Samaroh at Ujjain, and abroad.

Kavalam Narayana Panikkar

He is the recipient of innumerable awards and honours for his contribution to Indian theatre — National Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Nandikar Award, fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi New Delhi and Kalidas Samman to name a few. Excerpts from an interview with K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN:

From a lawyer to a full time playwright and director equally at ease in both Sanskrit and Malayalam theatre and a renowned poet, how was this transition for you?

Poetry was my first passion, inspired by my surroundings. I was from a landlord family that followed the matriarchal system. Though I was never interested in legal profession, family compulsion put me in the law college; I became a lawyer. I practised at Alapuzha for about six years. However, the folk arts of the region influenced me. During the late 1950s I wrote and directed my first play "Panchayat" in which I acted a role too. In 1961, I became the full-time Secretary of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi, leaving the lawyer profession.

You are the only one who has been the Secretary of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi for 10 years, from 1961 to 1971. What was your priority?

It was not a mere job for me with lavish weekends and holidays. I shifted to Thrissur and worked round the clock and spent most of my time with great artists. Legendary artists and scholars like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Chachu Chakyar, Mani Madhava Chakyar, Attoor Krishna Pisharody, M.D. Ramanathan (MDR), Nattakam Velu Pillai, Njaralath Rama Poduval were documented for the archives. The pristine songs of Krishnattam were also documented.

What inspired you to become a playwright and director?

My interest in the folk songs and arts brought me closer to poetry and later theatre. In 1964 I started "Kuthambalam" at Alapuzha. After I shifted to Trivandrum, tha name was changed to "Sopanam".

How did you get interested in Sopana Sangeetam, the musical tradition of Kerala?

It was not completely extinct. As applied discipline, it remained vibrant in Kathakali, Krishnattam. I found the rich tala (rhythm) patterns in Kerala's folk arts captivating. The Thullal poems of the great Malayalam poet Kunjan Nambiar sent me in the right directions to probe the practising folk music of Kerala. Moreover, my theatre work also prompted me to experiment in this direction.

You are a strong advocate of Sopana Sangeetam for Mohiniyattam and played a crucial role in reviving it. Why?

It was at the insistence of late Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Chairperson of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, that I took interest in reviving the traditional repertoire of Mohiniyattam. Kamaladeviji learnt of my interest in Sopana Sangeetam and asked me to do something for women's performing art forms of Kerala. She liked the Nangiarkoothu performance of Subadra Nangiaramma that I arranged in Tripunithura (Kochi) and later asked me to do something serious for Mohiniyattam, which was imitating the repertoire and music pattern of Bharatanatyam. She felt that the organic relationship between movement and music was lost in Mohiniyattam as it used Carnatic music as its accompaniment.

For any artiste, whether in theatre or dance, you always insist on training in Kalaripayattu. Why?

Training in Kalari basics helps develop stage presence. It is training in basic exercises to keep the body in proper control. It's a must for theatre people as well. It helps maintain the concept of sarira bhava (expression of the body). Manipur has been able to maintain a strong tradition of dance because of its roots in the regional martial system "Thangtha".

UNESCO has recently recognised Koodiyattam as an oral and intangible heritage of humanity. What about follow-up when there is lack of artistes and space for performance, apart from audience? Do you think that the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi can do something?

We cannot ignore the fact that the Chakyars as a community are on the verge of extinction. Artists from outside the caste are generally not welcomed to perform. So the next step should be to encourage members from other communities to take up the art. This trend is already on and we expect more inputs in this direction.

Koodiyattam cannot be made a popular art and it is not for thousands of people to see at a time, but it should be made people friendly with due rehabilitation. Arts are of two types, open for all and only for a few. The latter has a decisive function in creating new sense of appreciation.

Also we lack space. Where is the space for performance unless we create space? Existing Koothambalams (traditional theatre for performance) are not open to all, due to rigorous dictates of the orthodoxy. We need a few theatre houses with a congenial atmosphere in tune with the local architecture of the land.

I would like the UNESCO to also recognise Theyyam as an integral part of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

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