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Kudiyattam: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to the Living Sanskrit Theater of Kerala

        Our aim is, first, to observe and experience and then to document and interpret, in an analytical and interdisciplinary mode, the last surviving tradition of Sanskrit drama in performance in India - the Sanskrit theater of Kerala known as Kūḍiyāṭṭam and its allied performative genres in this region, on the south-west coast of India.

Kūḍiyāṭṭam (recognized by UNESCO as "one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity") is an ancient form of drama with an uninterrupted history of live performance in the Kerala temples over at least the last 1200 years by highly trained actors, dancers and musicians from the Cakkyar and Nambyar castes. Performances traditionally were carried out over many consecutive nights-6 or 7 (minimally), 13 to 15 (conventionally), 41 (occasionally)-which usually sufficed to complete only a single act from one of the classical dramas. In the days when the actors were supported by lands given by the temple, this somewhat "slow" pace (in our view, it is actually not so slow in experience) was never a problem. In modern Kerala the great artists of Kudiyattam are no longer temple servants; they compete for patronage and performance venues with all other, usually more modern forms of theater.

As a result, a typical Kudiyattam performance today lasts only some two to three hours, and there is no scope or possibility for mounting a performance in the rich, complex mode for which the actors have been trained from their early childhood. The highly receptive, educated, and sensitized audiences of connoisseurs necessary for such an art are also vanishing. To make the point clear: when the Hebrew University sent a small group of students and teachers to Kerala in the summer of 2008 to observe a complete performance, some 50 hours, of one of the major texts-the famous fifth act of Śaktibhadra's play, Āścarya-cūḍāmaṇi and also bore the cost of this enterprise, this was the first such performance in a generation. It is not clear that there will be another.

        The importance of the kind of study we envisage can hardly be overstated: it is as if a surviving form of ancient Greek tragedy had been discovered on some isolated island and classical scholars trained in the Greek texts of Aeschylus and Sophocles could now turn their attention to their still living embodiment, with its own unique features and complexities, and to the conceptual and theoretical world of the performers who have preserved this lost art. Kudiyattam is an art form that is visually and emotionally overwhelming, intellectually engaging, and tantalizing in terms of an analytical understanding of its complexities. It enacts many of the most beloved Sanskrit plays, some from the classical repertoire from the middle of the first millennium C.E., others from the dramatic production in Sanskrit by well-known Kerala poets of the medieval period (for example, Kulaśekhara and Śaktibhadra, both from circa the eleventh-twelfth centuries, and Melpattūr Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa, of the sixteenth century). The actual texts of these works are, however, no more than a skeletal platform for performance, which elaborates them in radical ways, in effect establishing a new mode of textuality worthy of detailed study in its own right. Medieval Sanskrit commentaries go some way toward illuminating this textual mode, as do the production manuals, Āṭṭa-prakāram, that have survived in hand-written copies in the households of the actors. In recent years, important scholarly work has been devoted to the tradition, notably by a Kerala scholar (K. G. Paulose) and a highly trained and insightful German Indologist (Heike Moser of Tübingen). A basic secondary literature on the tradition now exists, but deeper, exhaustive study, driven by strong analytical questions and sustained experience of the performances, still awaits a large-scale scholarly effort. Probably only a team of scholars can make real progress.

        After seeing the 50-hour performances of Act V of the Āścarya-cūḍāmaṇi in 2008, we began to formulate a program to deepen our engagement with the Kudiyattam tradition. It became immediately clear to us that a new horizon had opened up and that profound questions, many of them quite new, could begin to be addressed. For example, this kind of performance generates very complex cognitive effects in the spectator (who is also deeply integrated into the effort of decoding the intricate language of gesture and movement, abhinaya, of the actors on stage). Indeed, the indigenous theory of Kudiyattam performance has much to tell us about these quite far-reaching cognitive transformations and the states of awareness that the drama is meant to induce. A standard Kudiyattam performance revolves around the interweaving of memory and imagination-in the character portrayed on stage and in the audience engaged in empathic response to him or her. One way to describe what happens is to speak of an astonishingly rich externalization of the character's mind and, in particular, of the imaginative components of his or her awareness which, mingled with intertextual memories, are made visible by the movements of hands and eyes and by recited texts. It is as if one were watching an X-ray (to be up to date, let us say an MRI) of the mind of the hero or heroine, replete with shifting aspects of mood, feeling, fragments of texts, other residues of speech and thought, and crystallized memory. One challenge that awaits us is to offer an adequate analysis of this Yoga of the Imagination in terms of a more comprehensive, context-sensitive, culturally configured meta-psychology. In addition to the cognitive and meta-psychological domain, further questions touch on the evolutionary sequence of the Kerala expressive arts, the meaning and dynamics of the ritual framing of performance (the god in the temple is always the prime spectator, present throughout, undergoing changes in the terms of his own internal composition in the course of the drama), the unexplored para-linguistic codes and non-verbal communication, the transformative potential of this art form for both actors and (human) spectators, the articulation of profound cultural themes and issues, and so on.

