Kudiyattam: The Last Living Sanskrit Theater in the World

Half an hour for a single movement – unbelievable in our fast moving society. But in Kerala, on the south-west coast of India, this is normal, at least in Kudiyattam, the last representative in the world of living Sanskrit theater. David Shulman offered an introduction to this classical art, including filmed segments of performances, at the Zukunftskolleg Lecture on July 15, 2015

Sanskrit is the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, as well as a philosophical language in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, and a literary language that was in use as a lingua franca in the Indian cultural zone. Today it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand. It also holds a prominent position in Indo-European studies. The corpus of Sanskrit literature encompasses a rich tradition of poetry and drama as well as scientific, technical, philosophical and religious texts.

In Kerala artists from the Chakyar and Nambyar communities continue to perform Sanskrit plays in the classical style Kudiyattam, “Acting Together” – this name perhaps reflecting the intimate link between actors and drummers. “The drummers are the critical piece of the tradition”, says David Shulman, “their coordination is astonishing”. 80% of the performance takes place with drums that accompany the  “language of movement”. Also the actors´ expressivity of the eye is very important. 

Full-scale performances are long – ranging from 12 hours to 150 hours, usually spread over many days and nights. “It takes whatever time it has to take, and that´s the most amazing about Kudiyattam”, thinks David Shulman. In Kudiyattam time has its own rhythm and can´t be compromised. “The tradition presents us with performances of staggering complexity and beauty, ruled by an expressive logic that we can formulate inductively”. Each performance follows a formal logic: The actor comes on stage and creates a dramatic world. In the persona of the story-teller, he or she takes you through the visions, memories, and dreams that make up the individual awareness. The performances also have a ritual aspect; one drama, Matta-vilasam, is initiated by patrons in order to give birth to male descendants.

Kudiyattam was preserved for the last thousand years in the great Kerala temples, each of which has a “dance pavilion,” kuttambalam; the artists were, in pre-modern times, servants of the temple and its god and sustained by temple funds. Today Kudiyattam competes with all other artistic genres in Kerala, and the artists struggle to survive.

The Hebrew University and the University of Tuebingen have been involved in a long-term project of documenting and elucidating the Kudiyattam repertoire. The project includes detailed analysis of the primary performance texts in the existing repertoire (hundreds of hours of recorded performance, published and unpublished stage-manuals, including palm-leaf manuscripts), publications, workshops, a major international conference, and research expeditions to complete documentation of the repertoire before it disappears.

David Shulman is an Indologist and regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the languages of India. He holds an appointment as Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His research embraces many fields, including the history of religion in South India, Indian poetics, Tamil Islam, Dravidian linguistics, and Carnatic music.

You can watch the talk by David Shulman here:

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