Sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats in South India, is the tiny strip of land that is Kerala, which lies fairly insulated from rest of the region even while remaining very much a part of it. This has nurtured the development of a way of life that is unique and characteristic to this region, quite at variance with the traditions of its immediate neighbors. Traditions of art, architecture, dance, drama and music, rich with the ethos of this unique culture, have developed and existed here since ancient times.
The indigenous musical style of Sopan Sangeetham, that unmistakably evokes the essence of the Keralan ethos and which is rendered as an offering before the sanctum sanctorum of a temple, has unfortunately remained confined to ritual performance-offering and dance-drama tradition and has been unable to come into its own as a distinct classical genre of music. This is despite rich possibilities and its illustrious history of development, literary spanning centuries. This book performances the important task of presenting the first ever scholarly work on Sopana Sangeetham in particular and the performance arts culture of Kerala, in general. It will prove to be an invaluable reference to students as well as aficionados of music, dance, performing arts and the cultural sociology of Kerala.
Kavalam Narayana Panikkar was a legendary Indian playwright, author, theatre director, poet, lyricist and musicologist. He was the Founder Director of the theatre group Sopanam and the Bhasabharathi Centre for Performing Arts, Training and Research in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. His work in theatre, film and music has won several awards and his plays have toured noted festivals in India and all over the world.
It is the experiences from my long and eventful journeys along the path of Kerala's arts that inspired me to write the book Sopanatatvam in Malayalam. My field of experience grew when I had the opportunity to carry my learning from my deep association with the arts and practices in vogue in my village of Kavalam to other parts of Kerala. One thing was always clear to me. I did not feel the necessity to modify or alter the fundamental beliefs and artistic wisdom that I had gleaned from my village at the early stage of my career. Later experiences only proved to increase their strength and scope.
What I have attempted to achieve through this book is to examine and analyse the alphabet as also grammar of the age-old artistic beliefs prevalent in all parts of Kerala sharing a common geographical and racial identity. The book insists that a search for Kerala's artistic roots should also take into account the contributions of the Cheran from the Muthamizh culture. This is true in the case of music as well. It is to be understood that the meaning of the aphorism Chera's natakathamizh (Chera's dramatic Tamil) as against Pandya's ganathamizh (Pandya's musical Tamil) and Chola's kavyathamizh (Chola's poetic Tamil) can definitely not imply a Tamil that is unrelated to music and poetry. The mutuality and suzerainty of all three are rooted in regional culture. It is also a deeply organic relationship. This book is written with a strong awareness of the uniqueness of Kerala within the larger cultural landscape of India, which encompasses several significant desi systems. And yet I must stress that this is by no means the proclamation of an excessive or unwarranted regional sentiment.
During the discussion on the need to write a book on my work in theatre with like-minded friends, especially with Dr Ayyappa Panikkar, who was very closely involved with my work, it became clear that it should be preceded by this book. That is how I began to work on this book that is an essential corollary of the concept of 'traditional' in theatre. Renowned Violin maestro B Sasikumar, a blessed inheritor of the legacy of the Sopana philosophy, has lent me invaluable help in the writing of this book. I have written about it in detail in Chapter Six. I express my gratitude to him. I joyfully remember the help rendered by Ettumanoor Kannan who is not only a gifted Kathakali artiste but also someone who studies the philosophical and practical aspects of art with the mind of an astute researcher.
I remember with gratitude and affection a few other friends like Dr Venugopalan (Thakazhi), Dr Sasibhooshan, Sadanam Divakaran, Elambichiyile V Jayaraj and Dr Sanjeevan Azheekode who have also offered their assistance time and again along this journey. As usual, in my journey in theatre, my friend Dr Udayan Vajpeyi's support works as a perennial source of confidence. I remember with love the enthusiasm and involvement of young Mohiniyattam dancers Mohini Vinayan, Jayaprabha Menon, Vineetha Nedungadi and a host of promising young talents who hold the mantle of Sopana Mohiniyattam. I also remember my grandchild Kalyani's efforts in organising this project.
I would also like to express my gratitude to Ms Sangeeta Gundecha, my student, renowned writer and Sanskrit scholar who went out of her way to help us with the publishing of this English translation. My deepest gratitude to Sri Ashok Vajpeyi and the Raza Foundation, New Delhi for providing us with financial assistance and support and Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing House for bringing out this book. Their senior editor K Z Razavi added to Sulini's industrious efforts in this task.
