An absolutely fascinating post by David Shulman at the NYRBlog (archived) 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!)


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    “Drama of the Ring” reminds us all, distractingly, of Tolkien
    Or of Wagner.

  2. Imagine what a “remade for television” version of such a performance could look like. Thirty minutes in the afternoon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, for two years…

  3. Another such dramatic tradition is the American electoral campaign, as shown over many months on television, this year and every year. Since it’s already decently recorded, we can hope in good conscience that it will die out at some point.

  4. In its present form, that is.

  5. Trond Engen says

    The hypothetcical parallel of Homeric drama in a Ionian valley isn’t quite far out enough. Ionia had a large number of Greek speakers until recently, while Kerala is a thoroughly Dravidian region. The Zagros Mountains, maybe.
    The threat could also come from another side. Since Sanskrit heritage is so politicized in India, it could be taken up by nationalist movements and purified into something it never was. An unbroken tradition of Sanskrit drama in Kerala will e.g. undoubtedly have interesting linguistic features that might be in danger of being purged out by Sanskrit purists.

  6. “I’m not sure I could sit through a month-long dramatic performance”: this may explain the Indian love of cricket.

  7. “Since Sanskrit heritage is so politicized in India, it could be taken up by nationalist movements and purified into something it never was,…”
    Which is entirely consistent with Sanskrit itself.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I wish I’d made that point.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    If you found Homeric drama being performed in the Zagros mountains but dependent on funding provided by foreign do-gooders and low-two-digits attendance even inclusive of curious grad students and anthropologists, I don’t think you would have found much of a living cultural tradition. What this piece doesn’t say is how many years back you had to go to find a self-sustaining cultural tradition with a local audience and local funding. I will confess to knowing nada about the current politics of Sanskrit in India, although I note by way of parallel that the non-IE nature of Hungarian and Finnish didn’t prevent a high degree of Latinity among the elites of those speech communities until comparatively recently – if only to provide a level playing field so they wouldn’t have to communicate with foreign elites in the latter’s modern IE languages.

  10. This sounds a lot like Kathakali dancing in Kerala, which does go all night and features masks that look exactly like those in the photos, thought they don’t use that term in the NYRB.
    I saw an all-night show of this 1986, but it was in Ernakulam, which is pretty much as urban and “discovered” as Kerala gets. Still pretty amazing.

  11. Trond Engen says

    I’ll haste to admit that the Zagros mountains are at least one range too far-fetched. I first meant to name a place in the Orthodox sphere of the Balkans, but valleys south of the Danube felt too close to Greece geographically, and for some reason I couldn’t come up with the Carpathians.
    There’s a Latin radio station in Finland.

  12. http://www.ssus.ac.in/index.php/about-ssus/profile is a Sanskrit-oriented university in Kerala which claims to be “The only University actively pursuing research and documentation of Vedic tradition, art and culture with exclusive 100-Hour audio-video documentations of Koodiyattom – a unique art form of Kerala and the chanting of the Samaveda in the Jaiminiya tradition.” They don’t seem to be anti-Dravidian; on another page of the cite they say they’re working on “Making provisions to get translated Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads into Malayalam language.”

  13. Trond: Here’s part of the first scene from The Acharnians by Aristophanes, tr. William Arrowsmith:
    DIKAIOPOLIS [the hero]
    The Great King, yet!
    I’m sick of all these embassies,
    and Persian popinjays, and Asiatic hocus-pocus —
    Enter the Athenian ambassadors returned from Persia, dressed in garish, outlandish misrepresentations of Persian haute couture.
    Oh, no! Holy Ekbatana, what a get-up!
    The first ambassador advances and addresses the assembly.
    You dispatched us to visit the Great King’s court at a per diem salary of two drachmas a man — precisely eleven years ago today.
    Now I am sick —
    Eleven years of drachmas down the drain!
    Choked with emotion
    Let me tell you, it was a hard and bitter life
    we led those long eleven years! Ah,
    that soul-sapping saunter across the plateaus, that endless
    shade, deliciously beating down from the awnings,
    that enforced recumbency in luxurious litters! We
    were unmanned!
    Everything here was manned, of course —
    by me. Ah, that ankle-snapping sentry-saunter
    along the endless, littered City Walls!
    Nearly in tears
    And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink
    sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and crystal
    goblets — they actually made us drink it neat!
    Oh, you poor addled Athenians! Don’t you see
    they’re diddling you?
    These Persian fellows, now —
    they’re not civilized, you know. True men, to them,
    are those who excel in the pleasures of the festive board.
    A status we reserve for adepts in buggery.
    After three years, we came to the Great King’s court.
    But there’d been a purge, and he’d evacuated
    for eight months’ privy business in the Crapathians.
    He took his whole army to shit — Expense meant nothing.
    I know, he’s got piles. Anyone else would be wiped out
    inside of a month. At most.

  14. “I’m not sure I could sit through a month-long dramatic performance”
    But what is, eg, watching a nightly TV soap, if not that?

  15. Please talk more about abhinaya. Oddly, it reminds me a little of the nonverbal communication in my native state.

  16. I spent a couple weeks in Kerala once, and didn’t come across this, sadly. Well, at least I got to see some Kathakali in Kumily.

  17. But what is, eg, watching a nightly TV soap, if not that?
    Have you seen any soaps that work out to 130 hours spread over twenty-nine nights? Also, if you miss an episode or three of a soap, you haven’t actually missed anything.

