Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar and his troupe performing Thoranayudham (part of Bhasa's play Abhiṣeka Nataka based on the epic Ramayana) Koodiyattam (1962, Chennai). It was the first ever Koodiyattam performance outside Kerala.

Koodiyattam (Malayalam: കൂടിയാട്ടം, Kūṭiyāṭṭaṁ, Tamil: கூடியாட்டம், Kūṭiyāṭṭaṁ, Sanskrit: कूडियाट्टम्, Kūḍiyāṭṭam), also transliterated as Kutiyattam, is a form of Sanskrit theatre traditionally performed in the state of Kerala, India. It is officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Koothu (കൂത്തു്) means dance or performance in Tamil and Malayalam.

Koodiyattam Performance.

Koodiyattam [kutiyattam], meaning "combined acting," signifies Sanskrit drama presented in the traditional style in temple theatres of Kerala. It is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre. It has an attested history of a thousand years in Kerala, but its origin and evolution are shrouded in mystery. Koodiyattam and chakyar koothu were among the dramatized dance worship services in temples of ancient India, particularly Kerala. Both koodiyattam and chakyar koothu find several mentions in ancient sangam literature of south and also in the epigraphs belonging to subsequent Pallava, Chera, Chola periods. Inscriptions related to the dramatized dance worship services like koodiyattam and chakyar koothu are available in temples at Tanjore, Tiruvidaimaruthur, Vedaranyam, Tiruvarur, and Omampuliyur. They were treated as an integral part of worship services alongside the singing of tevaram and prabandam hymns. There are mentions in epigraphs those forms of dramatized dance worship services that are called aariyam that mostly had Sanskrit scripts for plays.

Several ancient kings and members of other professions are listed to have authored several works for these services. There is evidence of these services being done all over ancient subcontinent during time of cholas and pallavas. A Pallava king called Rajasimha has been credited with authoring a play called kailasodharanam in Tamil that has the topic of Ravana becoming subject to Siva's anger and being subdued mercilessly for the same. For examples a fragmented inscription at the door step of an ancient Shiva temple (now non-existent) in Pegan in Burma finds mention of these services.

It is believed that Kulasekhara Varman Cheraman Perumal, an ancient king of Chera dynasty, who ruled from Mahodayapuram (modern Kodungallur), reformed Koodiyattam, introducing the local language for Vidusaka and structuring presentation of the play to well-defined units. He himself wrote two plays, Subhadraharana and Tapatisamvarana and made arrangements for their presentation on stage with the help of a Brahmin friend called Tolan. These plays are still presented on stage. Apart from these, the plays traditionally presented include Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra, Kalyanasaugandhika of Nilakantha, Bhagavadajjuka of Bodhayana, Nagananda of Harsa, and many plays ascribed to Bhasa including Abhiseka and Pratima. The Kutiyattam performance was performed in specially designed temples called koothambalams.

The use of Buddhist themes for plays is a very controversial and moot issue and seem to be a later interpolation not existing since ancient times for the latter not being a then-legal vedic system.

Instruments used

Mizhavu kept in mizhavana (wooden box made especially to keep mizhavu).

Traditionally, the main musical instruments used in Koodiyattam are mizhavu, kuzhitalam, etakka, kurumkuzhal, and sankhu. Mizhavu, the most prominent of these, is a percussion instrument that is played by a person of the Ambalavas Nambiar caste, accompanied by Nangyaramma playing the kuzhithalam (a type of cymbal).

Performance style

Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar as Ravana in Kutiyattam.
Koodiyattam Character Subhadra in Subhadra Dhananjayam, Performed by Dr Indu G at Nepathya's Koothambalam, Moozhikkulam

Traditionally, Koodiyattam has been performed by Chakyars (a subcaste of Kerala Hindus) and by Nangyaramma (women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar caste). The name Koodiyattam, meaning playing or performing together, is thought to refer to the presence or more actors on stage who act in consonance with the beats of the mizhavu drummers. Alternatively, it may also be a reference to a common practice in Sanskrit drama where a single actor who has performed solo for several nights is joined by another.[1]

