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Licence to kill ... with humour

The Chakyars could get away with the most outrageous satire



Chakyars make much comical use of body language

CHAKYAR KOOTHU, the folk art, is linked to Koodiyattam, the 2,000-year-old classical Sanskrit theatre of Kerala. The latter is highly ritualistic, operating within strict boundaries and parameters. Though Koodiyattam is the enactment of Sanskrit drama, only part of a play is presented. The actors are members of the Chakyar community, with the Nambiar on the mizhavu, the ceremonial copper drum, and the Nangiar women (women of the Nambiar community) handling the bell metal cymbals.

Koodiattam performances — traditionally only in the koothambalams of temples — extended over days — sometimes up to 41 days — and to keep audiences occupied, the character of the vidushaka, or the jester, took the centre-stage in between. He would interpret the Sanskrit slokas in Malayalam, using the occasion to comment on contemporary events, people, members of the audience, and even the king. His right to do so was inviolate and he could get away with the most outrageous satire and scatology, which were invariably couched in elegant — never inappropriate — language. In fact, his voice was that of the masses and he could get the message across to the feudal masters. Needless to say, the Chakyars had to have a razor sharp wit.

The Tamil classic Silappadikaram mentions the dance of the Chakkayan, a Brahmin versed in the four Vedas. Such koothus were performed in the court of the ruling Perumals. There is another reference to a koothu in Thanjavur, during the reign of Raja Raja Chozha in 993. There is also a theory that Chakyar is a corruption of the word `Slakhyar', which, inter alia, was the term used to describe those who had converted from Buddhism to the Vedic religion. K.P.S. Menon, an authority on Kathakali, Koodiyattam, and other allied performing arts, mentions that Chakyars were excommunicated Brahmins.

The Chakyar's costume is both comical and dramatic. His headgear is in red, black, and white, with small mirrors representing the 2,000 tongues of Adishesha, as a metaphor for his poisonous bites. A tuft of vermilion threads hangs from the headgear, symbolising his hair. His torso is smeared with ash, while his dhoti is bunched at the back and padded with ruffled cloth to resemble the tail of a swan. His face is painted white and eyes fearsomely blackened. He has two moustaches, one drooping and the other raised. Apart from the kumkum on his forehead, red dots are scattered on his cheeks, tip of the nose, chin, chest, and upper arms. The Chakyar plays a lot with his sacred thread and his vermilion tuft, making much comical use of body language.

The mizhavu, the drum played during his performance, is also unusual in that it is vested with divinity. This huge instrument, if damaged, should never be repaired. It is entitled to ceremonies like namakaranam, annnaprasanam, and is accorded funeral rites once it has done its time.

The Nangiyar Koothu, traditionally presented by Nangiyar women, is also a performing art in its own right.

S.R.

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