  18. Due to the overwhelming lack of demand for it, I transcribe the rest of the scene:
    — But when he returned,
    He played the host as only the Great King can.
    Ah, Magnificence! He served us up whole oxen
    fricasseed in pots!
    And heifer pie, I suppose.
    — Fake! Humbug!
    — He set one bird before us
    three times the size of Kleonymos. It was a roc,
    they said.
    Roc? Rook would be more like it,
    You and your two drachmas a day!
    — And now,
    we have returned to Athens with Shambyses,
    councillor and confidante of the King himself,
    one of those upon whose selves and services
    the Grand Monarch so vitally depends, that they
    are called the Very Eyes of the Great King himself.
    I present, gentlemen, Shambyses, the Great King’s Eye.
    I devoutly wish that a raven would peck yours out —
    the Ambassador’s Eye.
    Enter the Eye of the King, Shambyses. He wears Persian clothes and a mask which depicts an enormous eye above and a beard below. In spite of this — or perhaps because of it — he seems to have some difficulty in seeing: he keeps moving his head from side to side, walks slowly and unsteadily, and is escorted and supported by two attendants dressed as eunuchs.
    Holy Herakles!
    Making a comparison between Shambyses’ eye and the eyes normally painted on the sides of Greek ships.
    By god, fellow, you certainly look shipshape.
    Shambyses, missing the lead of his eunuchs, gets tangled in his cloak and falls.
    Doubling the cape, eh?
    The eunuchs carefully point the bogus Persian toward the Executive Board.
    Well, safe harbor at last!
    Shambyses, dubious, stumbles and is only saved by clutching the Ambassador.
    That’s it, tie up to the dock.
    Dikaiopolis looks closely at the beard beneath the eye and flips it.
    Your porthole’s open.
    Very well, Shambyses. Inform us what the King commissioned you to tell the Athenians. Proceed.
    Loudly and majestically
    Dead silence.
    Somewhat nervously, to Dikaiopolis.
    Do you understand what he’s saying?
    I’m no soothsayer.
    Well. He says the King will send us gold.
    — Come on, now, speak up clearly about the gold.
    That was certainly clear! We’ve been had again.
    Well, what’s he saying?
    What’s he saying? He calls
    the Ionians gap-assed idiots if they expect
    to get any gold from Persia.
    No! He’s talking
    about the CAPACITY of all those bullion boxes!
    Bullion, balls! You cheap impostor, it’s over!
    Get out of here! I’ll grill this fellow myself.
    The Ambassador retires in evident confusion. Dikaiopolis plants himself squarely in front of Shambyses and waggles his fist in the face of the King’s Eye.
    Now look, you. A clear answer, with this in your face,
    or the Great King of Persia will have a bloodshot Eye:
    Does the Great King intend to send us gold?
    Shambyses shakes his head. The two eunuchs jerk their heads back.
    We’re being bamboozled by our ambassadors, then?
    Shambyses gives a single nod. The two eunuchs waggle their heads up and down.
    Look! These eunuchs nodded their heads in the Greek way.
    These aren’t Persians — This is local talent.
    Peering closely at the first eunuch.
    Eunuchs, eh? Better say uniques. I know him.
    It’s limp-wrist Kleisthenes, the All-Athenian Boy!
    To the first eunuch, disgustedly.
    Do you even invert disguises? You took the advice
    of your rash and ready rump and shaved the wrong end!
    Eunuchs and beards are a contradiction in terms! Understand?
    To the second eunuch.
    And who’s this? Straton, maybe?
    Complete confusion.
    Silence! Sit down!
    The procession — ambassadors, Shambyses, eunuchs — collects itself and exits.

  19. Trond Engen says

    John, that’s brilliant. Send in the Cleons.

  20. This sounds a lot like Kathakali dancing in Kerala, which does go all night and features masks that look exactly like those in the photos

    From Shriya Mohan, The unhurried drama of Kutiyattam:

    To a layperson, a Kutiyattam performance looks similar to Kathakali, a 300-year-old dance form. But experts point out that the similarity is only skin deep, mostly confined to attire, make-up, eye movements and hand mudra s. While Kathakali is a dance drama, Kutiyattam is theatre with very little movement. Often the actor will be sitting on a wooden stool, narrating a story in flashback, with just hand gestures, minute facial expressions and a heaving chest. Unlike in Kathakali, women have traditionally been a part of Kutiyattam.

    The most palpable difference between the two, however, is pace. In Kathakali, a story is performed over one night. But one act of a single play in Kutiyattam can span several nights. The seven acts of Saktibhadra’s Ascharyachudamani pan over 120 nights.

    As for its current situation, the Wikipedia article Koodiyattam [so spelled for some reason] says:

    Koodiyattam traditionally was an exclusive art form performed in special venues called koothambalams in Hindu temples and access to these performances was restricted to only caste Hindus. Also, performances can take up to forty days to complete. The collapse of the feudal order in the nineteenth century in Kerala curtailed the patronage of koodiyattam artists, and they faced serious financial difficulties. Following a revival in the early twentieth century, Koodiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a crisis in the profession. UNESCO has called for the creation of a network of koodiyattam institutions and gurukalams to promote the transmission of the art form to future generations and for the development of new audiences besides fostering greater academic research in it.

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