Margi Sathi, who died in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday, was among the finest practitioners of Koodiyattam, the 2000-year-old classical Sanskrit theatre, and Nangiarkoothu, a women-only offshoot of the former. Sathi (50) died after a long battle with cancer.
She was an exception in an art form that is customarily preserved and performed by the Chakyar community. Born in a Brahmin household, she trained at the Kerala Kalamandalam, the school for traditional art forms set up by Vallathol Narayana Menon near her home in Cheruthuruthi, in the 1970s.
At the art school, 11-year-old Sathi was trained by Painkulam Rama Chakyar, a legendary artist and teacher who took the revolutionary step of opening up the doors of Koodiyattam to students from non-Chakyar families. He was also instrumental in taking this temple art form beyond the confines of its traditional performance spaces and inviting a large secular audience to experience its riches. Sathi was one of the early beneficiaries of the Painkulam revolution.
Sathi was also lucky to learn from the masters of all three major schools that dominated the learning of Kodiyattam back then. Apart from Painkulam Rama Chakyar, she was taught by Mani Madhava Chakyar and Ammannur Madhava Chakyar — both exceptional performers and teachers. It was under Mani Madhav Chakyar that she underwent advanced training in eye-movement. In her performances, experts saw the confluence of styles of all three masters.
Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan, a Koodiyattam scholar, described Sathi as someone who went beyond her training and reinterpreted her art form. It was no mean achievement given that she was reinterpreting a highly formalised and codified art form, said Gopalakrishnan.
Sathi was encouraged by scholars like D Appukkuttan Nair at Margi. Her efforts went a long way in actualising the potential of Nangiarkoothu as an independent art form. Her uniqueness as a performer was that she refused to confine her career only to the stage, and went on to make a robust contribution as an academic. She wrote a text — Sree Rama Charitham — and then its performative text (attaprakaram) for Koodiyattam. It was a huge achievement considering that Koodiyattam as a performance tradition had largely been a male preserve.
She also went beyond traditional texts and even interpreted modern poems in the language of Koodiyattam. Another significant contribution of hers was to adapt Chilappathikaram, the Tamil epic from the Sangam era, for the Nangiarkoothu stage.
Sathi is survived by her two children, both Koodiyattam exponents.