The Kutiyattam Sanskrit theatre is the oldest living theatrical tradition in India. Performed in the Kuttampalams (theatres located in the Hindu temples), it goes back more than 2000 years and represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and local traditions of Kerala in particular the comic theatre in Malayalam language. Facial expression (especially of the eyes), movement and gesture form a very precisely codified language.
Access to these performances is restricted because of their sacred nature but they have progressively opened up. The actor's role has nonetheless retained its sacred dimension with prior purification rituals and the presence of an oil lamp on stage symbolizing divine presence. The male actors from the Chakyar community hand down from master to pupil detailed performance manuals which remained until recently in the exclusive and secret property of specific families.
The complete performance may last up to 40 days. The Kutiyattam is the only form of theatre in India where men (Chakyar community) and women (Nangiar community) perform alongside each other accompanied by percussionists for the Nambiar community.
In the 19th century, this theatre experienced serious difficulties with the collapse of patronage. After a short revival at the beginning of the 20th century, the Kutiyattam is again short of funding which is leading to a severe crisis in the profession. Much of popular disaffection is due to the difficulty and complexity of the codes of this traditional theatre.
Five institutions are responsible for handing down the tradition, including the Margi Centre which has set up a training programme. An archive is planned in order to preserve the actors' manuals and audiovisual documents. Documentary films on the masters of this theatre form will be produced.
This film is also part of Safeguarding Living Heritage, a 2h10' DVD published by UNESCO Publishing and NHK
Series: Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
Credits: NHK Enterprises 21 Inc, producer ; Ortus Japan, producer. UNESCO, co-producer.
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