The theatre form, which is an offshoot of Koodiyattam, is considered to be a sole domain of female artistes.
What started as a mandatory dance lesson at the age of 10 has become her identity today. Usha Nangiar is amongst the leading performers to practise Nangyar Koothu, an age-old (approx 1,200 years) Sanskrit drama tradition from Kerala. The theatre form, which is an offshoot of Koodiyattam, is considered to be a sole domain of female artistes. Usha will perform a solo-mime performance at Prithvi Theatre today.
The ritual was traditionally only performed across temple venues, which didn’t work in its favour. The art form has received a fillip after artistes like Usha got it in the public domain. While the performance traditionally revolved around retelling legends of Lord Krishna, the dancer introduced female perspectives of mythological characters such as Mandodari, Karthyayini Devi, Ahalya and Draupadi. It was while reading books and palm leaflets on the ancient practices of the art form that she decided to reintroduce these stories for audiences. “Going through those texts helped me understand and revive the art form. Probably stories of Draupadi and Ahalya were discontinued with time. We decided to bring them back,” she explains.
The dance is accompanied by verses, mizhavu (a percussion instrument) and ilathalam (cymbals). The mudras are the same as Kootiyattam, another dance form, but the expressions here are more elaborate. Usha believes this is one of the main reasons why it failed to move with the times. “Nangyar Koothu is a difficult art form. It takes at least 10 years of training to get the postures right. Plus you need to essay multiple characters on stage. It is much easier to opt for a dance form than this kind of theatre.”
Usha took to Nangyar Koothu at the age of 10 as a rite of passage, since it is performed traditionally only by the women of the Ambalavasi Nambiar community of Kerala. She is the only woman in her family to practise it today. “A lot of girls have opted for other vocations in the last few decades. Very few continue to be interested now. The government didn’t take the responsibility to treasure these art forms,” she rues.
In today’s show, Usha will retell the story of Ahalya, the virtuous wife of Gautam who is tricked by Indra. When Gautam finds Ahalya, she is cursed to turn into a stone. “She was an innocent girl who fell for the lust-driven Indra’s trickery.” She continues, “Ahalya is hungry, but cannot eat; she is thirsty but cannot drink. Ahalya has perceptions and feelings within the stony exterior. She was a victim of circumstances; it made sense to essay this ignored character.”
Today, 6 pm onwards
At Prithvi Theatre, Juhu.