In the journey through the art, Usha felt the desire to enact female characters of strength and personality. Nangiarkoothu is a narration and therefore the performer keeps changing from one character to another. Many women characters went off the stage in many classic dramas. Her grandmother was a consummate Nangiarkoothu performer. Trained rigorously in the gurukula system by Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, she was taught not just the art but a way of living steeped in values and traditions.
Usha comes from a family with a long lineage of Koodiyattam artistes, both on her maternal and paternal sides. Her maternal family from Kumaranalloor, Kottayam, has been bestowed the right to perform in many temples around Kottayam. Her grandmother was a consummate Nangiarkoothu performer. But many in the next generation did not take up the art form owing to societal changes. Usha’s father being a mizhavu artiste definitely helped in moulding her interest.
When Koodiyattam broke out of ritualistic boundaries, the role of women also underwent a significant change. Although Sanskrit theatre demanded that women do the role of female characters, somewhere along the journey over millennia, women were reduced to the role of keeping the tala for Koodiyattam plays. Many women characters went off the stage in many classic dramas. Panchakanyas were ordained off the stage. So, over time, characters such as Sita and Mandodari disappeared from the stage. There might be many justifications for this vanishing act but the result was that the woman’s role became minimal in Koodiyatttam.
The revival of the art brought in a fresh look into this aspect as well. As a result, women were invited to learn Koodiyattam in Kerala Kalamandalam.
Long lost female characters made a comeback owing to this initiative. The establishment of Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Gurukulam by Venu G. with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar at the helm paved the way to the art for Usha.
Usha vehemently believes that Nangiarkoothu was revived by her guru Madhava Chakyar because of the persistent demand made by Venu G. Madhava Chakyar slowly got interested in it and taught Usha this subset of Koodiyattam.
Progressively, he became more innovative and put his heart and soul into it and thus was reborn a full-fledged art with an identity of its own. Usha is proud to have been the guinea pig of this experimental process. She has since then performed Sreekrishnacharitham Nangiarkoothu in its full version thrice – once in Vadakkumnathan Temple itself.
Usha believes that her biggest advantage was to be on stage as thalam Nangiar while watching her guru perform. She also remembers how restricted she felt doing Thara with him as Bali. She could respond only through facial expressions and those experiences helped her understand the finesse of the art form.
Nangiarkoothu is a narration and therefore the performer keeps changing from one character to another. In the journey through the art, Usha felt the desire to enact female characters of strength and personality. This made her dive into unfathomed depths in search of bigger pearls from the ocean of this art and she surfaced with a few invaluable ones such as Draupadi, Mandodari and Kathyaayani. According to her, all these were born out of the necessity for change.
A desire for a different look made her come up with Kathyaayani with chutti on the face, which is usually done for male characters only. Draupadi is described as wearing white clothes and this led her to portray Draupadi wearing white. Usha is all for innovativeness and experimentation as long as it is backed by the original text.
Even then she had to move away from her beliefs to bring on stage a character like Ahalya. Ahalya is a standalone character but Usha’s interpretation speaks volumes of the feminist rebellion boiling deep under the calm surface of her soothing persona.
Usha is now on a sabbatical. She is in no hurry to come up with new productions. She spends her time moulding a new generation of artistes including her daughter Athira.
Dr. Haripriya Nambudiri is a Kathakali artiste and researche
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