Chavittu Natakam, one of India’s ancient maritime theatre tradition, which draws on the European operatic tradition carried by Portuguese Christian missionaries who came to Kerala’s shores post in the 15th century, is coming to Mumbai for the first time in a special three-day festival.
Infused with influences from Kathakali and the martial traditions of Kerala, Chavittu Natakam means the rhythmic steps, which accompany the recitation of the lines of the libretto, producing resonant sounds to accentuate dramatic situations. Foot-stomping dance, fighting and fencing are essential parts of the genre.
Festival director, Ramachandran K explained, “Life is incomplete and impossible without cultural identity, which is the essence of human dignity. When migrants go to distant shores, they take along with them aspects of their culture, which then mixes in with the local cultures to create unique cultural expressions, martial arts and dramatic traditions.
Chavittu Natakam tells stories from Christian legend and uses western operatic costumes and aesthetic elements of European opera along with the facial abhinaya, unique to Indian performance tradition.”
The genre attributes great importance to the performance manual, (Chuvati), which codifies everything from the rituals performed from the beginning of rehearsals up to the actual performance.
The plays were probably written originally in Chentamil (ancient Tamil), for the texts in circulation at present show a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam.
Ãsãns (masters) pass on chuvatis orally and never print them. The most celebrated play in this genre is undoubtedly Kãralmãn Charitham, which focuses on the heroics of Emperor Charlemagne the great, his men and nephew, legendary Roland. This story was popular in southern Europe up to the middle of the twentieth century, said Ramachandran.
He added, “Of great significance in world art history, this theatre form has been nurtured and developed by coastal people out of meagre donations collected from villagers. It is a rare theatre tradition which has survived five centuries in India.”
However, Ramachandran lamented, “Neither researchers nor academies and state patrons extended significant attention towards preserving, developing and propagating this tradition which has merely lived on due to artists, audiences and a few art lovers.”
Karalman Charitham Part I at YB Chavan Centre, on January 9 at 6.45pm
Karalman Charitham Part II at YB Chavan Centre, on January 10 at 7.30pm
Karalman Charitham Part III at Prithvi Theatre on Jan 11 at 7pm and 9pm