Gothuruth is a small village on the river Periyar, 24 km off Kochi in Kerala. Formed during a flood in the 14th century, it is home to around 9,000 people. The villagers are a cheery lot, loyal to three things that run deep in their blood: fishing, religion and Chavittu Natakam, a little known vibrant theatre form.
“The villagers, the fisher folk in particular, go about their business during the day. But the minute they are off work, they rush to the nearest village hall to practise Chavittu Natakam,” says Ramachandran K, who visited Gothuruth last year as part of his cultural research. “They dance and sing there for a couple of hours and they are ready to go back to the sea again. It is as important to them as any other part of their daily life,” he says. Ramachandran, the director of annual Keli Festival, will bring the rare and dying art form to the city for the three-day festival starting January 9.
Ramachandran says the idea of the Keli Festival is to celebrate the rich and unexplored forms of Indian heritage — particularly from Kerala. The festival has earlier presented rare art forms such as performances of martial dance chhau and the chenda, a cylindrical drum.
The Chavittu Natakam is traced to the time when Vasco da Gama landed in India in 1498. As the story goes, a priest propagated Christianity by narrating the stories from the Bible or of Christian legends through theatre. “The act resembled the European opera with performers in colourful and elaborate costumes. It borrowed from the local culture as well. The narration was a recitation of the libretto in Chenthamil, a language that was spoken much before Malayalam,” says Ramachandran. Also, while there is no facial expression in European opera, the Chavittu Nattakam uses abhinaya. There is elaborate footwork involved, from foot-stamping dances and fighting to fencing. Chavittu Natakam means foot-stamping theatre in Malayalam. In the earlier days, the footwork used to be so powerful that it resulted in a “groundbreaking” performance — the stage would often give away in the end.
At the 22nd edition of the Keli Festival, Ramachandran introduces the art form through Karalman Charitham (Emperor Charlemagne), the most celebrated play in this genre. It narrates the story of the victorious French Emperor Charlemagne and his nephew Roland. The story will be told in three parts through 75-minute performances at the YB Chavan Centre on January 9 and 10 as well as Prithvi Theatre on January 11. Fifty performers arrived in the city on Wednesday, a day ahead of the performance, from Gothuruth.
Recently, in association with the Maritime History Society of Mumbai (MHSM), Ramachandran got the art form recorded as the first and only maritime theatre form in India that has survived five centuries. “It is unfortunate that there has been no academic research done on this art form. It occupies a significant place in the history of the art world, and needs to be acknowledged,” he says.