Everything was in the eyes of Kutiyattam artist Kapila Venu ringed in fierce black paint as she emoted a sidelong glance of such sorrow, you felt it go straight through you, merge with the sounds of drummers onstage and rise out into the coconut groves and ponds that surround the small theater structure at Natanakairali Arts Center in Kerala. Kutiyattam, literally translated as “acting together or collective acting,” is one of oldest surviving forms of ancient Sanskrit theatre. It features elaborate eye movements, hand gestures and stances, occasional interludes of recited text or song, to the accompaniment of drums. To see this solo performance which was rooted in the tradition of Nangiar Koothu, the female solos of Kutiyattam, was to feel the full living force of centuries-old theatre in the region where it was born.
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I'm so grateful to Venuji for asking me to write it because, otherwise, I don't think I would have found any words to describe it. I mean, his asking invited me to find words to record this first response and I'm so glad he did because now I have a record of how I felt in that moment, in the thick of this intense experience of Navarasa Sadhana, Natya Shastra, into Kutiyattam, all of it so profound.
When you encounter an indigenous art form, when you see it fully lit, fully inhabited, fully manifested, it awakens that which is indigenous in you - no matter what culture you come from - it awakens what is true for you. And though I don't know where this will all lead, what matters is the now of it, this moment of getting to the heart of emotions, text, performance, everything.