In 1956, the unthinkable happened in Koodiyattam, Kerala’s 2000-year-old ritual Sanskrit theatre tradition. Its reigning stalwart, Painkulam Rama Chakyar, decided to take the art out of koothambalams, temple theatres that were an island of Brahminical exclusion, and into more inclusive spaces.

At the time Koodiyattam was highly caste-codified and the monopoly of two priestly castes – the actors had to be Chakyars and the drummers, Nambiars. Nangiarkoothu, a Sanskrit drama tradition allied with Koodiyattam, was the domain of Nambiar women. A royal proclamation opened the temples of Kerala to all castes by 1939 but the art form and the koothambalams remained off-limits.

It is this boundary that Painkulam crossed to find more audiences for a tradition that was slowly but steadily dying because of its insularity.

Over the coming decades, the maestro continued to fracture bonds of orthodoxy, caste, gender and privilege. In 1965, he broke the last taboo – he took Koodiyattam to Kalamandalam, the fabled arts institution of Kerala, offering it up to anyone keen to learn. If today anyone can watch and perform this magnificent art, known for its highly stylised Noh-like deliberation and pace, at any platform, it is because of his foresight.

But while the art got democratised through decades of radical social and cultural shifts, the koothambalam remained – and remains to this day – inaccessible to marginal caste groups. The periodic ritual performances in these temple spaces are still an upper caste preserve and non-ritual acts remain verboten.

In recent months, bringing Painkulam’s revolt a full circle, several Koodiyattam artistes across castes and communities have been campaigning to reclaim the koothambalam as an open performance space for all. At a recent webinar featuring some of its best-known performers, including Usha Nangiar, Kapila Venu and Kalamandalam Jishnu Prathap, there was a demand for a shift in practices.

Mahishasuravadham by Kapila Venu.

The campaign comes at a time when Kerala is dealing with a sharply polarised debate on the use of temple precincts as a venue for artistes of all identities. In late March, Mansiya VP, a Bharatanatyam dancer who was born a Muslim, was barred from performing at Koodalamanikyam temple in Irininjalakuda during its annual festival.

“There can be no place in a modern, democratic society for caste and community barriers for artistes,” said Manoj Kuroor, a literary scholar. Kuroor has researched in painstaking detail the evolution of Koodiyattam from the early Sangam period to the 15th century when the first koothambalams made their appearance in classical texts. He avers that the “kind of controversies we have over an Yesudas or a [kathakali singer] Hyder Ali or a Mansiya performing in temples are an anomaly in the world today. Why should we stick any art with a caste/community tag?”

There are complex interlinkages between temples, rituals and performing arts in Kerala. Quite of a few of the state’s classical arts have ritual associations that kept them the domain of elite castes – vocal (sopanam), percussive (chenda, mizhavu, edakka and so on) and theatre (Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu). So much so that two popular forms – Kathakali and Ottanthulal – evolved as creative revolts against this Sanskritic hegemony.

Kalamandalam Jishnu Prathap performs at the koothambalam in Subramanya Swamy temple in Haripad. Credit: KK Gopalakrishnan.

Given these caste barriers, the bulk of Koodiyattam performances are now performed at secular venues. Why then has the koothambalam become the focus of the new anti-caste campaign? To understand this, it is important to locate the temple theatre in Koodiyattam’s history and ecosystem.

According to Kuroor, the earliest record of a koothambalam goes back to the 15th century. Construction of new ones stopped in the 20th century with the collapse of the old social order. Conservation architect Gopika Jayasree has documented around 14 surviving koothambalams in Kerala, all stunning pieces of architecture where the use of wood and stone dominate.

An intimate arena that can at best seat 100-150 people, Koodiyattam artistes acknowledge the koothambalam as an ideal performance space because it allows viewers to access subtle abhinaya, especially the use of eyes, which is critical to the art. Its acoustics offers a superb soundscape for the copper mizhavu drum. The whole effect is magnified by the light of a large flickering lamp on the stage.

For sheer drama, there is little that can beat the koothambalam.

The koothambalam at Peruvanam temple in Thrissur. Credit: Aruna/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license].

“I have memories of those great spaces,” said artiste Usha Nangiar at the webinar. “The villakku (lamp) cast an otherworldly light on the bright colours of the costume. And then the acoustics. It created a controlled space with limitless possibilities. You were pulled less towards the lokadharmi (worldly) here.” Nangiar has not been invited to perform ritual Nangiarkoothu performances in temple theatres after she married outside the caste line.

It is in the traditional home of Koodiyattam that contemporary artistes want a foothold. Among them is Kalamandalam Jishnu Prathap, whose career trajectory shows why traditional performance spaces should be made inclusive. For one, he is a student of Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, the grandnephew of the legendary Painkulam. Also, by virtue of a 2015 government order that opened the koothambalam at the Subramanya Swamy temple at Haripad to all artistes, he has been able to perform extensively in this exclusive space.

