Beyond new contemporary works, the Esplanade’s annual Kalaa Utsavam also regularly features traditional arts in its lineup, and 2017 is no different. This year, we had the rare privilege of watching master koodiyattam practitioner Kapila Venu perform the ancient, UNESCO-recgonized art form.
A little background information for the unfamiliar: koodiyattam is a 2,000 year old theatrical tradition originating from Kerala, India. Often performed in temples, the koodiyattam tradition was essentially a part of daily life, an educational experience as performers told epic stories originating from Sanskrit mythology and histories.
Kapila’s koodiyattam performance took on a specific style – the nangiarkoothu, a solo narrative performance by a female (the Nangiar), using gestures and abhinaya (facial expression) to tell her tale and play various characters. This evening, we were treated to the story of Koormavataram: Incarnation of the Great Turtle, where the Lord Krishna took on the form of a great turtle and created the drink of immortality (amrita) as he churned the milk ocean.
As the performance began, musicians Kalamandalam Rajeev, Kalamandalam Narayanan Nambiar (both on the Mizhavu) and Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan (on the Edakka) opened with a steady beat before Kapila emerged from the wings, dressed head to toe in an elaborate costume. Donning a red and white outfit, a heavy looking headdress, and decked out in gold jewelry and flower garlands, she took her place in front of an actual burning torch, staring deep into the flames as she began, transforming the annexe studio into a temple for one evening.
Most of the one-hour performance is wordless, with Kapila only opening her mouth to speak at the beginning and end while allowing her actions and accompanying music to speak for her instead. Throughout the performance, Kapila’s eyes were the main draw – her eyebrows moving up and down, widening her gaze with a manic energy that seethes with life and expression, a key part of the tradition known as netrabhinaya (expressions of the eyes). One is completely mesmerized by her small but precise actions, each gesture representing something far greater, every mime and twitch contributing to our ability to practically see and envision characters in her mind’s eye. There’s a real sense of ritual as the drumbeats crescendo, rapid and feverish as Kapila mimes the churning of the milk ocean. Seeing Kapila pace back and forth from the torch as she ‘pulls’ the churn, exerting such force that she collapses from the effort was a highlight, and we eagerly anticipated her every move.
It’s easy to see why koodiyattam is such a revered, ancient art form – no one could have achieved such a tight performance without plenty of training (Kapila has trained since she was 7). Watching Kapila’s face take on a thousand expressions was all the proof that the eyes are the window to the soul; a medium channeling such ancient, spiritual energy in her entire body that we were left completely spellbound.
Photos Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 18/11/17
Kalaa Utsavam 2017 takes place from 17th – 26th November at the Esplanade. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here