This dancer is keeping India’s oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre alive
As the first woman performer from outside the community that conventionally performs two antique Kerala arts, Kalamandalam Girija has a handful of credits as a senior exponent of Koodiyattam—India’s oldest-surviving Sanskrit theatre—and the solo Nangiar Koothu.
The teenage student was readying for a performance when she thought of an addition to the costume: wear a pyjama beneath the frilled clothing extending till the toes. In the greenroom, Kalamandalam Girija asked her guru with trepidation, “Can I?”
Aged Painkulam Rama Chakiar agreed readily. “The master stood for changes if you had a solid reason,” recalls Girija, now 58. “It’s not comfortable to flash your legs even down your knees while presenting an antique art.”
Girija had by then anyway made history: she was the first woman performer outside the Chakiar community that traditionally presents Koodiyattam, which is the country’s oldest-surviving Sanskrit theatre.
Her entry into the field in the early 1970s also marked a revival of an off-shoot of the two-millennium-old Koodiyattam. Called Nangiarkoothu, it is a solo classical form that typically portrays Hindu mythological stories of Lord Krishna.
Given that the two Dravidian arts from Kerala have led a cocooned existence over centuries, conservatism ruled their aesthetics moulded by practitioners from the minuscule temple-allied Chakiars—their women being called Nangiars. Thus, the use of pyjamas could go down as a sign of audacity. But not with Rama Chakiar (1905-80).
“My guru always stood for good changes that kept the form tuned to changing times. He welcomed suggestions,” Girija notes, as she narrates the “pyjama incident” of 1975 at central Kerala’s Kalamandalam, where she performed as Lalita in Shoorpanakhangam.
The budding artiste was then 17 years old, having joined the institution near Shoranur in 1971. That monsoon ended a drought of girl students the state’s premier performing-arts institute was facing in the Koodiyattam department, which it opened in 1965.
“Both my parents, though, had an art background,” points out Girija, who hails from Kadavallur, a village that hosts an annual Vedic contest called Anyonyam at its Sri Rama temple on the Thrissur-Malappuram border. The father, Pakshiyil Narayanan Moosad, was a practitioner of the bilingual purana-narrating art called Pathakam, while the mother, Devaki Manayamma, used to lead Kaikottikkali where women sing and dance in circles.
Such cultural links drew the family to routine Koodiyattam shows at a temple in hilly Venganellur, where Rama Chakiar used to perform. “My father and he were friends. One day, Chakiar asked him if he could send me to Kalamandalam. That is how I became his student,” says Girjia, who was in Delhi recently to stage a two-evening show for the Sangeet Natak Akademi, which also shot a detailed interview with her.
Far from being a strict disciplinarian, Chakiar turned out to be an affectionate teacher for the diminutive girl. “His classes had a definite method, but there was a lot of flexibility. He employed little tricks that helped us students practise tough hand gestures and footwork,” notes Girija, who studied in the 1930-founded Kalamandalam for nine years—two-third of which was spent on graduation. “In 1980, just before I completed a year’s scholarship, my guru died.”
Rama Chakiar breathed his last after pioneering a momentous assignment. He took Koodiyattam overseas. Leading a troupe of artistes of the theatre that had for long been just his community’s preserve performed only in select Kerala temples, the maestro introduced its grandeur to audiences in half-a-dozen European countries over a three-month tour.
“I was part of that mission to Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland, Switzerland and France. Our shows were well received by a range of audiences. We returned in June—my guru died next month. We got another Europe tour the next year and then to America in 1982,” says Girija, who had by then got a fellow girl student: Kalamandalam Shailaja.
In that first trip to Europe, Rama Chakiar ensured that the two girl students got sufficiently long roles as female characters on the stage. They used to routinely enact a 30-minute scene: ‘Udyana Varnana’ (describing the garden) as heroine Vasantasena and maid Parabhrutika in the hilarious play Bhagavadajjukam.
Girija, who taught in her alma mater for 33 years before retiring in 2014, had a momentous tryst with 1,500-year-old Nangiar Koothu as well. She became the first non-Nangiar artiste to perform the art that has percussion assistance from two drums—pot-shaped mizhavu and hourglass-like edakka—besides a lady on the side to keep the time with tiny cymbals and recite the shlokas on which the main artiste expands the narration.
Her debut Nangiar Koothu was at her alma mater—in 1984. It was also the first stage Nangiar Koothu got outside a temple. In 1987, Girija married Vijaya Kumar, son of famed theatre-person Madavur Bhasi. The couple’s daughter and son-in-law are artistes: Shalini performs Nangiar Koothu; Harikrishnan Menon plays the edakka.
Girija won the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award in 2001—the year Unesco declared Koodiyattam as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Girija without her traditional make-up.
Post her retirement, Girija runs an institute close to Kalamandalam in Cheruthuruthy, where she has settled. ‘Mrunmaya’ has a handful of young students.
Girija’s experimental spirit continues. She enriched the largely neglected ‘Bhagavati Pravesham’ (Entry of the Goddess) in ancient playwright Bhasa’s ‘Balacharitam’ and the Bhima-Draupadi episode in Bhattanarayana Kavi’s ‘Veni Samharam’. In 2014, she and Shalini paired to perform as the rivers Murala and Tamasa in a play penned by 8th-century scholar Bhavabhuti.
She also brought back to the Koodiyattam stage a famed act called Prakkum Koothu—where a character is seen flying—using novel techniques. “In 2013, with the consent of experts, I used a crane to enact the scene” from the 7th-century play Naganandam. Further, Girija brought back from near-oblivion the Ozhukunna Nangiar scene showing the actress in make-belief floating in 11th-century dramaturgist Kulashekhara Varman’s play Tapati Samvaranam.
Scholar KK Gopalakrishnan says the innovative mindset of Rama Chakiar sustains reflection in his prime disciple, Girija.