“The quality of openness in my guru and before him, his guru, changed the history of Koodiyattam and in effect, the quality of the art itself,” Jishnu said. “The koothambalam provided the soil that nurtured Koodiyattam through the ages and it is critical for us all to have this space to hone our art. Where else will get to stage those detailed, dense and erudite works that we have been trained for years to perform? At common venues, we are always limited by issues of time and audience appeal.”

Usha Nangiar in Nangiarkoothu Kaliyamarddanam.

An example of what he is referring to is the 41-day theatrical extravaganza, Mantrankam, based on a Sanskrit play (Pratijna Yougandharayan) by Bhasa harking back to 2nd-3rd CE and performed as a ritual offering. It is highly unlikely that a commercial venue would host this play that unwinds at a leisurely pace, weaving multiple storylines, and using both social commentary and ritual texts to create a riveting piece of theatre.

“We can’t allow these great works to become mere memories because the politics of the art allows only a chosen few to perform them,” said Prathap. “Caste deprives artistes of opportunities, but it also endangers the art itself. There are simply not enough Chakyars or Nambiars to perform the requisite ritual performances at koothambalams, so year after year, they are being missed. Why not allow us all in to fill this gap? I know of masters who use substandard drummers for koothambalam performances simply because they tick the caste box but use other talented artistes at secular venues.”

As Jishnu points out, social media has given heft to the campaign for inclusive spaces which in the 1980s and ’90s was limited to individual voices of protest. G Venu, a veteran Koodiyattam scholar, recalls witnessing great koothambalam performances with less than a handful of Namboodiris watching from the front row reserved for them.

Another performance by Kalamandalam Jishnu Prathap in a koothambalam. Credit: Suraj Haripad.

Taking the art forward are remarkable artistes from diverse backgrounds, among them bright women artistes like Kapila Venu, Kalamandalam Prashanthi and Krishnendu.

“I believe that koothambalams must be opened up to all artistes who have the right to enter a temple,” said KK Gopalakrishnan, a Tagore National Research Scholar who is documenting the changes in Koodiyattam since 1965. As the former director of the Koodiyattam Centre, he had initiated the process for the opening up of the Haripad koothambalam in 2015.

“Temples are publicly-funded institutions, so they must be inclusive,” Gopalakrishnan said. “And if the performances are well-publicised, they can attract good audiences. I have seen koothambalam events where there isn’t even a board announcing the event. Also, many koothambalams are in a decrepit state, with filth thrown about. Why would we not want to change this? There is no great virtue in preserving this art as the inaccessible thing that it once was, performed in the deep dark of the night with a few entitled folks lolling about.”

Inside of the koothambalam at Subramanya Swamy temple in Haripad. Credit: KK Gopalakrishnan.

In 2001, Koodiyattam was recognised by Unesco as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, reviving interest in the art and bringing resources to it. Among those who facilitated this recognition was heritage scholar Sudha Gopalakrishnan, who painstakingly documented the tradition.

“The upside of the old ecosystem was that the Chakyars preserved this art zealously over centuries, but the downside was it did not have enough exposure, not even enough opportunities for performances,” said Gopalakrishnan. “With specific families assigned specific temples, there were severe limitations to its growth. I am all for opening up these spaces because those days of ritual exclusivity are long gone. But we need to devise a system to oversee the switch, ensure the continuity of the tradition.”

Kuroor argues forcefully for change, refuting status quoist claims about tradition, turf and purity. During the early Sangam era, when Kerala and Tamil Nadu were a single entity, there are references to at least 160 anushthana kala (ritual arts) practised exclusively by certain communities, he says. It was in the later Sangam period, and specifically in the Tamil epic work Silapadikaram, that the first references emerge of Koodiyattam.

Asokavanikangam Kutiyattam by Kalamandalam Jishnu Prathap.

“There were notions of agakoothu and purrakoothu (indoor and outdoor performances) – court vs popular folk venues,” he said. “It was only after 7th-8th CE, when royalty weakened and the Brahminical order took over in Kerala, wielding land rights and political clout, that the arts were appropriated by temple authorities. Between the 9th and 12th century CE, we have massive evidence of temple-centric rules for the arts with Chakyars and Nambiars emerging as powerful cliques.”

There is also evidence that the Koodiyattam repertoire includes performances that could not possibly have been done in temples – for example, parrakankoothu that needs aerial props and chudalakoothu, a funereal practice.

“All this goes to prove that the exclusivity we associate with Koodiyattam today may not stand up to a fact check,” said Kuroor. “This big noise around parampara (tradition), caste and community will not sustain the art.”

Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.