Preserving Prabandhakoothu plays

Prabandhakoothu artiste A.V. Narayanan has videographed a 37-hour performance of Dootavakyam, creating invaluable archival footage

The word is as important as the face for a Koodiyattam artiste. As the vidooshaka in a Koodiyattam play or as the narrator of Prabandhakoothu, a sub-genre of Koodiyattam, the artiste has to be a master of narrative skills. The vidooshaka in Prabandhakoothu once even enjoyed the privilege to mock and criticise the king. Is that mighty word losing its edge?

Prabandhakoothu is the solo male-only art form that chronicles epic stories, while interspersing them with modern situations and spicing them up with wit and humour. Sanskrit slokas are parsed and their logical meaning explained in Malayalam in great detail, references are made to similar stories or even modern literary texts. For instance, the famous sloka in Ramayana, ‘Raman dasaratham vidhi…’, where Sumitra advices Lakshmana just as he sets out for the forest. Though the sloka has only 12 words, the Prabandhakoothu artiste may take over two hours to explain it, unfurling the different shades of meanings in each word.

Plays with a purpose

The introduction around 900 CE of the character of vidooshaka, who spoke the common man’s language, drew new audiences to the Sanskrit theatre form of Koodiyattam. From this evolved, over a couple of centuries, Prabandhakoothu, also known as Chakyarkoothu, since this was performed only by members of the Chakyar community till a few decades ago.

And texts known as prabandhas came to be written exclusively for Prabandhakoothu. Its function was to entertain, instruct, criticise, provoke to think, and thereby help cleanse society of its ills.

Prabandhakoothu is still very popular and much more in demand than Koodiyattam, with many temples hosting it during annual festivals and on auspicious days. But some serious practitioners and connoisseurs are not too happy. They fear Prabandhakoothu is losing its gravitas and is increasingly being seen by many as a local version of the stand-up comic. They also feel it has been reduced to two-hour storytelling sessions, devoid of the scholarship that the past masters lent it.

A.V. Narayanan, a Prabandhakoothu artiste, says most of the performances seen today feature the same few stories. He laments that training and performance of serious works are not getting the attention they deserve. There is a risk that important aspects of the storytelling craft will be lost forever due to a lack of performers and audiences.

This prompted Narayanan, who is also a film editor, to use his videographing skills to archive authentic Prabandhakoothu performances by veteran exponents. The release of the video recording of Dootavakyam last year performed by 72-year-old Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar, a senior artiste, guru, scholar and performer known for his serious approach to the art, is the culmination of such efforts.

Dootavakyam, written by Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri, more popular for his devotional text, Narayaneeyam, covers the story of Krishna’s peace mission to the Kauravas. It starts with the Pandavas looking for peace and ends with Krishna displaying his cosmic form or Viswaroopa. The text has more than 45 slokas and several lengthy passages in prose. The 37-hour long high-definition video of the performance was recorded over 21 days and released late last year after several delays.

“There are several other prabandhas that need to be preserved,” says Narayanan. But it is impossible for one individual to undertake this task. Narayanan finds that there are not been many takers for his video recording, and hopes some organisation will take up the challenge.

Kuttan Chakyar says such recordings are valuable not merely from the entertainment point of view, but as a guide for future students. He fears many other Melpathur works, which are landmark dramatic monologues in Kerala’s literary history, may have already become inaccessible. For example, he says, he has seen his guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar perform Rajasooyam, but is sceptical if anyone today can do justice to that work.

According to Kuttan Chakyar, “Learning long prabandhas is a tedious affair. Apart from memorising the text, one has to think about it, practise hard, and perform it over and over again. “Prabandhakoothu is not merely the narration of a story. It is playacting, where the artiste has to create the dialogues of the various characters on the spot. That is why familiarity with the text is extremely important. And more meanings emerge the more one reflects on the poet’s words.” He is doubtful if the new generation of artistes will have the time, patience or motivation for that.

But there is hope yet. Dr. T. K. Narayanan, vice-chancellor, Kerala Kalamandalam, said at the launch of the Dootavakyam video that such projects certainly fall in the domain of the arts university. He wanted the Koodiyattam department at Kalamandalam to undertake projects to digitise works by masters. There is no other way to preserve such traditions, he said.

The retired journalist writes on Kerala’s performing arts.

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