Annie Johnson, who works as programme assistant at Vyloppilly Samskrithi Bhavan, talks of how watching Margi Sathi’s performance had attracted her to learn the art form.

Kerala dancer talks of her love affair with classical art form Nangyarkoothu
news Dance Saturday, December 29, 2018 - 14:02

Annie Johnson puts a red band on her head, bordering her face. I think it is to put on makeup easily. She is going on stage for a Nangyarkoothu performance in two hours. But Vishishta, the young woman applying makeup on Annie, says the red band implies that the artiste has turned into the character she would perform. There would be no more behaving as Annie, but as Kalpalathika, who would narrate her story of ‘Puthana Moksham’, when a demoness tries to kill baby Krishna.

Nangyarkoothu is a classical art form of Kerala, which was performed by Nangyars - the female members of the Nambiar community and that’s how it derives its name. This art form evolved from Kutiyattam and is performed by females only and the facial make-up and costumes are pretty similar. 

“In other art forms, you would be performing as the character in the tale but in Nangyarkoothu, it is the narrator telling the story,” Vishishta says. She would be playing the ‘thalam’ for Annie’s performance at the Soorya Festival in Thiruvananthapuram. We are behind stage at Ganesham, where Soorya’s founder Soorya Krishnamoorthy has generously given space for artistes to come and perform their art.



Before the makeup began, Annie talked to me about loving to dance even as a child but not being able to do so, coming from a village like Kundara in Kollam. “Those days, it was hard to find dance teachers. And girls were not allowed to learn from male teachers. So even when a dance teacher came to my school, I couldn’t learn from him. But then, seeing how much I wanted to learn, Amma found a female teacher from kilometres away and I began my first lessons of Bharatanatyam,” Annie says.

But that had to stop soon when the teacher had a personal emergency. So Annie then gave up her dream to learn dance. It was proving too difficult. “And then I grew up, got married and came to Thiruvananthapuram, and began watching performances at this same festival – Soorya’s. I would comment how nice it would be to learn and then my husband Balachandran, a journalist, said I should. As simple as that,” Annie says.

She learned Bharatanatyam from Kalamandalam Girija for a few years and performed in small festivals before joining Vyloppilly Samskrithi Bhavan as a programme assistant. That’s how many know her as, the one you call to know what’s happening at one of the busiest cultural centres in the capital. Annie loves the job too. She has an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) about reaching office on time and putting things together. This makes going to learn dance and performing occasionally a tough job. But she has been managing. After all, it is at Vyloppilly that she first watched Nangyarkoothu and fell in love with the art form that she now performs to her heart’s content.

Annie, during one of her Nangyarkoothu performances

“I have heard of it but I have never seen it till I came there. The way the late Margi Sathi performed it, the minutest of expressions that would flash through her face… I was so keen to know about the art form.” That’s what Annie says. Keen to know, not get on stage, not win prizes. Sathi would have been impressed by her artistic curiosity, she told Annie she will teach her. Annie thought she might be too old to start learning a new art form. She was only in her 20s then and Margi Sathi removed all such doubts. After a few years, it is on her teacher’s insistence that Annie got on stage to perform Nangyarkoothu – Kalpalathikayude Purappadu.

With interest, she learnt the puranas, the stories within that she would perform on stage. She tells me of the demoness who tries to kill baby Krishna, the emotions felt by the woman rakshasa, passing through her face. “When she takes the baby in her hand, she is full of affection for the child, anger for Kamsa who ordered to kill him and sadness for knowing she would have no other choice but to follow the order.” Annie’s eyes widen when she talks of anger, droops when it’s sadness and softens with love.

When Sathi teacher passed away, Margi Sajeev Narayana Chakiar became her guru. She also has a Bharatanatyam teacher – Mydhily, a veteran in Thiruvananthapuram – that Sathi had introduced her to. Learning one new art form didn’t take away her love for another. 

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