Sulini, my dear student and a committed Mohiniyattam exponent in her own right has done a remarkably brilliant job in translating this book. Her dedication and conviction towards the Sopana style of Mohiniyattam is commendable.
I present this book to the cultural world with the hope that this would definitely fill up the gap in comprehending and appreciating the necessity to re-access the value of the Brihaddeshi concept of Indian aesthetics. It necessarily bridges the unexplored possibilities in discovering the identity of the unknown in the Indian artistic tradition.
Two decades ago I happened to watch Smt Bharati Shivaji perform Mohiniyattam for SPIC MACAY at the Calicut Medical College. The experience bowled me over not just because of the refreshingly different style and aesthetics of her dance but also the feel of Kerala that resonated through the music. Being a young student of dance used to seeing Mohiniyattam performed to Carnatic music, the concert felt rich with ethnic flavour that took the performance to another level.
Years later I had the opportunity to be her student. During my study under her in Delhi, I met Kavalam Sir, my 'grand guru' as Ma'am introduced him to me, at one of his plays at the Kamani Auditorium. Several years later I was fortunate to be his student as well and watch how he worked at classical theatre using concepts from the Natyasastra and understand more about Kerala's Sopana musical tradition - he had blended with Mohiniyattam working with my teacher in the seventies and eighties.
Working on an international project on the loss of ancient cultures in collaboration with dancers from Papua New Guinea, Tonga and India in Australia in 2009, we created a work that used dance, song, narration and film to tell stories from these cultures. Apart from dancing our styles we had to speak and sing in our native tongues as well, as part of the production. The Tongan dancer was a leading classical ballet performer who had never performed her native dance before the Australian audience. It came as a shock to me when she said that she had great deal of trouble finding a Tongan song, only to find there was no one among the elders in their community who could tell her the meaning of the song. The language was almost lost, so too their native music, dances, gods and goddesses. An entire culture had been all but wiped out thanks to colonisation. In place of native music, American pop music was increasingly embraced by Tongan youth. While singing this song as part of the short curtain raiser before the performance she broke down moved by the experience of singing before an audience in her native tongue, dancing her native martial dance playing the part of a native goddess. 'It was so powerful, so empowering; she said. It was then that the magnitude of the loss of one's culture, of not knowing meanings and music, dances and rituals, religion and tradition truly dawned on me.
My close association with Kavalam Sir for the translation of Sopanatatvam was therefore meaningful and important, at many levels. The book encapsulates the work and learning gleaned over several decades of his research. It includes his attempts to unearth, indeed bring back facets of Kerala's art and culture that are lost or dying away. Few young people today are aware of the indigenous musical tradition of this part of the country despite growing up here. They increasingly take to music and dances from elsewhere in an attempt to 'fit in' with the changing times, attitudes and popular culture. Traditional practices exist in an odd. bubble of sorts, an uncomfortable legacy left to the mercies of time. Loud proclamations of false or mistaken notions of what is indigenous only serve to confuse a mostly ignorant youth regarding their heritage made much worse by the dearth of recorded history.
Kerala due to its geographical situation was always fairly insulated from the rest of South India even while remaining very much part of it. This from early times nurtured the development of art and culture that is unique and characteristic to this region yet also quite at variance with the traditions of its immediate neighbours. The unique features of Keralan society has faithfully been preserved in the art forms that were nurtured here.
Chapter One, seeks the earliest origins of Kerala's own musical and performing arts traditions in the songs and rhythms of the humble farmer of yore. Farming was the most important activity of predominantly agrarian Kerala. These songs, which spoke of Kerala's glorious ancestry, apart from reducing the tedium of labour, also wove in socially relevant themes and early cultural recollections making them a rich repository of the cultural history of this land. Ancient art forms sustained their content, besides the myths and legends intricately interwoven with the social life of Kerala. The matrilineal system of inheritance and the status enjoyed by women in society also reflected in the ancient art forms like Koodiyattam where women performed active roles along with men on stage while at the same time retaining strong family values and relationships. Different castes - their unique customs, occupations and ritual art practices and their role in nourishing the cultural ethos of Kerala are examined in some detail. Kerala, from time immemorial, welcomed with open arms many foreign races that reached her shores, along with them their artistic traditions as well. What followed were forms like Chavittunatakam and Mappilapaattu, vibrant expressions that reflected the blending of the souls of distant Greece and Arabia with that of Kerala.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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