How the winds of social change helped Kutiyattam move out of the confines of the Kuttambalams or the temple stages and garner new formats and followers.

Kutiyattam is a Sanskrit drama form that is based in the State of Kerala in India. Kutiyattam is described as the ‘oldest of the still performed Indian dance theatre’ (Schechner, 2003, p. 311). Its antecedents go back in time to more than 2000 years (UNESCO, 2012). However, the codified version of the theatre form can be traced to the period of Kulashekhara, the ancient king who ruled from Kodungallur in Kerala from 978 to 1036 AD.

The term ‘Kutiyattam’ in Malayalam language, which means ‘combined acting’ or ‘acting together’, involves at least two actors/ actresses performing together during the final days of a performance cycle ‘which is after several days of inserted flashbacks presented by the single character’(Moser, 2013, p. 245).

Aesthetics and Performance Systems

Kutiyattam combines three strands of traditions, namely ‘Bharata’s ‘Natya Sastra’, the Hindu temple culture and the ‘Kavu’ or sacred place associated with the traditional homesteads of Kerala (Poulose, 2006, pp. 109–10). Thus, Kutiyattam blends sacral, ritualistic, and aesthetics precepts and represents a healthy synthesis of the Great and Little Traditions of India.

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In the distant past, a Kutiyattam performance was long- drawn, which stretched for many days (Lowthorp,2013 a). In the year 2001, UNESCO declared Kutiyattam as the intangible heritage of humankind. The overriding factor that guided UNESCO in its decision was the antiquity and the unique aesthetic essence of the theatre form (Damodaran & Chavis, 2017).

Traditionally, Kutiyattam was performed only by the ‘Chakyars’, ‘Nambiars’, and the ‘Nangiars’. The Chakyars were the principal male actors, while the Nangiars adorned female roles. The Nambiars handled percussion instruments (including Mizhavu, the quaint Kutiyattam Drum) (Gopalakrishnan, 2011, pp. 110– 15).

Complementing Kutiyattam are the two variants of solo performance, namely ‘Chakyar Kuthu’ and ‘Nangiar Kuthu’ performed by the Chakyars (male artistes) and the Nangiars (female artistes), respectively. The aesthetic essence of a Kutiyattam performance involves narration through a recitation of verses that complements its choreography (Appukuttan Nair, D. 1995, cited in Gopalakrishnan, 2011, p. 111).

A Kutiyattam performance which used to run for many days in the past has been reduced to just an act which is in these days presented in a brief session of about to two to three hours. The actor recites the verse according to canons of musical rendering and backs it with hand gestures to the accompaniment of the percussion drum called the ‘Mizhavu’ and the sounds of the cymbals. The real beauty of Kutiyattam is that, despite its canonization, each performance of the same work by a performer is different and carries its own character when it comes to creative expression.

This is because actors have considerable latitude to ‘deviate from the basic text and compose their own verses to introduce the character’ (Paulose, 2006, p. 160) …


The Kutiyattam repertoire is a brilliant assortment of outstanding plays mainly written by King Kulashekhara apart from Bhasa’s plays. Plays of Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, and Vishakadutta did not figure in the conventional scheme of things. However, with the advent of the Kutiyattam Department at the Kerala Kalamandalam in the 1960s, Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam entered the Kutiyattam performance repertory.

Saktibhadra’s ‘Ascharya choodamani’ or (Wonder Crest Jewel) that dates to the eighth century AD has been and continues to be a great favorite of Kutiyattam performers. The popular play Balivadham (slaying of Bali) is an adapted version of Bhasa’s Abhishek Nataka, while Asokavanikaankam, Mayasitaankam, and Balivadham are some of the most enacted works.

In recent times, the Kutiyattam repertory has widened with efforts to cast even Shakespeare’s works such as King Lear in the Kutiyattam drama format. There have also concerted attempts to revive the performance of plays that have for long been extinct on the stage as well as to stage plays like Abhijnanasakuntala which were never staged before.

Performance Space: Theatre

The Kutiyattam theatre or stage (referred to in the Malayalam language as Kuttambalam or the temple where Kutiyattam is performed) was traditionally located inside a few Hindu temples located in Central and South Kerala. In the traditional caste hierarchy of Kerala, the Namboodiri Brahmins were at the apex of the pyramid with the Chakyars and Nambiars and Nairs following them in the order of social hierarchy. The remaining castes fell in the category of backward and untouchable endogamous groups. The right to perform Kutiyattam was traditionallyopen only to the Chakyars and Nambiars. According to Painkulam Rama Chakyar, there were 18 Chakyar families that performed Kutiyattam in the past.

By the latter half of twentieth century, the winds of social change caused Kutiyattam presentations to move outside temples (Lowthorp,2013 a & b). These social changes were intended to remove its sacred nature and enlarge the art form to reach a wider class of learners and audience (Damodaran & Chavis, 2017). The change paralleled efforts to open the right to perform Kutiyattam to all castes. Thus, while temple- based performance continued as in past, there was a systematic effort to have Kutiyattam performance conducted outside temples as well, in modern performing stages, that were, architecturally speaking, different from Koothambalams.