The main actor is a Chakyar who performs the ritualistic Koothu and Koodiyattam inside the temple or in the Koothambalam. Chakyar women, Illotammas, are not allowed to participate. Instead, the female roles are played by Nangyaramma. Koodiyattam performances are lengthy and elaborate affairs, ranging from 12 to 150 hours spread across several nights. A complete Koodiyattam performance consists of three parts. The first of these is the purappadu where an actor performs a verse along with the nritta aspect of dance. Following this is the nirvahanam where the actor, using abhinaya, brings to the audience the mood of the main character of the play. The nirvahanam, a retrospective, takes the audience up to the point where the actual play begins. The final part of the performance is koodiyattam which is the play itself. While the first two parts are solo acts, Koodiyattam can have as many characters as are required to perform on the stage.[2]

The practice was that elders of the Chakyar community taught it to their youngsters and it was an art form performed only by Chakyars till the 1950s. In 1955 Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar performed Kutiyattam outside the temple for the first time.[3] For performing the art forms outside the temples he faced many problems from the hardline Chakyar community. In his own words:

My own people condemned my action (performing Koothu and Kutiyattam outside the precincts of the temples), Once, after I had given performances at Vaikkom, they even thought about excommunicating me.

I desired that this art should survive the test of time. That was precisely why I ventured outside the temple.[4]

In 1962, under the leadership of Dr. V. Raghavan, noted art and Sanskrit scholar, Sanskrit Ranga of Madras, invited Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar to perform Kutiyattam in Chennai. Thus for the first time in history Kutiyattam was performed outside Kerala.[5][6] They presented at Madras on three nights: Kutiyattam scenes from three plays Abhiṣeka,Subhadrādhanañjaya and Nāgānda.[7]

The performance of the maestro Maani Maadhava Chakyar made great impact on the people and art critics. People outside Kerala were able to witness his talent.[8] Then Mani Madhava Chakyar was invited and performed Kutiyattam at places in north India like New Delhi and Banaras (1964). It made the critic to accept his authority in Rasa Abhinaya, Natyasastra and Kutiyattam.

After Chakyar's first tour to New Delhi, he was awarded immediately with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1964 for his "contributions to Chakyar Koothu and Kutiyattam" the first national recognition to the maestro and the art form. His supremacy in Rasa-abhinaya and Netrabhinaya and Kutiyattam attracted lot of people towards the art form.

Koodiyattam Performance.
Koodiyattam face makeup

He performed Kudiyattam all over India and popularized the same. He and his troop did Koodiyattam performance in places like Madras (1962, 1973 and 1977), Madhura (1962), New Delhi (1964, 1966, 1974, 1979 and 1983), Varanasi (1964 and 1979), Bombay (1973), Ujjain (1982), Bhopal (1987), etc.

The President of India, scholar and philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan invited him to perform Kutiyattam at Rashtrapati Bhavan (presidential palace) in 1964 and was impressed by the guru's exceptional acting skill. His Kutiyattam performances, lectures and demonstrations at centres like Madras Music Academy in Chennai, International Centre for Kathakali in New Delhi, Experimental theatre in New Delhi and Bombay, and National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bombay fetched wide popularity and recognition for his Abhinaya and Kutiyattam.

He choreographed and directed acts of the plays like Kalidasa's Abhijñānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra; Bhasa's Swapnavāsavadatta[9] and Pancharātra; Harsha's Nagananda for the first time in the history of Koodiyattam. He and his troupe performed these Kutiyattams all over India.[10]

He performed Chakyar Koothu and Koodiyattam for All India Radio and Doordarshan for the first time, which helped to attract thousands of listeners to these traditional art forms. It was he who started demonstrations in Kudiyattam to popularise the same.

In early 1960s Maria Christoffer Byrski, a Polish student doing research in Indian theatres at Banaras Hindu University came to study Kootiyattam from the maestro Mani Madhava Chakyar and became the first non-Chakyar/nambiar to learn the art form. He stayed in Guru's home at Killikkurussimangalam and studied the art form in traditional Gurukula way.

Noted artists

Srigara Rasa-abhinaya of guru Nikhilesh.
Nayaka (Hero) King Udayana in Swapnavasavadattam Italic textKutiyattam
Margi Madhu as Ravanan at Nepathya

In the modern world, the late Natyacharya Vidushakaratnam Padma Shree guru Mani Madhava Chakyar mastered Rasa Abhinaya with special reference to Netrābhinaya. He has been a major force in popularizing Koodiyattam by taking it out of the Hindu temples, performing across India with his troupe, and teaching it to non-Chakyar caste members. He has adapted, choreographed and directed plays such as Kalidasa's The Recognition of Sakuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra and Bhasa's Swapnavāsadatta and Pancharātra for performance in the Koodiyattam style.[11]

