River Nila
The art that Nila inspired: A look at traditional dance and drama forms of Bharathapuzha

Nangeli, the mother of a seven-year-old boy, is wailing as she stands by her doorstep, worried about her son who hasn't returned home. As Nangeli goes out in search of her child, she finds that Pootham (a demon) has kept her son by his side, and is refusing to let go of the child. Nangeli tries to negotiate, but in vain. In a desperate bid, she pulls out her eyeballs and offers them to Pootham in return for her child. “He’s more precious than my own eyes,” Nangeli says, but Pootham decides to play a trick on her instead of accepting her eyes. He creates an identical boy and tells Nangeli that she must tell him who is real.

Nangeli, of course, wins, and this story, told by Edasseri Govindan Nair in his poem Poothapatttu - the Demon Song - becomes popular with Malayalis across the world.

Edasseri draws a visual picture for his readers, by describing the many elements of Pootham’s elaborate attire.

With a large head-gear and a face mask with intricate carvings on them, dressed in red and black and adorned with brass ornaments, the Pootham is a demon, an aide of lord Shiva, who puts Nangeli, a mother, to test.

While Poothappattu may been the first encounter for many with Pootham, the character isn’t Edasseri’s original. In fact, Pootham is a character in a traditional dance form of Kerala, called Poothan-Thira. Exclusive to the central district of Palakkad, this dance formed the basis of Edasseri's work in 1953.

Like his other work "Kuttippuram Paalam," Edasseri drew his inspiration from Bharathapuzha, and a mighty art form that existed on its banks.

As the mighty river Nila flows through the three districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram, the river not only acts as a livelihood for the people, but also inspires traditional and ritualistic art forms.

Three such art forms - Poothan-Thira, Kanyarkali, and Porattukali - are famous on the banks of Nila in Palakkad district. And while these art forms, just like the river, are under threat, there are some people trying to keep them alive.

Poothan-Thira

The temple festival season in Palakkad can easily be identified with the sight of Poothan and Thira walking along the paddy fields of the villages.

Generally performed between January and March every year, Poothan-Thira is an art form rooted in Hindu mythology. The performance is a representation of a dance by Bhadrakali devi after she defeated Darika, a demon.

During the performance months, which coincide with the temple festivals in the region, two characters - Poothan and Thira - visit all the households in the region, before they conclude their performance at the Bhadrakali temple.

When Poothan and Thira visit the households, they’re given gifts by the families. In the past, it was restricted to rice, but now, many families also give them money as a mark of respect. They believe that god blesses the houses visited by Poothan-Thira and they can get away from misfortunes.

“Our ancestors did this traditionally and even now, we follow it in the same way,” says Satheesan, a Poothan-Thira artist, who plays Thira, the goddess.

“This devi is considered as Thira. Bhootham accompanied her. We worship them,” Satheesan says.

The art form warrants elaborate costumes. Poothan wears a semi circular wooden plank on his head with dark colours, peacock feathers, coloured glass, decorations and engravings. A facemask, which has a lot of snake images on top is also part of the costume. Accompanying him is Thira, who too has a wooden plank on her head, decorated with flowers and engraved idols.

While the headgear is made of wood and bamboo, heavy brass is used for the anklets. The performers also wear brass belts, and a garland around their necks. Multi-coloured, decorative pieces of cloth are also tied around their waists.

Interestingly, the performers balance the heavy wooden piece on their head with just two pieces of clothes.

“We belong to Mannan community. When harvest festivals are over here in Valuvanad, it is the season for temple festivals. During this time, we visit Hindu households (thattakam). People welcome us by lighting lamps and keeping nira para. We play there, and it repeats at every house. We visit different houses until the day of the temple festival,” says Satheesan.

"On the day of the festival, we perform in the temple. With that festival ends,” he explains.

This ritualistic temple art form is only found on the banks of Nila. However, those who perform this have no idea why they are only present there.

Kanyarkali

Another ritualistic performance, a circular rhythmic dance only found in Palakkad district on the bank of Nila, is Kanyarkali, which is a group performance to please goddess Bhagavathy.

This art form is mainly performed at Bhagavathy Kaavu and in Aalthara (a structure to sit around a banyan tree) near temples.

Performed primarily by the Nair community, the elderly claim that this art form was present even AD 500. The dance is accompanied with music of instruments like Elatalam, Chenda and the chengalam, and is mainly performed at night.

Performed mainly during April-May during Vishu, or during the season of village festivals (Vela), the movements of Kanyarkali are a combination of martial arts and folk dance.

