Nepathya Rahul Chakyar showed how a dancer can create a huge impact even when performing in a small space
One of the striking features of Kerala’s classical theatre forms is the concept of the use of space. Even while presenting larger-than-life mythological narratives, the size of the stage used in Koodiyattam or Kathakali is ideally around 150 sq. ft. The theory of body kinetics in these art forms emphasises the use of the eyes, face and the entire body in minimal space with the least movements to create the maximum impact. The act of lifting a mountain or crossing an ocean, for example, is done more with limbs and muscles and not through spatial movement.
Koodiyattam goes even further in certain plays, and practically shrinks the stage to a wooden stool or peetam that is about 2 ft in diameter. One such instance is in the play Asokavanikankam, where Ravana, seeing Sita for the first time from his airborne chariot, is overcome with wonder and passion.
Two descriptive segments
Acting out the sloka ‘Indranimaham’ while standing on the peetam also involves two popular descriptive segments of Koodiyattam — ‘Kailasoddharanam’ and ‘Parvathiviraham’. While the former requires the actor to have a supple body to describe how Ravana tossed up Mount Kailas when his flying chariot was blocked by the mountain, the latter demands an expressive face to narrate the Siva and Parvati dialogue.
Watching this solo act by Nepathya Rahul Chakyar at Nepathya Moozhikkulam in a four-hour ‘Nirvahanam’ or Retrospective segment is a lesson on how to use the body in Koodiyattam. Rahul was on the peetam for nearly two and a half hours, beginning from Ravana describing Sita’s beauty to recalling his visit to the prison where he had imprisoned the celestial beauties. To narrate how he saw Parvati doleful and angry, Ravana first describes the story of how he lifted and threw Mount Kailas. Only in the last segment of ‘Parvathiviraham,’ did the dancer get to sit down.
Creating an imaginary mountain for the audience is no easy task. As he marvels at the majestic Kailas, Rahul stands tall on the stool, bends sideways, leans backwards, stands on tiptoe, and stoops low to trace the contours of the mountain. Then he goes on to describe its various features such as caves and sheer rock faces. Supported by the vibrant mizhavu and idakka drums, Rahul makes the audience experience water dropping from the mountain’s crevices and gathering strength to form a river. Rahul uses the peetam as if it was an extension of his limbs and finally he uproots the mountain and tosses it up high into the sky.
How does this act differ from his other Koodiyattam roles? Rahul says there is much less freedom when standing on the stool and one has to scale down movements. The attaprakaram or the stage manual makes no allowance for changes in costume or actions in the descriptive passages to offset the space constraints. The challenge, says Rahul, is to create the same impact within the limited space.
Performing while standing on a stool demands more concentration and stamina, since one has to always be aware of the foot position while at the same time maintaining the right expressions. The inputs needed, therefore, to create the same viewer experience are more when performing in a space that is a fraction of the normal stage. Rahul has performed this role twice before but in a pacha costume. This is the first time he is doing it in Ravana’s kathi make-up, which is more difficult because of the bigger headgear.
“Rigorous practice is essential to avoid even a small misstep,” says Rahul. Initial lessons, when his guru taught him this sequence, took roughly one month. Nowadays, he practises for about a week before such a performance.
Rahul believes that the beauty of Koodiyattam lies in creating a big impact by using one’s eyes and body to project maximum energy.
The author, a retired journalist, writes on Kerala’s performing arts.
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