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Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer. Happily married to Dileep Kannan. Mother of a beautiful angel -Tamanna. Daughter of Mr. E.M Haridas & Mrs. Girija Haridas. Daughter-in-law of Dr. K. P Kannan & Mrs. Shobhana Kannan A Disciple of Smt. Shyamala Surendran at Dharani School of Performing Arts, Kochi MFA in Bharatanatyam from SASTRA University under the guidance of Dr. Padma Subramanyam

January 3, 2018

KOOTHAMBALAM - The Performing Theatres in Kerala Temples

KOOTHAMBALAM - The Performing Theatres in Kerala Temples

The Need for Temples in India

A temple in our country plays a very important role in the life of people. Earlier it was just not a place for people to pay a visit once a week perfunctorily and pray, do the usual poojas for oneself and close family members. The temple was a place which met the need of the community which was deeply rooted in religion. In fact, the village in which the temple was located would be named after the temple and its deity. For Eg, Thiruvananthapuram means the Place of Lord Anantha.
It provided livelihood to many people in the society.During its construction, it provided master architects , sculptors, painters , other artisans ,masonry and common workmen a scope for their aesthetic expression for years. For daily temple rituals, numerous people from different walks of life like the Pujaris (Hindu priests), garland makers, goldsmiths, temple cleaners, tailors and performing artistes like musicians, actors, dancers .
The temple also serves as a banker to the needy agriculturists and also provided an occupation to the farmers who tilled on the vast temple lands.It also provided for the moral satisfaction to the people of the locality. Temple courtyards or halls were the place for gatherings to hear stories based on mythology . Temples also had Pathshalas or schools attached to it. It also gives solace to those in distress and also an area of discussion by elders to placate local disputes and routine affairs.During festive days or fairs, it provides traders , merchants and other artisans along with the local people a platform to sell, buy and barter. Artistes from other regions also got an opportunity to perform. Such events provided general merriment for the families living close-by as a social platform.
To the more important temples, it had Natya-Mandapas attached i.e the temple theatre where Natya and Nrtya was performed on a daily basis as a ritual , even though it was both educational and provided aesthetic enjoyment to people from all walks of life. In Kerala, they are known as Koothambalams. Koothu means Natya and Ambalam means temple hence, it is the temple for theatre.

CONCEPT OF A KOOTHAMBALAM

Koothambalam at Vadakkunathan Temple, Trichur 

The Koothamabalam or Nrtta Mandapa came into existence during the day’s of Bharata. Bharatamuni in his extant NatyaSastra has in fact written an entire chapter based on the construction of an auditorium for theatre. Though , there is a legend associated to the need of an auditorium, practically Bharata believed in providing an specifically erected enclosed space for theatre to make it more aesthetic. Earlier , there wasn’t any particular space for performing arts, it was either done in any open space or on temporarily erected stages and even on streets.
As a result, the class of audience began to change. Mostly only invitees were present or those who are genuinely interested in the art form. The big audience began to disappear after transforming theatre to Natyadharmi The Nrtta Mandapa would have a capacity of 150-200 people which actually helped them closely observe Satvika Abhinaya as well.The square shape is the basis of all Indian architecture as it can contain any shape like the circle, triangle, octagon etc and also can extended to a rectangle. Square is considered ideal as it emulates the shape of the Vedic Homa Kunda , it is associated with divine beings in Vedic Rituals and hence considered suitable for building temples. Koothamabalam is also square or rectangular arrived at the process of addition, subtraction, multiplication or division mentioned in the Slokas of Silparatna pertaining to theatre. The architecture of the Koothambalam reflects that of the temple . It is considered as one of the Prasadas of the temple.The character and identity of a temple is determined by architecture of its śrīkōvil. Śrīkōvil is the nucleus of temple complex.
Some of its salient Features:-
  • To remove all external disturbances . It is said that after entering into the Koothambalam, it should be equivalent to entering a cave devoid of any distractions and complete obliviousness from the outside world. This helped in creating an atmosphere of divinity and hence uphold its sanctity as a divine structure.
  • Unlike the present day proscenium theatre where there is quite a distance between the performer and the audience since the stage is much higher; the Arangu at a Koothambalam , although a
    Arangu 
    raised platform is not very high, hence it ensures a healthy interaction between the performer and the audience. The audience seated on the ground would be completely involved in the performance.
  • It was a rule that all the visual arts like paintings or sculptures that would be present at the time of the performance should be in accordance with the theme to be presented that particular day
    or night. For eg if the theme is Karuna, then the respective visual arts should also depict the same Bhava. They should be miniatures of mythological stories compatible to the theme.
  • There shouldn’t be any background for the stage and any idea was purely dependant on the Angika Abhinaya of the actor.
  • Acoustics are given utmost importance. There should be no echo present and hence acoustic friendly. The actor should be able to deliver his voice till last end of his/her audience. The 3 types Natyagrahas mentioned in Bharata's Natya Sastra according to size and dimensions ( Biggest, Middle and Small sizes) also ensures the same. The 3 types according to their shapes are Vikrsta- Oblong , Chaturasra -Rectangular and Tryasra - Triangular. Hence to avoid echos, there would be openings on either sides of the structure especially between the trellis walls of the Mandapam.
  • Akin to the present day green rooms found in current day auditoriums, Koothambalams have a dressing room called Nepathya or Aniyara . It would mostly have 2 doors from the Rangamandapa, one for exit and one for entrance. There would also be a door leading to the pathway behind Rangamandapa .
  • Lighting is not given much importance as there would be mostly just big traditional lamp “Vilakku” that would be lit and Vilakku was an integral part of the performance. Once the Vilakku has been lit,then the performer becomes completely involved in his character. The Vilakku is considered as the deity instead of the temple’s presiding deity.
  • Consecration of a Koothambalam is an important ritual as the structure is considered divine.