The other most important exponent of Koodiyattam is Padma Bhushan Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. In the 1980s, he became one of the first Koodiyattam performers to present this art to an international audience. He visited France and England in 1982, Switzerland and The Netherlands in 1987 and Japan in 1988. He presented plays such as Balivadham, Thoranayudham, Asokavanikankam, Hanumaddutam, Jatayuvadham, Surpanakhangam, Thoranayudham and Ankuliyankam and greatly popularised Koodiyattam. He continued his teaching practice throughout his life in Ammanoor Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam at Irinjalakuda in Thrissur District. Any reference to Chakyar Koothu will not be complete without mentioning Painkulam Raman Chakyar. He was the first instructor for Chakyar Koothu when it was started as a course in Kalamadalam. In 1980, he was also the first one to spread international awareness of "Chakyar Koothu" and Koodiyattam by mentoring a few European students and facilitated by them in leading his troupe on a European tour including Germany, France and Poland. He had more than 1000 stage appearances in different roles. He successfully produced and staged the 2nd Act of Sakunthalam, 3rd Act of Nagananda and Jadayuvadhankam in Ascharyachoodamani. He also supervised and participated in the production of a colour documentary film on koodiyattam in 1974.

Mani Madhava Chakkiar's disciple and nephew Mani Damodara Chakyar is also a Koodiyattam performer of traditional devotional Koodiyattams, such as Anguliyanka, Mattavilasa, Mantranka, Ezhamanka (seventh act of Ascharyachoodamani). Ammannur Rajaneesh Chakyar is a Koodiyattam artist from Thrissur, Kerala, India.

A dying art form

Koodiyattam has traditionally been an exclusive art form performed in special venues called koothambalams in Hindu temples and access to these performances were highly restricted to only caste Hindus. Also, performances are lengthy taking up to forty days to complete. The collapse of the feudal order in the nineteenth century in Kerala led to a curtailment in the patronage extended to Koodiyattam artistes and they faced serious financial difficulties. Following a revival in the early twentieth century, Koodiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession.[12] UNESCO has called for the creation of a network of Koodiyattam institutions and gurukalams to nurture the transmission of the art form to future generations and for the development of new audiences besides fostering greater academic research in it. The Margi Theatre Group in Thiruvananthapuram is a notable organisation dedicated to the revival of Kathakali and Koodiyattom in Kerala.[13] Also Nepathya is an exclusive institution to promote Koodiyattam and related art forms working at Moozhikkulam.[14] The Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the highest award for performing artists, to Kutiyattam artists like, Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri (2007), Painkulam Raman Chakyar (2010) and Painkulam Damodara Chakyar (2012).[15]

Main article: Nātyakalpadruma
Nātyakalpadrumam the master treatise on all aspects of Kutiyattam written by Guru Mani Madhva Chakyar

See also

Mattavilasam, the devotional ritualistic Kutiyattam performed at temples in northern Kerala like Kottiyoor. The artist is Mani Damodara Chakyar.


  1. Shulman, David. "Creating and Destroying the Universe in Twenty-Nine Nights". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 9 December 2012.
  2. "All at home". The Hindu, 13 July 2012.
  3. Mani Madhava Chakkyar: The Master at Work, K.N. Panikar, Sangeet Natak Akademi New Delhi, 1994
  4. The Samskrita Ranga Annual, Samskrita Ranga, Madras, 1963, p. 89
  5. Venkatarama Raghavan, A. L. Mudaliar (1968), Bibliography of the Books, Papers & Other Contributions of Dr. V. Raghavan, New Order Book Co., India, p. 370
  6. The Samskrita Ranga Annual, Samskrita Ranga, Madras, 1967, p. 77
  7. Dr. V Raghavan, p.21 Natya, Bharatiya Natya Sangh, 1962.
  8. The Samskrita Ranga Annual, Samskrita Ranga, Madras, 1987, p. 176
  9. "New life for Koodiyattom act". The Hindu, 25 March 2005.
  10. Mani Madhava Chakkyar: The Master at Work (English film), Kavalam N. Panikar, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, 1994.
  11. "Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre".
  12. http://www.margitheatre.org/
  13. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/koodiyattom-festival-begins-at-moozhikulam/article3702197.ece
  14. "SNA: List of Akademi Awardees". Sangeet Natak Akademi Official website. Archived from the original on 31 March 2016.
  15. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and Venkateswarier Subramaniam, "The Sacred and the Secular in India's Performing Arts: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Centenary Essays"(1980), Ashish Publishers, p. 150.
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