A flash of energy strikes the audience, as Usha Nangiar steps on to the stage. Equally appealing is the composure, with the power waiting to be released as the emotions unfold. The meditative calmness of the performer apart, her face is intense. From behind her, soft rhythms reverberate. Usha’s measured movements are accentuated by V K K Hariharan’s beats on the taut mizhavu, the big copper-drum accompaniment to a performer of the ancient Sanskrit theatre Kutiyattam, or even its offshoot, Nangiarkoothu.
As the deep metallic resonances gather in pace, the actress starts moving. In step with the rhythm. Or, is it vice versa? The energy flows back and forth between the actress and the percussionist — incidentally here, they are a married couple. It is a subtle and tacit dialogue. “This communication between the actor and percussionist is one of the most important aspects of Kutiyattam, or even Nangiarkoothu,” says Usha, a leading exponent of both forms, who married ace percussionist Hariharan in 1997. “It’s a dialogue, through which the actor and the percussionist try to follow each other, to excel each other and even to compete with each other! Often, I’ve to confront the combined energies of three dominant male percussionists on the stage (two high-decibel mizhavu drums and the handy edakka). This often leads to very intense onstage dynamics.”
She should certainly know. One of the most powerful women performers on the Indian stage, be it classical or contemporary, Usha has a career spanning nearly three decades, starting out at a point when both artforms she eventually mastered had hardly any takers, especially from their traditional community of performers. Enormously gifted, she was moulded under the watchful eyes of maestro Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, besides G Venu, who is the formative force behind the Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam off Thrissur — not far from Usha’s native place, also in central Kerala. She was one of the first students at the institution in Irinjalakuda, and had a central role in the revival of Nangiarkoothu, carried out by the master himself.
And, since 1984, Usha has been sharing an onstage bond with Hariharan, whose skills were also honed during a 12-year association with Madhava Chakyar, who died in 2008. Though an alumnus of Kerala Kalamandalam, the state’s premier performing-arts school, Hariharan got his vital training during his tours accompanying Chakyar. It was then that he learnt to let his fingers and imagination run riot over the mizhavu, giving rise to rhythms and sounds that had never before emanated from it. And, it was Hariharan’s hands that made the mizhavu talk for the first time. This instrument, known for its still, unyielding nature, allowed itself to emulate the soft drone of a beetle, or the trickling of water, or the gurgle of the infant being fed by its mother or the hooves of a horse. Not many of these effects could be found in the traditional rhythm patterns of Kutiyattam usually taught by the gurus.
Trained under maestro P K Narayanan Nambiar at Kalamandalam, Hariharan already possessed the sound foundation instilled by the gurukula-model training that the institution had still followed in those days. He had joined Kalamandalam in 1979.
If Kutiyattam came to Usha as a birthright (an ancestors-passsed responsibility or kula dharma) by virtue of being born into a Nambiar family, as the daughter of late master, Krishnan Nambiar at Chathakkudam, for Hariharan, the tryst with the form happened by sheer chance. “Poverty,” Hariharan puts it starkly with a smirk. “That led to my joining Kalamandalam (in the early 1970s).” Those days, Kalamandalam had a stipulated student-teacher ratio of 4:1. If the minimum number of students were not available, the teachers’ posts also became unstable. Hence, Narayanan Nambiar himself went out in search of talented students. He stumbled upon a boy in Lakkidi (in neighbouring Palakkad district) who wanted to learn Kathakali, but Nambiar persuaded the family to let the boy take up learning how to play the mizhavu.
Those days, Kalamandalam followed the old-fashioned teaching methodology, Hariharan reminisces. “Training would start at 4.30 in the morning and continue till 8.30 pm. Classes were held at the Old Kalamandalam (which is a museum now), where we all slept. We had to cook our own food.”
In 1991, Hariharan joined Irinjalakuda’s Gurukulam as a staff. His association with the school, though, had already started much earlier — in 1984. That was when he played the percussion for the first time for Ammannur Madhava Chakyar (and also for Usha.) “Most of my improvisations on the mizhavu happened only because of Madhava Chakyar,” he says. Though a traditionalist to the core, Chakyar was totally unorthodox when it came to his onstage life, exploring the infinite possibilities of manodharmam — or, improvisation allotted to the actor within the framework of Kutiyattam.