PERFORMANCE

The Koothambalam is used for staging Koothu, Chakyar or Nangyar Koothu and Koodiyattam, an ancient ritualistic art forms of Central Kerala.  The Chakyarkoothu performers are collectively known as Chakyars. They are hereditary actors from Kerala mostly doing solo acts in Sanskrit plays. The single act can go on several days .It is necessary to enact a prelude to the original theme to be presented . That portion where a flashback is performed is called Nirvahana. The act begins properly only the last 2 days when all the characters come together to be enacted by a single Chakyar , hence the name Kuttiyatam meaning Joint acting, also refered as Kootu. Two legendary Chakiarkoothu doyens are Sri.Mani Madhava Chakyar and Ammanur Madhava Chakyar. The legacy is taken forward by eminent dancer Sri.G.Venu and his talented daughter Kapila Venu.
The only accompanying instruments used are 2 Mizhavus and an Edakka. Both percussion instruments. The 2 Mizhavus are
Mizhavus placed on the Arangu
permanently fixed on the Ranga Mandapa of the
Koothamabalam. One of the Mizhavu is the main one which controls the entire act and the other one is used to fill up any gaps during Talam. Mizhavus are also consecrated like the Koothamabalam itself and once they are spoilt out of usage, it is given royal funeral rituals. These Mizhavus are placed almost in front of the doors to the Nepathya.
Though it is originally in Sanskrit, the regionalised version came up in the 9th-10th century A.D and hence started using Manipravalam (mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam). The maintenance of the Natakasala and the performers were ensured the royalty and common men through generous endowments though cash and kind.

The Kootu was considered divine and was in fact one of the 16 upacharas or rituals conducted at the temple for the propitiation of the deity. The Chakyar was considered next to the head temple priest. He received the Vilakku from the priest after Pooja . During a performance, there wouldn’t be any Pooja at the Srikovil or vice versa as the deity’s presence should be present at the ritual as a whole, hence shouldn’t be divided. The deity should be present at the time of the performance at the Koothamabalam as Kootu was sacred . The Koothamabalam was considered almost equivalent to the Srikovil , hence Koothamabalam was treated like a temple.
Some of the most famous Koothambalams are found in temples suchas Vadakunathan in Trichur, Guruvayoor Sri Krishna Temple, Koodalmanikyam Temple - Irinjalakkuda, Mahadeva Temple - Peruvanam in Trichur District , Subramanya temple - Harippad.
Bibliography & References
  • Dr.K.G Paulose( Sanskrit scholar) -Primary source through conversations and direct notes at his residence
  • Panchal, GovardhanKuttu and Kuttampalam  
  • Rangacharya, Adya - The Natyasastra (English Translation with Critical Notes) 
  • Thanks to the Devaswom (temple administration)at Vadakkunathan temple for permission to see and take pictures of the Koothambalam (interior & exterior)


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