Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2001)

Country(ies): India



Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre

Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, which is practised in the province of Kerala, is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. Originating more than 2,000 years ago, Kutiyattam represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala. In its stylized and codified theatrical language, neta abhinaya (eye expression) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) are prominent. They focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character. Actors undergo ten to fifteen years of rigorous training to become fully-fledged performers with sophisticated breathing control and subtle muscle shifts of the face and body. The actor’s art lies in elaborating a situation or episode in all its detail. Therefore, a single act may take days to perform and a complete performance may last up to 40 days.

Kutiyattam is traditionally performed in theatres called Kuttampalams, which are located in Hindu temples. Access to performances was originally restricted owing to their sacred nature, but the plays have progressively opened up to larger audiences. Yet the actor’s role retains a sacred dimension, as attested by purification rituals and the placing of an oil lamp on stage during the performance symbolizing a divine presence. The male actors hand down to their trainees detailed performance manuals, which, until recent times, remained the exclusive and secret property of selected families.

With the collapse of patronage along with the feudal order in the nineteenth century, the families who held the secrets to the acting techniques experienced serious difficulties. After a revival in the early twentieth century, Kutiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession. In the face of this situation, the different bodies responsible for handing down the tradition have come together to join efforts in order to ensure the continuity of this Sanskrit theatre.



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Safeguarding project (01-2004/10-2007)

Kutiyattam is the oldest surviving form of Sanskrit theatre in Kerala, India, which developed a rich symbolic set of facial gestures, masks, and colorful costumes. This project aimed to bring Kutiyattam performers, previously working separately, together in creative exchange and expand the interest in their art. The long-term objectives were to:

  • Create a network of Kutiyattam institutions and gurukalam (learning centres)
  • Nurture the transmission to future generations
  • Develop new audiences for Kutiyattam
  • Foster further academic research on Kutiyattam

To address them, the project activities included the organization of:

  • A Network of Kutiyattam Associations through joint coordination meetings of Kutiyattam institutions and gurukalam (learning centres), as well as the compilation of a Kutiyattam Register of traditional families and individual practitioners
  • Training workshops and art camps for young artists and an increased number of performances, while the wider public was engaged in public performances and festivals
  • Workshop for performers to handle palm-leaf manuscripts of Kutiyattam, often in possession of families; re-edition of old palm-leaf manuscripts and production of new plays; and audio-visual recordings and a series of documentary films
  • Academic seminars and publications

A major result was that for the first time Kutiyattam performers cooperated in an association to address common issues and exchange practices, which in the past was kept privately in the last three custodian families. Such generation of social capital in communication is crucial to the survival of any cultural practice.

Full project description : English in preparation