Jahnara Rahman’s enormous eyes hold the promise of infinite versatility. It lights up with shades of emotions, signalling the intensity they could assume during a Kutiyattam performance. She refuses to let her art refuses be eclipsed by the fact that she is the first person from the Muslim community to take up the temple art form.
“There was anything unusual about a Muslim girl learning ‘Kutiyattam’,” says Jahnara. “I had seen visuals of performance in my school Sanskrit textbook and had instinctively decided to explore the art form,” she says. The classical Sanskrit theatre is traditionally performed by members of the ‘Chakyar’ community of Kerala, while a less emotive ‘Nangiarkoothu’ is performed by the women members. Stepping across the divide of cultural mindset has not been easy for practitioners from other communities. Many of them struggle to find venues to showcase their talent.
Jahnara made headlines when she participated in the Kutiyattam competition at the school youth festival in 2009. Having lived next door to the ancestral house of Kathakali singer Kalamandalam Haidar Ali, the exclusivity of being a Muslim ‘Kutiyattam’ performer had never weighed her down. Her hometown, Wadakkancherry, in Trissur district of Kerala, had moulded itself into a largely secular society by the time she was born, chastised by the tribulations Haidar Ali had to undergo. The little town, not far away from Cheruthuruthy where the Kerala Kalamandalam is, wholeheartedly welcomed the emergence of yet another artiste, who bridged the chasm between cultural milieus. “My first public performance was for a cultural society in Wadakkancherry. Clerics from my community occupied many of the seats in the hall where it was organised. I was chosen for a performance in 2012 as part of introducing Nangiarkoothu as a competition item in youth festivals, which I consider a great recognition,” she says.
The business family she hails from raised no objections to her unconventional choice. Abdul Rahman, her father, was happy as long as she made no compromises on her studies. Her mother, Shahida, had learned dance as a young girl and had tried to pick up the long lost steps with the toddler Jahnara years ago.
She adds, “Tradition does not allow female performers to stage Kutiyattam. The texts of ‘Nangiarkoothu’, on the other hand, had very limited scope for ‘abhinaya’. This is slowly changing for the better with senior artists like Margi Usha and others scripting texts customised for ‘Nangiarkoothu’.”
‘Kutiyattam’ calls for a remarkable ability to enact with the eyes. In fact, the legendary names associated with this ancient theatre tradition of Kerala have been of maestros who excelled at ‘nethrabhinaya’. Jahnara’s expressive eyes twinkle with a discerning intelligence characteristic of an artiste with a huge promise. She has always been charmed by her namesake from history, Jahanara Begum, the daughter of emperor Shah Jahan. She dreams of breathing life into the character of the Mughal princess through a ‘Kutiyattam’ composition .