Koodiyattam’s prima ballerina

Kapila Venu

Kapila Venu

Her expressive eyes strike an expression with an intensity just as lightning would strike in a blue sky. With dramatised gestures and evolved body language, Koodiyattam artiste Kapila Venu is one of the foremost performers of the ancient theatre form.

For the uninitiated, Koodiyattam is a form of a Sanskrit theatre from Kerala. It is known as combined acting since it presents Sanskrit drama in a traditional style in temple theatres of Kerala. Koodiyattam aka Kutiyattam and Chakyar Koothu, were among the dramatised dance worship services in temples of ancient India. Kapila has established her expertise in the art form over the years with various traditional performances and experimental ventures too. She has also participated in the World Theatre Project and has performed the major female roles including Shakuntala in Abhijana Shakuntalam of Mahakavi Kalidasa. She is also a recipient of several awards including Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puruskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi. Excerpts from a conversation:

On the natural progression into arts:
It was a natural progression for me to learn Koodiyattam. My father was an enthusiast about the theatre form. He met my teacher, Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, who was a legendary performer and artiste. My father was entranced by his performance and he joined Guruji in imparting education so that the younger generation could benefit from my Guruji’s art. I grew up in an environment where we had art and culture at home. When I was five, I started going to Guruji’s house and just like the other kids, it was more of a routine. That was when I was initiated into the art form. For me it was a natural process throughout.
As a child, I was just fascinated and attracted by my Guruji. He was charismatic in every way and apart from his technique, what attracted me the most was his charisma. From a young age, our lives revolved around Koodiyattam. It was just a part of our daily life and in the family. Our upbringing was responsible for our initiation into arts. Our house was happening with puppeteers, folk artistes and musicians everywhere around us.

On becoming an artiste:
For the longest time till I completed schooling years, the performing arts were just routine. But the time to make that decision came around after I passed out of school and had to decide if I wanted to study further and attend college or devote my entire time to pursuing and practising the arts. It did seem like a risk then, but I took up Koodiyattam full time. And till date, I can say with complete confidence that there was no doubt about pursuing this form.

On challenges in Koodiyattam:
Honestly, we don’t look at Koodiyattam from outside or in comparison with the other dance forms. It was never an issue about the popularity of the form. Though it’s no crowd-puller, my guruji didn’t care if it appealed to everyone in the audience or not. He simply concentrated on the art. The challenges that lay ahead of me were to develop the nuances and that requires a lot of perseverance. You genuinely have to develop patience. It’s like that relationship that one develops slowly with music for example.

On the technique:
There’s so much of traditional repertoire in Koodiyattam. It would take a whole lifetime to understand and master the technique and nuances. But what’s most frustrating is the lack of time. There’s so much to do, but so little time to learn. I am overwhelmed from time to time. The technique in Koodiyattam is strictly guarded. It has been developed over the years and one of the biggest hurdles I face is to retain the language or the vocabulary of dance that was passed down from my guruji to our generation. Basically, to retain its organic structure and essence.

On training in Koodiyattam:
If you’ve followed Koodiyattam, you will notice that it’s full of Sanskrit dramas. To enact those difficult sequences, it takes years of training, which could vary anything between 10-15 years. The training begins with voice and body exercises. Then you learn to train the eyes. You also have to study Sanskrit and learn to read and speak in the ancient language. And when you learn a play, you have to learn every part of it. You can’t just learn your part, you are expected to know the entire play. It also applies to musicians who are following the actors. The training takes that long because one has to polish their skills.

On how Koodiyattam is not a dying art form:
I would never call it a dying art form. There was a time when the number of artistes was on the decline. But now there are two generations of artistes who have been trained and are carrying on the legacy. They might be few in number, but it’s good to see many performances and workshops around.

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