Thirty four-year-old Kapila Venu, one of the few Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu (the female style of Kathakali) artistes in India, has never been worried about the popularity of her art form. In fact, she thinks it’s a good thing. “Appealing to large numbers isn’t necessarily a positive thing. I am very comfortable being lesser-known, even exclusive. There are only a few of us in the world, which gives us an organic way of growth. With other art forms, it’s so much competition rather than creativity, it’s scary,” says Kapila, who will perform in Delhi as part of the seventh international convention of SPICMACAY, which is also coinciding with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s golden jubilee celebrations. Her performance is slated on June 8.
Koodiyattam, which originated in Kerala, is a combination of ancient Sanskrit theatre with elements of Koothu — a Tamil/Malayalam performing art that is as old as the Sangam era and is recognised by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. Traditionally, the dance form, a combination of acting and dance, is performed in temple theatres or Koothambalams of Kerala. It remains the only art form that uses drama from ancient Sanskrit theatre. On nurturing her tradition, Kapila says that since the lineage is unbroken for centuries, she hasn’t lost touch with the language, and the elements it includes. “When it’s broken and you are trying to revive it, it is difficult to reimagine,” says Kapila.
From a young age, Kapila grew up in an enriching environment. Born to Kutiyattam exponent and actor G Venu and Mohiniyattam dancer-teacher Nirmala Paniker, intense training and dance was all that she saw. Koodiyattam maestro and legend Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, whom she also learned from eventually, was her neighbour. And the house was always brimming with puppeteers, folk artistes, contemporary and avante garde dancers and musicians from around the world. “This definitely impacted my sensibilities and aspirations as a dancer,” says Kapila, who also trained under the famous dancer, Min Tanaka from Japan. And thus came the ability to question and refresh what she was performing.
“I love to stay grounded in tradition, but at the same time, I am also interested in other forms especially theatre and dance. For me, it’s important to be part of both the worlds,” says Kapila, who has taken time off to learn contemporary art forms.
“My parents were pretty relaxed about academics. I was an average student and my mom was certainly more concerned than my father when it came to academics. There was no pressure, but I knew that if I were to be an artiste, they would be happy,” says Kapila, who was aware of the risks that came with taking up art. “I saw my parents lead a very unconventional life, so it didn’t seem odd to me. It never felt like I was jumping off a cliff or something,” adds Kapila, who is currently a top performer of both the art forms and the director of Natanakairali — Research Training and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts in Irinjalakuda, an institute set up by her father in the year 1975.
There was a time when Koodiyattam students and performers were not allowed to even watch other forms of dances. Even Nangiarkoothu was only to be performed by Nangiar women. “Those times have changed. My generation has had a lot of exposure to other schools of thought, which give s a different dimension to our practice, a different perspective to understand our tradition better,” says Kapila.
The convention will also feature a number of other stalwarts from the fields of music, art and dance. These include noted flautist Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, santoor maestro Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, sarod legend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarrukai, famed violinist A Kanyakumari, vocalists Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra and painter Krishan Khanna, among others. A number of master craftsmen from various states will also be a part of the convention that is seeing participation of students from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and UAE.
The convention will take place at the JNU campus from June 3-9. Entry by registration