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Kutiyattam: A rare spectacle

Kutiyattam, a performance art from Kerala, is based on Sanskrit drama

Artists playing Surpanakha and Lakshman during a Kutiyattam performance. Photo courtesy: Margi Madhu Chakyar, Nepathya
Artists playing Surpanakha and Lakshman during a Kutiyattam performance. Photo courtesy: Margi Madhu Chakyar, Nepathya

Whether you are familiar with Kutiyattam or not, there’s every reason to head to the India International Centre in Delhi this week to watch a live performance. For not only is this ancient performance art from Kerala rarely witnessed outside the state, it is also a rare privilege to have David Shulman, one of the leading Indologists in the world, introducing it on the opening day.

Organized by Sahapedia, the online encyclopaedia on Indian culture and history, in association with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the performance of the second act of Sanskrit playwright Saktibhadra’s Ascharyachudamani, based on the Ramayan, will depict the fate of Surpanakha’s seduction of Ram, and her subsequent mutilation at the hands of Lakshman.

“Typically an entire Kutiyattam performance may take 10-30 days," says Sudha Gopalakrishnan, executive director of Sahapedia. “The acting involved is multilayered, where the nuances of poetry are expressed through abhinaya, using mudras and other gestures." The effect of the spectacle is heightened by the ornate costumes and masks worn by the actors. The performance, spread over days, builds up to a rousing climax.

Kutiyattam has been recognized by Unesco as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". In Delhi this week, members of Nepathya, a centre for excellence in Kutiyattam based in Muzhikkulam, Kerala, are bringing alive the episode which becomes the trigger for the later part of the plot of Ramayan. The dancers, led by Margi Madhu and Indu G., well-known proponents of the art, will continue to interpret the text over the next few days..

Traditionally, Kutiyattam was performed mostly on temple premises, by members of designated castes, though its contemporary practitioners do not observe these restrictions. Kapila Venu, in her 30s, is one of the most celebrated performers in this tradition, taking the art to a wider global audience.

The Kutiyattam performance is on till 21 August at the India International Centre in Delhi, from 6.30-9pm every day.

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