Her small frame looks too frail to bear the gravity of a legacy running back to not less than a millennium — one that the Unesco lately sought to call an “oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. There is an apparent diffidence in the smile of the young Koodiyattam actress — a deceptive vibe, given that she has performed in front of thousands of people across the world. But then, yes, off the stage, Kapila Venu hardly looks glamorous for a star.
Only three months ago, Kapila captivated a learned audience far east of the continent at an acclaimed international theatre event when it was raining her Kerala small-town. Her portrayal of two mythological stories in the Nangiarkoothu format was received with applause — and accolades — at Japan’s Shizuoka Spring Arts Festival - 2009 in June.
Only in her 20s, Kapila’s innovative appr­oach to her art has been evident for a while, and was so at this fete as well. Both performances were not part of the traditional repertoire of Nangiarkoothu, the female-centric offshoot of Koodiyattam, Kerala’s ancient Sanskrit theatre form. She choreographed these pieces under the direction of her fat­her, scholar G Venu. While Narasimhavataram is inspired by the Gita Govinda, Kap­ila’s essay of Sita Parithyagam is drawn upon Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsham.
For all her modest manifestations, Kapila comes across as a young woman who knows her mind. When she speaks out, her voice is sharp and confident. And deeply concerned about the issues of tradition, its relevance in the contemporary life, feminism, films, environmental issues et al. “Career is a term I don’t like. When you make something your career, there’s a set pattern you’re supposed to follow. I want to break out of that,” she says. For her, performance is a passion — be it Koodiyattam or Mohiniyattam or even the Japanese avant-garde performances.
That is what she learnt from Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, the late doyen of Koodiyattam. And from Min Tanaka, the Japanese avant-garde performer, who has become her source of inspiration. “He has shown me that dance is life and sacrifice,” she says. Every year, Kapila she spends a few weeks at Tanaka’s Body Weather Butoh Farm, a 1985-foun­ded cooperative environment for artistes who raise crops and animals — exploring the origins of dance through farming life. Meeting that master, now 64, was “my second turning point in her life”.
So, what was the first one? That was her decision to exchange college for Koodiya­ttam. After completing Plus-2 from an Ooty school, Kapila chose to do away with a conventional college education. Instead, she dedicated her entire day to Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu, under the tutelage of Amm­annur. Those four years, before old age failed the guru from conducting classes, gave her immense strength and insight into the leg­acy of Koodiyattam. “I could spend the whole day with ashaan (master). Every morning, around 10, I’d go to his house.”
A bit further down her life, Kapila’s life was a curious mix of cultures. If her father was — and is — a Koodiyattam actor, her mother Nirmala Panikker is a researcher and teacher of Mohiniyattam.
Kapila grew up between two totally contrasting worlds — Thrissur district’s Irinjalakuda, the seat of the classical art form of Koodiyattam where her father was engaged in the unenviable task of breathing new energy into centuries-old traditions; and the Lawrence School of Lovedale, where her mother taught. For her, home was a virtual space located somewhere between a typically tropical central Kerala small-town and the misty valleys of Deccan’s Queen of Hill Stations. The disciplined public-school silence prevailed over much of the academic year, while holidays were a whirlwind of sounds, colours, people and programmes.
A life in classical arts was apparently a natural choice for someone growing up in similar background, inheriting such a leg­acy. Kapila took to the world of performance with ease. “Actually, my first performance was when I was three!” she laughs out. “It was at an ashram…you can’t call it Mohiniyattam, but I performed Kaliyamar­ddanam in front of (late) Nitya Chaithanya Yati (at his Gurukulam in Ooty’s Fernhill).”
Her formal training in Koodiyattam star­ted at seven. The initial training was under the renowned Usha Nangiar. And, the first stage appearance — in 1996 — was, curiously enough, in Delhi: as the chedi (maid) of Mandodari, in Ashokavanikankam.
Kapila has an equally strong training in Mohiniyattam, though she now focuses on Koodiyattam. “I feel more comfortable as an actor than a dancer,” she reasons. As a woman performer, she finds Nangiarkoothu, performed exclusively by women, greatly empowering. “In Koodiyattam or Nangiar­koothu, there is no sringara naayika (heroine with a predominant erotica mood),” she points out. “You know, Nangiarkoothu performer is a neutral storyteller, not a heroine, like in classical dances. And, both male and female actors in Koodiyattam use the same acting techniques.”
Though the ancient masters of Koodiyattam had forbade its actors even watching other classical performing arts, Kapila — like many artists of her generation — maintains a deep interest in them. An ardent fan of septuagenarian Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Gopi, Kapila believes that watching an experienced actor from any genre is a learning experience.
Following Narasimhavatharam, Kapila presented her depiction of Koormavatharam — again, at Zurich. She is interested in presenting all the ten incarnations of Vishnu, drawing from the Gita Govinda.
It hasn’t been long after she began her trip, but has by now travelled far and wide — geographically, historically and, perhaps most importantly, aesthetically.
— The writer is an art critic based in Kochi.
a one-woman act
Nangiarkoothu is traditionally performed only by the upper-caste Nangiar women. It is a one-woman act. That is, she plays all the characters in the play, which are based on stories from the Hindu mythology. It used to be performed only in the Koothambalam, a
theatre space attached to certain Kerala temples. Lately, the art is finding venues outside its precincts.
an amalgam of sanskrit theatre
Koodiyattam, also spelt Kutiyattam, is India’s only surviving ancient Sanskrit theatre — existing in Kerala. It’s believed that 9th-century king Kulasekhara Varman reformed the form by introducing the local language for the vidushaka (narrator) by structuring the play presentation to well-defined units. Traditionally performed by the upper-caste Chakyar men and Nangiar women in select Koothambalams (temple auditoria), the art is a precursor to the classical dance-drama of Kathakali. Like in the case of Nangiar Koothu, caste — even religion and nationality — has now ceased to be a bar in the group theatre that is Koodiyattam.