        The Hebrew University has already established a firm working relationship with some of the best Kudiyattam performers in Kerala today, the Nepathya troupe at the village of Muḻikkuḷam (near Cochin/Ernakulam). Margi Madhu, the principal performer and teacher, comes from a long-established family of Kudiyattam actors; he has won every possible award, both in Kerala and nationally in India, for his astonishing skills. Although there are other Kudiyattam schools and troupes, and we want to explore them as well, we are proud of our link with Nepathya. They were our hosts in the village in August-September 2008, and they also came to Jerusalem for two outstanding performances, as guests of the Hebrew University, in January 2009. Nepathya is also a teaching institution, training students and performers.

        We can thus define several interlocking aspects of our project:

1) Understanding the tradition in its uniqueness. We need to analyze the primary dynamic features of the Kudiyattam tradition and to formulate working hypotheses of an interpretative nature about the way it is put together; about its implicit notions of primary categories such as time, space, personhood, plot, imagination, and the language of movement; about its links to the ancient prescriptive works on drama; about its ritual components and metaphysical substratum; and, above all, about its peculiar poetics and aesthetics that illuminate the nature of the experience the drama aims to achieve. The only way to proceed is to absorb as much of the repertoire, in live performance, as possible. Although we do have printed and manuscript texts for most of the dramas, there is simply no way even to imagine their exfoliation in traditional performance—except to witness the performance. Our experience in Mulikkulam in the summer of 2008 showed us clearly that a full-scale performance in real time (enough time to allow for the organic rhythm of the art to work itself through) brings into lucid focus the deep structures and conceptual templates of this art form. To make sense of the tradition in relation to the classical sources, on the one hand, and the living ritual and wider performative contexts of Kerala, on the other, requires sustained exposure and study. A comprehensive workshop summing up the results of our work over three years and presenting it to a broad interdisciplinary audience is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in 2012.

2) Complete documentation. This lingering tradition of classical Sanskrit drama may soon disappear altogether. Already, as the performance context has shifted from the temple to the modern stage, various parameters are being transformed. To date the powerful links to the medieval past have retained their compelling presence, but even the actors themselves fear the attenuation of the tradition. Since we are working with a troupe that has total command over the entire repertoire of Kudiyattam performance, it is critical that we document their work in its non-abridged, original mode. We of course recorded the fifteen-night performance Ascarya-cudamani, Act V, in its entirety; and we need to continue this effort to the point of creating an exhaustive digital library of Nepathya performances. This means subsidizing large-scale performances, at least once a year, over the next three years.

3) Interdisciplinary cross-fertilization and teaching. A satisfactory exploration of Kudiyattam cannot be left to the Indologists alone, nor should it be limited to this one genre, however important it may be. Kudiyattam works on many levels and requires analysis driven by the theoretical and empirical concerns of several academic fields. The musical component alone is a major analytical challenge. The ritual framing of the performance connects Kudiyattam to the possession dances known as Teyāṭṭam, with their associated Malayalam texts, and to the prominent ritual genre of Muḍiyettu, based on a dramatic text meant to bring the goddess Bhagavatī into being. Perhaps the philosophical aspect is the most enticing, and the most difficult—since all of these performances give expression to a culture-specific understanding of the world, and of the human person, that stands in marked contrast with more familiar Mediterranean and European visions of self and cosmos. Kudiyattam offers a particularly rich point of departure, indeed a living laboratory for experimentation, to scholars interested in defining the distinctiveness of primary South Indian cultural and metaphysical intuitions.

Our partners thus include the Department of Musicology at the Hebrew University, the MA-MFA program in Theater Arts in Tel Aviv University, and the new Program in East Asian Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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