Ammanur, the soft-spoken Guru was one of the greatest stalwarts of theatre that lived in the 20th century.

A century of Ammanur Celebrating the life and art of a Koodiyattam maestroAmmanur Madhava Chakyar in the role of monkey king Bali in an act from Ramayana in 1987.
Features Theatre Sunday, November 13, 2016 - 11:43

This year has been one of the several commemorative events in the world of Indian classical performing arts. The most popular in classical music are the birth centenary of Carnatic vocalist M S Subbulakshmi and Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. Another centenary that is underway is from the world of India’s and probably the world’s most ancient form of classical theatre: Koodiyattam.

Koodiyattam is Sanskrit theatre performed in select temples in Kerala by artistes who belong to the Chakyar and Nangiyar communities. Temples have a dedicated space for performance called a "Kootambalam", built according to conventions mentioned in ancient treatises on architecture where these artistes perform as an offering to gods.

A Koodiyattam artiste is equipped to be an expert in several elements of the art form like music, rhythm, dance, Abhinayam or gesture, costume, make-up, mythology, Sanskrit, rituals and more.

One begins learning this highly demanding and sophisticated art form at a very early age in order to grasp the nuances of it over time.

For the longest time in the 20th century, Koodiyattam remained in the temples of Kerala. Under the chairmanship of actor, director, playwright and theatre personality Girish Karnad, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi revived this art form and gave it a new lease of life. Ever since, Koodiyattam has gained international recognition with the UNESCO accrediting it. Into this great heritage was born Ammanur Madhava Chakyar.

Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a lecture demonstration

Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was born into the Ammannnur Chakyar family to Sreedevi Illodamma and Vellarapilli Madassi Manakkal Parameswaran Namboodri in May 1917. He was initiated into the art form at a very early age and began training under his uncles Ammannur Chachu Chakyar and Ammannur Valiya Madhava Chakyar.

When he was eleven years old, he gave his official debut performance on stage or Arangetram at the Bhagavathi temple in Thirumandham Kunnu. He performed the role of Sutradhara in the play "Balacharitam". At fourteen, he gave his first performance at the Vadakkumnathan Temple in Trichur where he played the role of lord Rama in the play "Balivadham".

At sixteen he debuted in the art form of Prabandha Koothu with the ritual Kuduma vakkal at the Putiya Trikkovil in Chendamangalam. After completing his basic training in the traditional style under his masters, Madhava Chakyar took advanced training in Abhinaya and studied the Natya Shastra under Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran at the acting laboratory at the Kodungallor Royal family.

This way, as a teenager and later, he began making a mark for himself in the world of Koodiyattam. Several veterans who witnessed his early performances declared that he was a star in the making. 

Though he performed in a wide range of roles in various Sanskrit dramas, Ammanur was a specialist when it came to certain roles.

As Bali in "Bali Vadham", as Ravana in "Thoranayudham", "Asokavanikankam", "Hanumaddutam" and "Jatayuvadham", as Hanuman in "Anguliyankam", as Dhananjaya in "Subhadra Dhananjayam" and as Bhima in "Kalyanasaugandhikam".

He was also one of the earliest Gurus to take Koodiyattam overseas. Through the 1980s, he toured France, Netherlands, England, Japan and Switzerland.

In 2001, it was Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar who was given the honour to receive the UNESCO citation proclaiming Koodiyattam as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". 

Guru Ammanur with some of his students including Kapila Venu and Sooraj

After a long illustrious artistically rich life, with over half a century of contribution to his art form, Ammanur made his final exit from the stage and life in 2008. But not before he passed his knowledge onto the next century. He was a generous Guru who trained some of the finest Koodiyattam artistes we have today. Among the top names are G Venu, his superstar daughter Kapila Venu, Margi Madhu Chakyar, Usha Nangiyar, Sooraj Nambiar and many more.

Each of these students run their own institutions and keep the legacy of the Guru alive by passing on the knowledge they gained from him. Thanks to these dedicated artistes, an ancient theatre form continues to thrive.

For his contribution to Koodiyattam, Guru Ammanur received several prestigious awards. They include the Kalidas Sanman, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri from the President of India.

Ammanur, the soft-spoken Guru was one of the greatest stalwarts of theatre that lived in the 20th century. As the birth centenary celebrations of this great maestro are underway across the world of theatre and particularly in Koodiyattam, it is a time to remember his contribution in keeping this ancient form alive. For as long as the glorious theatre form of Koodiyattam survives, the memory and vision of Ammanur will remain.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com

Images courtesy: Shankar Menon, Gyana Bhaskaran

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