Articles by Mahesh Mangalat

Text and production:
New movements and establishment of new relationships

Kalasamithy Movement and the Thanathu Natakavedi are two theatre movements in Kerala that came into being in the post-independence Period. The Kalasamithy Movement is more of a responsive strategy that grew up consequent upon the then existent cultural and political milieu. The movement originated at Ponnani, a village in Northern Kerala in 1948, and it spread its base to the whole of Malabar area by the mid-fifties. Later, with the formation of the Kerala State in 1956, the movement became dormant and gradually disappeared from the scenario.

The Thanathu Natakavedi, loosely translated as indigenous theatre, gets established as a concept in theatre arts in 1968. C.N.Sreekandan Nair’s Kali (1968) gave an immediate impetus to this movement. Subsequently, the concept evolved into an authentically defined dramatic form. Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s dramatic works are found to be instrumental in building a modern dramatic sensibility. The present paper attempts to explicate the aesthetic ramifications concerning Thanathu Natakavedi.

Kerala could well nigh claim to possess a rich and variegated tradition in visual arts. Even today, many ritualistic art forms exist as manifestation of the cultural legacies of different indigenous castes, clans and tribes. The dramatic aspects of Theyyam, a popular ritualistic art form of North Kerala, have already been highlighted by many studies. Researchers have also examined how Padayani, the ritualistic art form of South Kerala had been the motive force behind Thullal, a temple art form. Classical performances like Koodiyattam, Koothu, Thullal and Kathakali are still prevalent in Kerala. We have the distinction of retaining the theatre practice of Sanskrit Drama as proposed by Bharatha in Natya Sasthra through Koodiyattam. However, Malayalam drama as well as the modern theatre in Kerala has evolved as a break from the rich tradition of performing art forms. As in the other regions of the country, the modern theatre in Kerala gets established as a result of the spread of Modernity in society and culture. Theatre historians (G.Sankarapillai, 1984, Kattumadam Naryanan, 1996) record the beginning of drama in Malayalam at the juncture where Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Sakundala is translated and adapted to dramatic presentation in 1882. The production of Sakunadala happened to manifest a trend towards the western models of mimesis rather than the Indian models, which we have preserved through Koodiyattam. Subsequent to this, Shakespearean plays were repeatedly translated, adapted and performed. The dependence of Malayalam theatre on western models did go well with the same bias towards the western ideals in literature of that language. The thirties witness the presentation of Ibsen in Malayalam. The Ibsenist trend could be found in vogue until the fiftees. The formation of the theatre in Kerala is amply influenced by the musical plays of Tamil. The presentation of drama by commercial troupes once constituted the mainstream of the theatre in Malayalam. The Kalasamithy Movement mentioned in the first part of this paper could well be seen as a force that goes counter to this mainstream drama culture.

With the dawn of independence, the society in Kerala underwent turbulent days; newborn sub-society, which was fortunate to control political institutions, went rampant, with least regard to the positive social values nurtured by the erstwhile feudal institutions. On the otherside, the communists, who failed to approve independence, went on warpath. Amidst the chaos, the society was in search of a medium to express their resolve in humanist values. The Kalasamithy Movement could be found greatly successful in moulding the stagecraft for the manifestation of people’s thought and ideas. It takes up this mission by encouraging dramatic creations and stage representation in each and every village. Edassery Govindan Nair’s Koottu Krishi, meaning Joint farming, is one of the great dramatic contributions .The play forcefully appeals for the realisation of the noble concept of man by shedding all the paraphernalia of sectarian and attitudes. The political scenario changed with the formation of Unified Kerala in 1956 and the movement slowly lost its vogue.

The Nataka Kalari was a forum organised by a group of playwrights, directors, actors and painters in 1967. Playwright C.N.Sreekantan Nair presented his avant-garde thesis at the gathering of Nataka Kalari the next year. He addresses a seminal question, as why no indigenously formed theatre culture could be realised in Malayalam in spite of its long drawn and chequered tradition in the arts of drama and dramaturgy. He suggested the firm and logical conclusion that the symbiosis of eastern and western concepts could not be suited to organic development of an indigenous theatre culture. The essential difference between the western model, which we followed, and the theatre tradition that we inherited can be summarised as follows:

Focus upon form/structure Focus upon the portrayal of protagonist’s inner conflict
Dhwani Concentrates upon character build-up
Rasa Presentation of emotions
Imaginative and fantasised portrayal of life Mundane portrayal of life
Stylised Realistic
Poetic Analytical
Abstract Concrete

Our drama gets reduced to mere imitative exercise as a result of the basic disparities of our tradition and the western models, which we tried to assimilate. This problematique inevitably provokes speculations in new directions. The new form of drama, Thanathu Natakvedi, is an end solution to the irking puzzle regarding the formulation of a novel theatrical identity in concomitance with the ritual arts tradition of our land.