“This art form was also present during the Chera Kingdom rule. It is ancient, but we really cannot tell how old it is,” says Sreejith Palliyil, who works with a few responsible tourism projects to revive art forms on the banks of Nila.

“Traditionally, this performance lasts for four days. But now, it has reduced to a few hours. In the longer form of the performance, there are certain names for each part. Earlier, there were sheds attached to temples for Kanyarkali performances,” Sreejith adds. In these sheds, Bhagavathy’s idol would be placed on a bamboo stem, Sreejith says.

Porattu Nadakam

Apart from rituals and temple art, Nila is also the home of socially relevant art forms like Porattu Nadakam, a satirical conversational drama performed traditionally in the paddy fields after harvest. Only found in the Palakkad district, this is an art form performed mainly by the Panan community.

The humorous drama has both song and dialogue, presented in a question-and-answer format. When caste system was much more prevalent in Kerala, people from the lower castes who were oppressed by the upper caste communities used Porattu drama as tool for criticism

“Porattu literally means the art form that is performed outside,” Sreejith explains. “Naturally, it is the dance of people who were thrown out or neglected. So in this art, the main characters are lower caste people like Kuravas, Vannaan, Chaklia, Cheruma, etc. When caste system was prevalent, the people of the lower caste did not have opportunities to question the inequality they faced. So they used this art form, as a tool of criticism of the power structure,” Sreejith explains.

The drama's main theme is a family story, performed by the two central characters - the husband and the wife. The third main character plays the role of the questioner - who takes the narrative forward by asking questions to lead the central characters. They are accompanied by singers, who interject the central characters and give the audience a background on what is being performed.

Contemporary art forms inspired by the traditional

Other than the ritualistic and ancient art forms, the most common art forms found on Nila’s banks are influenced by folk culture. Folk songs, different dances, dramas and other performances come under this.

Seven young people from Arangottukara village of Thrissur district wanted to preserve the rich culture, arts and crafts in their home in Kerala’s historical Valluvanad – the region between Thrissur and Palakkad. In the summer of 2004, these youngsters got together on the bank of their beloved river, and came up with the idea of forming the Vayali Folklore Group, not just to ensure that the traditional economy of the arts and crafts survives, but also thrives.

Most of them daily wage workers, they decided to dedicate some time to their cultural mission. Vinod Nambiar, a software engineer led the group.

They had started their journey by forming a folk musical troupe and later, they expanded their group.

Stories on traditions, village festivals, relationships, families, temple culture and everything that past generations had gone through were told to younger generations through folk songs once. Every community had their own songs which narrated oral history of their past.

Folk songs mainly sung on the banks of Bharathapuzha were about the different art forms, festivals, rituals and traditions associated with Nila. Vayali put in sincere efforts to collect and revive the old folk songs in the area.

“We visited people from the older generations, and collected their folk songs. We learned them, though we made small changes, and without losing the originality we now sing these songs. That is how we preserve them,” says Raghav, a folk song singer in Vayali group.

 

“Whatever songs we sing are related to Valluvanad and its culture. We describe the traditional art forms here. When we studied about these folk songs, we understood the art forms in Valluvanad are closely related to Bharathapuzha,” Kuttan, another artiste from Vayali says.

“Now we perform in many places, and people have even started coming to our village in search of us,” Kuttan adds.

Apart from the folk song troupe, Vayali’s revolutionary achievement is its bamboo orchestra. It was after they saw a bamboo orchestra perform at the Traditional Music and Rhythm Festival in Japan, that they also decided to have one.

The orchestra has about 10 wind and percussion instruments. These include the Mulam Chenda (percussion), and Mulam Thudi and Mazha Mooli (wind), a five-drum set. They have also incorporated the flute into it. The orchestra has been widely appreciated both within Kerala and elsewhere.

Vinod Nambiar says that the group’s instruments are really unique as they designed it themselves. “The sound of a bamboo instrument is set according to its cut,” he says, adding that the sound of an instrument would depend on the hardness of the bamboo, its weight, age, distance between the nodes, and other factors. The orchestra plays not only the existing folk music, they also compose new music which is getting very popular.

“We experimented with bamboo, the biggest grass in the world, to create music. We also do it as part of environment protection. A craftsman named Sunny who was from Idukki district first made some some instruments for us. With started with that. It was in 2010- 2011 we developed the instruments Vayali has now,” Pradeep, one of the artistes, says.

(All photographs by Lenin CV)

(Edited by Ragamalika Karthikeyan)