Indian Culture · Indian Religion

Eyes that Dance: Performance of Anguliyankam

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June 12, 2014. SPIC MACAY CONVENTION, IIT-Madras, around 9:00 pm
The wonderful performance by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt had just finished. The soul-stirring music of Mohan Veena was still ringing in the ears and creating a peaceful vibration within. A group of people were busy rearranging the stage for the Koodiayattam performance by Shri Margi Madhu and his accompanists. Margi Madhu is a performer, choreographer and teacher, and has also been involved in research projects on various aspects of this art form. A recipient of many awards, he is one of the few performers left of this most elaborate and beautiful dance form. Margi Madhu and his wife, Indu G, who holds a PhD in Koodiyattam, run the Nepathya center for excellence in central Kerala.


This was my first real exposure to Koodiyattam, also called Kutiyattam, one of the oldest dance forms in the world, originating from Kerala. This 2000+ year old Sanskrit dance-drama was traditionally performed only in special venues called koothambalams in Hindu temples and only by Chakyars, a particular community in Kerala. This ancient and living art form is now recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Characterized by slow and steady movements, Koodiyattam is a very difficult art form to perfect, especially because the artist must express the varied emotions mostly through the use of only his upper body, and particularly through his eyes. Koodiyattam performances are lengthy and elaborate affairs, and traditionally range from 12 to 150 hours spread across several nights.
That night of June 12, Margi Madhu’s performance Anguliyankam (Presentation of the Ring), based on Hanuman’s search for Sita in Lanka was a sheer delight for the senses. It brought to life the Sundara Kanda of the epic Ramayana, especially the part when Hanuman finds Devi Sita in Ashok-vatika at Ravana’s place and gives her the ring of Lord Rama. The performance also thrilled the audience in its portrayal of Hanuman’s appearance in Ravana’s court after he is caught by the soldiers of the demon-king.

Typically the ritualistic performance of a single act such as Anguliyankam from the Sanskrit play Ascharya Choodamani is enacted over a period of 12 days. In 1993, Margi brought it outside temple premises and presented the entire text over two-and-a-half years by way of weekly performances. In June 2012, Nepathya Koodiyattom Centre presented the first full-length continuous performance of Anguliyankamoutside temple precincts over a period of 29 evenings. This programme was held in collaboration with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where many students and research scholars in Indology and Sanskrit have been engaged in a deep study of the intricacies of this rare art form under the leadership of the noted Indologist and Koodiyattam aficionado Dr. David Shulman. (Read a fascinating account of that performance by Prof. Shulman here.)  
On the evening of June 12, 2014 at the student center of IIT-M campus, setting the stage took about 30-45 minutes. After this, the audience were given a brief but highly informative session by Dr. Indu, explaining some of the richness and subtleties of Koodiyattam, including the sacred nature of the art form and the musical instruments used in the performance. An outline of the story of Anguliyankam was also provided, in which through hand gestures she demonstrated some of what the audience were going to witness in the actual performance.
Margi Madhu’s performance lasted for a little more than 2 hours. But that in no way diminished the intensity of experience. The expression on his face, especially the movement of his eyes, the beats of the sacred copper drums known as mizhavu, the wonderful harmony between the dancer’s movements and the drummers’ beats, all of it was enough to take you to a world where everything else sort of disappears and you just want to focus on the subtleties of the drama being unfolded in front of you.
Margi Madhu’s eyes expressed deep emotion compelling the spectator to take up the challenge of exploring deep into the layers, not only of the particular sequence in the story but also of the reality itself. As you begin to appreciate the slow and patient perfection through which subtle movements and gestures depict the richness of an emotion or a feeling, you begin to feel a connection with the moment itself. It is as if you have become that emotion itself for that fraction of the moment. Imagine what it would feel like to experience a full length performance over several days and weeks!


When I recall my experience of sitting through this marvellous performance, two things strike me the most.
In today’s time when everything is about a fast pace of life and people (children, youth and adults alike) are being forced to move faster and faster and do more and more, what Koodiyattam represents is an opportunity to appreciate the deep and hidden beauty in all that is ‘slow’, ‘repetitive’, ‘patient’ and hence ‘perfect’.

Secondly, in our present age when it has become so common to speak of and even complain of reduced attention span and extremely limited concentration abilities, watching a performance of this dance form from thousands of years ago in itself is a great lesson in developing and practicing deep concentration skills.

~ Photos by Suhas Mehra
For my previous post on the Mohan Veena performance at SPIC-MACAY convention, click here.

Linking this post with ABC Wednesday, A: A is for Anguliyankam

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