An absolutely fascinating post by David Shulman at the NYRBlog describes the discovery of a remarkably preserved dramatic tradition in South India:
Imagine a classicist who, visiting some remote Ionian valley, stumbles on an unknown, uninterrupted performance tradition of classical Greek tragedy going back to the days of Sophocles. In fact, something like this happened on a different stretch of Indian coast, in the southwestern state of Kerala, where scholars have encountered a living tradition of classical Sanskrit drama that has survived intact for more than one thousand years. It is called Kudiyattam—literally, “performing or playing together”; the name may reflect the presence on stage of one or more actors closely attuned to drummers playing the ancient, free-standing mizhavu drums, or it may point to the moment, common to many of the dramas performed, when a lone actor—who has held the audience in thrall over many nights—is joined by another.
Kudiyattam performances are never short. In their natural form, they range from twelve hours to over one hundred and fifty hours. This summer I spent all of August in central Kerala with my Sanskrit and Malayalam students, witnessing one of the great compositions of this tradition, the so-called Anguliyankam, or Drama of the Ring, which went on for some 130 hours spread over twenty-nine nights.
Kudiyattam plays, always based on classical Sanskrit texts, many of them composed in Kerala, invariably include a long nirvahanam or “retrospective” in which a character reveals, mostly by the silent language of hand- and eye-gestures, abhinaya, the long process that has brought him or her to the present moment in the play. In the course of performing this retrospective, the solitary actor frequently adopts other personae, always signaling such a transition by a coded move familiar to the spectators—usually by tying or untying the tasseled ends of a long cord that forms part of his elaborate costume of red, white, and black cloth, rich ornament with many reflecting surfaces, and a high headdress. This condensation of many voices in a single actor (called pakarnattam, “exchanging roles”) is a hallmark of the tradition and a clear innovation in relation to what we know of classical Sanskrit drama. Sanskrit verses and prose passages from the original text of the play are recited, or rather sung, always in a peculiar, high-pitched musical style that includes several distinct ragas or recitation modes; but the great bulk of the performance is devoted to the actor’s silent enactment and elaboration of such passages, to the accompaniment of the drums.
I’m tempted to go on quoting, but I’d wind up reproducing the whole thing, so I’ll send you to the link for the rest. I’m not sure I could sit through a month-long dramatic performance, but I love reading about it; the description reminds me of the aristocratic dramas of Japan and Southeast Asia (not that I know all that much about either—and yes, “Drama of the Ring” reminds us all, distractingly, of Tolkien). I wish I could share Shulman’s confidence that the tradition “simply cannot come to an end”; on the contrary, I’d bet it won’t last more than a few decades, and I hope it’s decently recorded before it vanishes. (Thanks, Eric!)