Chakyar Koothu is a type of performing arts from Kerala, south India. It is a kind of mono act. It is the traditional equivalent of a stand-up comic act. However, unlike the stand-up comics, the performer has a wider leeway in that he can heckle the audience.
This classical dance is performed by the member of the professional Chakyar cast that too only in Koothambalam of temples. It is one of the oldest of theatrical arts peculiar to Kerala. The term Koothu literally means dance which may be taken as an index of the importance attached to dance in the original form of the art. As a matter of fact, the movements and facial expressions and the signs and gestures employed by the actor in Koothu are said to approximate most closely to the principles laid down in the authoritative Sanskrit treatise on the subject, Bharatha’s Natya Sastra.
The actor recites stories from the epics (based on Sanskrit text) interpreting them in Malayalam, enlivening his narration with Thandava dance rhythms and also gestures and bodily postures which are clearly derived from Natya Sastra.
“Koothu” means dance – which is a misnomer, since there is minimal choreography involved in the art form; facial expressions are important, though. Traditionally, it was performed inside a Hindu temple and the performer begins with a prayer to the deity of the temple. He then goes on to narrate a verse in Sanskrit before explaining it in the vernacular Malayalam. The narration that follows touches upon various current events and societal factors with great wit and humor.
The Koothu is very much dominated by the comic element. Impersonated through mime and gesture and interspersed with occasional dances, the narrative art of the Chakyar is essentially dramatic. Humorous, witty analogies and allusions to topical, political and social events are brought in during the narration and the dancer gets ample facilities for criticizing men and things of local interest. Seldom does the miss an opportunity to make comic comments on contemporary life and society. He ridicules the follies and foibles of the age with impunity.
In actual performance the dancer stands on the platform of the Koothambalam adorned with his special type of headgear and peculiar facial make-up. He then offers prayers to the presiding deity of the particular temple where he is performing. After that he recites a verse from the Sanskrit text from which he intends to expound and then explains it in Malayalam. The instruments used are a pain of Cymbals and the mizhavu which is a big copper drum. A member of the Nambiar caste beats rhythm on the Mizhavu at the required intervals. The cymbals are played invariably by women known as Nangiyars. Koothu presented as a solo item by a Chakiyar is also known as Prabhandha Koothu. Occasionally, it is presented by a Nangiyar woman, when it is called Nangiyar Koothu.
Koothu was traditionally performed by the Chakyar community. The part of Koodiyattam, which involves only lady charecters are performed by women of Nambiar caste, Nangyarammas are called as as Nangyar Koothu, which has nothing to do with Chakyar Koothu. Only two instruments accompany the performance – a mizhav and a pair of cymbals.
Chakyar Koothu was performed only in Koothambalams of Hindu temples, it was visionary Guru Natyacharya Vidushakaratnam Padma Shree Mani Madhava Chakyar ( who was the greatest Koothu and Kudiyattam artist ) brought Koothu and Kudiyattam outside temples by performing it outside for common people. He is considered as the greatest Koothu and Kutiyattam artist of modern times.
When Mani Madhava Chakyar’s guru, His Highness Darsanakalanidhi Rama Varma Parikshith Thampuran wrote a new Sanskrit champu prabandha called Prahladacharita and requested some senior artists to study and perform the same on the Chakyar koothu stage, they said it was impossible for them to stage such a new prabandha. Then the guru asked Mani Madhava Chakyar, who was then a comparatively young artist, to try. He agreed and studied a part of the prabandha within one night and performed the same on next day itself at Tripunithura – the then capital of Kochi state! The incident made great scholars to accept his mastery over both Sanskrit and the classical art form. After some months, he performed entire Prahla-dacharita at the same stage.