Simultaneous to the trend of re- location of Kutiyattam performance, came the trend of introducing education and training in Kutiyattam under the aegis of modern performing arts institutions such as the Kerala Kalamandalam. The Kalamandalam was set up in 1930 by Kerala’s pre-eminent poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon, as a centre of learning and training in performing arts. Today it is recognized as a deemed University. In 1965, 35 years after its establishment, a Kutiyattam wing was set up in Kerala Kalamandalam under the tutelage of Painkulam Rama Chakyar, the doyen of the traditional Kutiyattam school at Painkulam. PK Narayanan Nambiar, affiliated with Mani Madhava Chakyar’s Kutiyattam school, joined Rama Chakyar as the head of the percussion department.

The choice of Painkulam Rama Chakyar as the prime Guru for the Kutiyattam school in Kerala Kalamandalam was appropriate, as he was one of the bold insiders who had dared to perform Kutiyattam outside temple premises in the early 1960s, much to the consternation of the conservatives of Kerala. Also, it was under the leadership of Painkulam Rama Chakyar that the Kerala Kalamandalam took the initiative of admitting non-Chakyars and non- Nambiars students for education and training in Kutiyattam.

The architecture of Kuttambalams is characterized by double roof trellis reefs and beams (Vatsyayan, 1989). The stage or Natyamandapa of a Koothambalam is an elevated square platform that is overlooked by a pyramidal roof, which in turn is supported by pillars (Vatsyayan, 1989). In the 1970s, the idea of staging Kutiyattam outside temple premises in theatres/ stages modelled on Koothambalams gained currency. The venue chosen for the location of the model theatre was Kerala Kalamandalam.

The Koothambalam theatre or performance venue located at the Kerala Kalamandalam institution differs from the western idea of a proscenium stage. It is highly conducive to the presentation of Kutiyattam and other classical dances. All the same, it differs from traditional temple- based theatres in some major respects. The first feature is the engraving of 108 dance forms on the pillars of the natyamandala/stage of the theatre. The other features of the Kerala Kalamandalam theatre include the presence of an elaborate green room, the presence of mural paintings adorning its wall facing the stage, and the open nature of the theatre that permits circulation of air and sunlight.

However, Nair’s later work, which was the Kalakshetra Theatre/ Natyagraha in Chennai, India, located at the premises of the Kalakshetra Institution in Chennai, is based on the cosmos principle of Bharatha’s Natyasastra and embodies a different philosophical dimension.32 The stage of the Kalakshetra theatre was conceived as a chariot resting on its wheels, which conveyed the idea of circularity and time cycle. In many ways, Bharata’s concept of a nonfunctional theatre reflects the aesthetics of the purposeless, spontaneous, cosmos protecting dance of Lord Siva, described by Coomaraswamy (1985, pp. 63– 64).

Modernization Trends

The four schools of Kerala that practise Kutiyattam today are the Ammanur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam (at Irinjalakkuda in Trissur District), Mani Madhava Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam (at a place called Lakkidi in Palghat District), Painkulam Rama Chakyar Smaraka Kalapeedam (in Trissur District), and the Pothiyil Gurukulam (in Kottayam).

In the past, these schools were closed family- based units that largely followed the Gurukula system of teaching, whereby the teacher and his/ her pupils studied, trained, lived, and performed together. Teachers and students from the four schools were closely knit not only on account of belonging to the designated castes of performers (Chakyars and Nambiars) but also on account of filial, kinship, and affinal links.

As mentioned earlier, the two dimensions of modernity that overtook Kutiyattam since the 1970s involved the opening of the art form to nontraditional performers (Lowthorp, 2013a; Moser, 2013) and the advent of short, capsuled ‘dramatic’ presentations, which were mostly undertaken during evening hours to attract an audience (Gopalakrishnan, 2011). As an extension of the strategy of saving the art form, came the effort to take Kutiyattam to Trivandrum (the capital of the State of Kerala).

G Venu established Natana Kairaliin 1975 to promote Kerala’s traditional dance art forms including Kutiyattam

A school by name the ‘Margi’ was established in 1970 in Trivandrum. This theatre was followed by the establishment of ‘Natana Kairali’ by the veteran artiste and scholar, G. Venu in the year 1975. Two more institutions of Kutiyattam followed, namely the ‘International Centre for Kutiyattam’ in 1995 and the theatre ‘Nepathya’ set up in 1998 by the former Guru at Margi, the venerable Moozhikkulam Kochukuttan Chakyar and his son Margi Madhu Chakyar (who is an alumnus of Margi).

Read: A review of ‘Arangilum, Munnilum Pinnilum’ by G Venu

Margi Madhu, Margi Sathi, G. Venu, and Kapila Venu have been some of the outstanding artistes who have come up in the era of modernization. The more positive aspect of the modernization era was the advent of new Kutiyattam choreographies and dance manuals by Margi Madhu, G. Venu, and Margi Sathi (Gopalakrishnan, 2011, pp. 145– 47). Indeed, maestro Margi Madhu went on to choreograph the Kutiyattam version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Damodaran & Chavis, 2017).

Excerpted with permission from Managing Arts in Times of Pandemics and Beyond published by Oxford University Press

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