Thanathu Natakavedi emphasises indigenousness in two-fold way. It is intended to manifest indigenousness of performance as well as that of the regional culture. However, a realistically oriented research is necessitated here as the arguments may slip off into fundamentalist and parochial premises. Such an enquiry is initiated rather as a search for a Theatre, which could be realised through practical experimentation than any abstract theoretical speculations. It is not very comfortably arguable that C.N. Sreekantan Nair had greatly succeeded in materialising his concepts through his own creation Kali. But as with Kavalam’s works, it could safely be affirmed that they really provided Thanathu Natakavedi a clear direction and scope for fruition. He could well nigh reconstruct the aesthetic foundations in Malayalam theatre through his masterly works like Sakshi, Daivathaar, Avanavan Kadamba and Karimkutty

The discourses that takes place with regard to the staging of Kavalam’s plays give scope for a systematic codification of the characteristics of Thanathu Nataka Vedi.They can be enumerated as follows :

1 Core of the narrative based upon myth.
2 Flexibility as characteristics of plot.
3 Assimilation of patterns of ritual in the conception and performance of the play.
4 Stylisation in stage behaviour and dialogue rendition.
5 Assimilation of colours and patterns from Indigenous performing art forms.
6 Use of humour as an ease in discourse.
7 Environmental acting.

Kavalam Narayana Panicker realises all these characteristics through his plays. Thanathu Natakavedi as an idea is made a reality in theatre by incorporating the external and internal features of indigenous performances. The fifties and sixties form a period when almost all Indian regional theatres go through a stage of rigorous experimentation. Many such experiments in the structure and stagecraft bear close affiliation with new trends in western drama. For the same reason, Thanathu Natakavedi was evaluated on the basis of western theories of stage. The ideas of Grotowsky, Artuad, Peter Brook and Richard Schechner were called for profusely. It was in this situation that the Malayalam dramatist and critic T.P.Sukumaran demonstrated that Malayalam drama could well be appreciated without the props of western theoretical premises. In his play Ayanchery Valyesaman, he goes on to prove the fact that the western concepts do get reflected even through so old a dramatic form of Kerala known as Vellari Natakam does. T.P.Sukumaran further clarifies the point that keralites need theoretical base for each and everything because of their fundamental over-dependence on West.

As such, the aesthetics legacy left by Thanathu Natakavedi has not been properly comprehended and appreciated by literary historians and critics just because much of their sensibility rests heavily upon western concepts and formulations. There were even accusations that the attempt to revitalise theatre with an indigenous idiom demonstrates a trend towards revivalism. Inspite of all these misapprehensions theatre activities since the evolution of Thanathu Natakavedi have been the diverse manifestations of this concept. K.J.Baby a political activist and theatre practitioner is an illustrative example. His Nadu Gaddika, which is an agit-prop, a play with a revolutionary content, is set in the mould of Thanathu Natakavedi. It should be added here that the political contentions of Baby could only identify Thanathu Natakavedi as revivalist. Another remarkable example is that of Puli Janmam of N.Prabhakran, which treats a topic of existential anguish, does follow the model of Thanathu Natakavedi, just like the earlier example. All the later playwrights who have articulated a genuine concern for the medium are destined to imbibe the aesthetic formulations of Thanathu Natakavedi as elaborated in Table II.

The most remarkable contribution of Thanathu Natakvedi is that it opened up a discourse, which problematised the relationship between text and production as well as character and actor. The premier of Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s play Avanavan Kadamba was instrumental in initialising a discussion with regard to their training of actors in Thanathu Natakavedi. The Pattern of stylisation, which is drawn from the traditional as well as classical performances of Kerala, which were aesthetically blended for the portrayal of the characters in the play, posed the question: Whether any other troupe of actors or another director would be able to present the play as it has been done by the ensemble of the playwright and the actors trained by him? The rationale of this question is directly linked to the performing practice prevalent in Kerala, which was essentially imitating real life models in presentation. It is needless to say that it adheres to the western realist theatre practice. In a performing tradition, which has exemplified its aesthetic excellence in Koodiyattam, Kathakali and in diverse forms of folk performances like Theyyam, Padayani etc., such a question naturally would seem odd. In classical theatre, an actor is trained to perform any character from any text. In the western model prevalent in Kerala, an actor is trained to present a particular character from a particular play. It necessitates constant rehearsal and practice for an actor. As the pattern of stylisation proposed by Thanathu Natakavedi matures into a full-fledged system of articulation, the actor is liberated from the confines of a single text into the ever-widening expanses of artistic expression.


G.Sankarapillai, 1984, Malayala Nataka Sahithya Chraithram, Kerala Sahitya Akademi. , Kattumadam Naryanan, 1996, Malayala Nataka Prasthanam. Kearala Sahitya Akademi.