The rains were nothing more than sustained showers when the troupe left their Koodiyattam institution in central Kerala for a milestone festival of the ancient Sanskrit theatre in Delhi. Back they reach 10 days later and find their worst fears having come true: the deluge has battered the vintage-looks auditorium and almost everything inside it is in tatters.
The 2018 floods played a demonic role in two-millennium-old history of Koodiyattam as well, by dirtying and damaging a venue dedicated solely to its stage presentation. The 14-year-old Nepathya in Moozhikulam of Ernakulam district has its Koothambalam requiring a massive clean-up of its 1,500-square-feet area and expert repair of a chunk of its costume.
Scholars cannot recall a story of waters invading a Koothambalam, at least in the region’s recent history (including the Great Flood of 1924). That means Nepathya’s 2008-opened traditional-style auditorium has most likely scripted a uniquely sad episode in the profile of the art-form tracing its roots to the Sangam era. The academic centre’s Koothambalam, which doesn’t go by the classical feature of being part of a Hindu temple, stands by the Chalakudy river. The week-long rains starting from the Independence Day swelled its course before merging with an even more furious Periyar, inundating Moozhikulam among several neighbouring villages.
A 13-member team of the Nepathya were slated to perform a six-day Koodiyattam in the national capital, starting August 16. Organised by Sahapedia, an open multimedia knowledge repository on the arts and culture, the evenings at India International Centre were to unveil the charm of a dramatic segment from the epic Ramayana. The challenge of presenting the various characters in the multi-layered ‘Surpanakhankam’ chapter had excited the team comprising actors, drummers and make-up artistes no end. Delhi, for the first time-ever, was poised to witness the entire exposition of this episode from the 8th-9th-century playwright Shaktibhadra’s Ascharyachoodamani in Koodiyattam style, courtesy the fete held in association with Seher, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
All went off well in the northern metropolis even as its artistes knew that not all was well back home. TV channels, newspapers and social media kept feeding them with bad to worse developments regarding the downpour and the destruction it triggered.
“Nevertheless, we had to run the show!” says frontline Koodiyattam performer Margi Madhu, who headed the team of Nepathya he registered in 2004. “Focus on the profession is something we are customarily used to as members from traditional (Chakyar) families into performing the art,” adds the middle-aged master, trained pivotally at Margi in Thiruvananthapuram, from where he returned in 1998 and launched Koodiyattam performance and training in his native Moozhikulam.
Today, Nepathya warrants a thorough overhaul. From the heavy stand that forms a wooden square to accommodate the large copper drum called mizhavu to small trinkets that deck up the stage characters in their detailed make-up, almost everything lies scattered in the muck that has entered the Koothambalam built in concrete with a cost of Rs 25 lakh. The costume that had travelled to Delhi escaped the monsoon fury, but much of the rest got drenched in a way that necessitates major repair or total replacement, going by the owners of Nepathya, built also using government grants.
“If the mizhavana (frame around the main percussion instrument) was carried from the behind part of the (foot-high) stage to another corner of the Koothambalam, you can assume the force of the waters that entered,” points out Madhu’s performer-wife Indu G, a practitioner specialising in solo theatre called Nangiarkoothu, the female off-shoot of Koodiyattam. “The smaller mizhavu drums, too, got displaced after floating around before the waters receded.”
For now, the dirt looks like chocolate paste. “There is stench as well. The clean-up would require professional workers,” adds Dr Indu, who has a PhD in Koodiyattam and is a schoolteacher. “It’s not going to be easy, as one needs to take lanes that are not very broad to reach the theatre.”
Added to that, the whole locality became inaccessible in a day after the Nepathya team left for Delhi. That is why the couple, who has a teenaged performer-son Sreehari Chakyar, says they can only assume that the rainwater in the Koothambalam rose to above five feet. “Some of the costumes we could shift to upper portions of the shelf just as the flood levels became dangerous,” says Koodiyattam actor Nepathya Vishnu Prasad, who was part of the team that performed in Delhi.
Into his 20s, Vishnu, along with same-age artistes Yadu Krishnan and Rahul Chakyar, could do some damage-control as they had to reach the capital city as a second batch on August 18, ahead of their roles in the festival. That made their journey tough, also because the flight was by then rerouted to take off from Thiruvananthpuram as the Kochi airport was closed in the morning of August 15. “From home,” adds Yadu, “we had to wade through the waters, swim at certain stretches, to reach Athani (near Nedumbassery) and from there take a low-floor bus southward to Kochi on our way to Thiruvananthpuram.”
Madhu’s team went through a fair share of drama ahead of their take-off from Kochi. “We just about managed to leave before the airport was closed (and is now slated for reopening on August 29),” says Madhu. As Indologist David Shulman, who worked at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, noted at his introductory talk at the Delhi festival on August 16 evening, “Koodiyattam is in any case full of miracles. One more to it happened yesterday when the last plane from Kochi carried the Koodiyattam artistes you see here.”
But then, their Delhi sojourn soon showed its tragic side as well. “I did see the pictures of the Nepathya Koothambalam after the flood,” says scholar Sudha Gopalakrishnan, who heads the 2011-established Sahapedia based in Delhi as a not-for-profit society. “The sight was distressing.”
Kathakali artiste Ettumanoor Kannan, who is director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based SNA Kudiyattam Kendra functioning under the union government’s Sangeet Natak Akademi, says Nepathya will get the aid it deserves. “We will do whatever we can to regain it,” he adds.
Makeup veteran Kalamandalam Satheesan, who was a member of the team in Delhi, says a chunk of the costume at Nepathya would require work. “The wooden materials may have bulged up partly if not fully. They would at least need fresh set of mirror-work and threading,” he notes. “The dress clothes drenched in mud-water can only be chucked.”
For now, Madhu seeks to find solace in a short-term fact: “We don’t have any programmes immediately following. We have time to recover.”