Hariharan remembers many incidents. “Once I happened to emulate the sound of a horse’s hooves, while playing mizhavu for a scene from Tapati Samvaranam, and Chakyar started portraying the galloping motion. I kept on playing that, and he continued the action.”
Hariharan’s oeuvre is not limited to the classical. He has also associated with major contemporary dancers of India like Jayachandran Palazhy and Veenapani Chawla. In Jayachandran’s 1997 production, Beyond the Walls for Men, Hariharan was both a percussionist and performer. He has been associated in many other works of Jayachandran, produced by the London-based Imlata and Attakkalari, based in Bangalore. And he has worked in the major productions of Chawla’s Pondicherry-based Adishakti, including, Bhima (1997), Brihannala (’98), Khandavaprastha (’99) and Ganapati (2000).
One major contribution of Usha to the genre of Nangiarkoothu/Kutiyattam is the revival of many lost or hitherto unattempted portions of women characters. She has choreographed new portions including the Nirvahana of Mandodari, the Purappad (entry) of Goddess Karthyayani, known as Karthyayani Purappad, the Nirvahana of Menaka and Rambha from Tapati Samvaranam (2004), that of Draupadi (2005) and Nirvahana of Sakuntala from Sakuntalam (2007). Of course, Hariharan plays a major role in the choreography and research that goes into these projects.
For centuries, the tradition of Nangiarkoothu was handed down from mother to daughter. And Usha is also doing the same. The couple’s only daughter, Athira, has just performed her formal arangetram and is already accompanying her mother on the stage, playing the ‘kuzhithalam’ (cymbals). Undoubtedly, this ancient art form is breathing fresh air.
— The writer is a Kochi-based freelance journalist and editorial coordinator of artconcerns.com. firstname.lastname@example.org Up Close and exhilarating
Nangiarkoothu is one of the best world-class examples of how a no-frills performing art can be extremely powerful and glue the audience to its essential spirit for a long time. Sure, the deep-focus effect is several times more when this 1,200-year-old form is performed in its traditional ambience — inside a temple complex’s Koothambalam theatre. There, all that decks up the minimally raised stage, which is lit by a tall traditional lamp in front of the lone actress, are a couple of fruit-bearing plantains, besides some bunches of coconuts and a few palm fronds.
None of the accompanists of the main artiste, always a female (and, classically, a Nangiar, who is a woman of the Nambiar community), acts as a fellow character in a Nangiarkoothu session. It is for the sole actress to suitably change the body language and essay the figures featuring in the Hindu mythological story-play she presents before a scooped-up audience, conventionally during daytime, what with pyramid-shaped roof of the Koothambalam ensuring that its interior has a certain dimness even at noon.
So, what lends the audio prop to the performance? You primarily have the mizhavu, the huge copper-drum known for its high-decibel timbre and appealing resonance. Then there are those optional ethnic drums, like the slender timila and/or hourglass-shaped edakka. While these are all played by men, on the right of the actress sits the only other female on stage, sounding the basic rhythmic beats on the kuzhithalam, the tiny pair of cymbals. For, each piece of act portrayed, she also renders the introductory shloka (originally 208 in total) the meaning of which the actress would subsequently develop through stylised emotions, evolved hand gestures and occasional footsteps — thus colour its subtle layers.
Nangiarkoothu has historically found venues in middle and south-central Kerala: in certain Koothambalams of Thrissur, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam districts of today. Of late (ever since its resurrection that started from the mid-1980s), the art is being increasingly staged outside temple precincts — in proscenium stages of towns and metros within India and, of course, abroad too.
Thematically too, the art form has broadened in recent times. It still largely revolves around Hindu mythology, but is centred not just around stories related to Lord Krishna. In fact, besides the original text of Sri Krishna Charitam, Nangiarkoothu now plots from the Ramayana. Why, even Silapathikaram, the ancient Tamil epic, has found depiction as Kannaki Charitam.