THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Three men in a rustic performing attire tap their feet in tune with the percussion instruments ‘thudi’ and cennala (chengila). A perfect rendition of ‘Chemmanakali’, the folk dance-drama of the Pulaya community in North Kerala gets a superb start. The origin of the art form can be traced back to ‘Kannalkalambattu’, a mystic ritual performed to cast away evil spirits from expecting mothers and women who failed to conceive. The art, performed during the intervals of ‘Kannalkalambattu’ in the early days, has now been merely reduced to a performing art form related to agriculture. Loaded with the glee of celebration after cultivation, they sing and dance to enjoy after working hard for hours. “Though it starts as a folk dance-drama, it takes the form of ‘theyyam’ as it draws to a conclusion with gods emerging out of fire,” says V Jayarajan, Chairman of Folkland on the sidelines of a ‘Chemmanakali’ performance held in the city as part of the recently concluded Thiruvananthapuram International Book Fair.
The thematic song on agriculture and harvesting brings to the fore stories related to exploitation and disloyalty. “It mainly relates to the arrival of ‘Pulayas’ from a foreign country to Kerala. They are deployed as the employees of ‘Kolathiri’, the ruler of the erstwhile princely state Kolathunadu. The tale develops from there,” explains K Kumaran, a veteran Chemmanakali artist.
The performance is centred around the Pulayas who arrive into a coastal land in Northern Kerala following a ship wreck. With the intervention of Mavilankannan, an overseer associated with the King, they are given jobs in an arable land where shifting cultivation is performed. These men turn jobless soon after the harvest. Distressed cultivators get inebriated and engage in a duel with the overseer. On returning home Mavilankannan finds his wife’s illicit relationship with a Muslim vendor and the enraged overseer sets the home ablaze. In the fire the Pulaya farmers too die. “It can be interpreted that besides his own home, he burnt the neighbouring homes too in anger. The jobless farmers in those homes die in the fire and emerge as gods,” says Jayarajan.
A ‘Chemmanakali’ performance comprises ten artists, four to sing the song and play percussion instruments and six on stage to present the dance-drama. The artists on stage appear in a particular outfit. The three men in the beginning wear a waistband with hangings of ‘Nuchal’ barks, a wild plant. The performers cover the head with a white towel. A bronze ornament embedded on a red band called ‘thalappadi’ is tied around the forehead. Each wear a tinkling anklet on the right leg. Two wooden plates, worn as artificial ears is supported by a band called ‘Chennimalaru’ on both sides. Colourful spots are marked on the face. The fourth man, wears a crown like structure on head and also has bright red bangle like things above the elbows other than these ornaments. He wears the anklet on both legs. The only ‘female’ character, the village belle, is a man wearing a traditional ‘mulakkacha’ and long hair.
Besides story telling and performance, ‘Chemmanakali’ also provides an opportunity of learning things associated with agriculture. As Kumaran explains, “for instance, the song mentions the name of several quintessential varieties of seeds in Kerala that are now rarely seen.”
The ‘Chemmanakali’ team has performed in several places in India including Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.