After two decades, the fascinating ceremony of a 41-day Sanskrit play performed as a ritual offering, reopened in Kerala. Lyrical, bawdy, and instructional in turns, it combines secular with spiritual as only the ancients could.

Even at 86, Kummath Appu Nair has clear memories of the monsoon evenings of his childhood. Of returning from school, pleading with his mother for permission to run off to Peruvanam, a village about a kilometer away from his home in Thrissur. And the 41 evenings spent at the grand 12th century Mahadeva temple watching legendary Koodiyattam master Mani Madhava Chakyar perform the theatrical extravaganza, Mantrankam.

“The tiles of the koothambalam used to shake with the power of Mani Chakyar’s voice,” recalls Nair. “You could hear him in any corner of the village.” In those decades, only Brahmins, and only men, could sit inside the theatre temple. Nair, like many others, had to be content watching through the wooden slats of the windows in the hall. “But it didn’t really matter — I could still see the entire drama unfold just in his eyes.”

Mantrankam is the third act of Bhasa’s celebrated Sanskrit play Pratijna Yougandharayan, written sometime between 2 and 3 AD. It is spread over just half a dozen pages but the chakyar or performer is nothing if not a great raconteur. With his artistry and talent, he spins it into a labyrinthine narrative packed in equal parts with philosophy, political wisdom, statecraft, ribaldry, even some scatology. It is a fascinating mix of the sacred and the profane, religious and secular, folk wisdom and dialectics, and a hard play to master even for veterans. Mostly, today, the play is performed in an abbreviated version over five or at most ten days.

Interestingly, over the centuries, the play has been performed as an annual offering at five Shiva temples in Kerala. Of them, only Peruvanam hung on to the entire 41-day enactment. But with temple funds drying up, and Koodiyattam itself in a state of decline, Mantrankam wound up here too in 1995. “For all of us who grew up watching the magic of Mantrankam, it was a big blow. We tried several times to revive it but backing a 41-day production with a cast and crew of at least five people was tough,” says Peruvanam’s famous percussion wizard, Kuttan Marar.

Finally, this year, backed by the Kuttiyattam Centre and the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the play was revived in the Peruvanam temple. Starring seasoned Koodiyattam artiste Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar and his student Sangeet Chakyar, the play unwound over 41 days last month. And Nair was back at his favourite spot, along with other Mantrankam fans, watching it unfold.

It is Day 25, and I am sitting on the floor watching the chakyar act out a ribald story about passionate couples who enjoy wild outings in temple courtyards watched by furious goddesses, who are later duly ticked off for peeping. Every day, for these 41 days, while the rest of Peruvanam snoozed after lunch, at 2.30 pm, the chakyar walked down to the temple pond for his ritual bath. And then made his way to the koothambalam to start on his make-up in the tiny green room by the stage. Koodiyattam is quaint and antiquated and at complete peace with its own appeal. This has meant that most chakyars, till very recently, existed on the margins of genteel poverty. Some earnings came from temple festivals, some from the generosity of patrons. Peruvanam’s old-timers talk of great masters surviving merely on meager rations provided by hosts and fans.

As the mizhavu, the tinny percussion accompaniment, strikes its first notes, alerting the neighborhood to the start of the play around 4:00 pm, around half a dozen people are sitting on the floor to watch. The numbers start to swell as the evening progresses but even then you don’t catch more than 30-odd viewers on a day when the most popular stories are told.

Peruvanam is an inspiring setting. “I have played several roles on several platforms but there is no audience as discerning as this and no stage as unique as this koothamabalam,” says the senior Chakyar. Only in Peruvanam will you find fans like Nair who can reel of entire verses from the play and critically assess any master’s performance.

Koodiyattam, with a known history of around 1,000 years, is no longer the sole preserve of the Brahminical chakyar clans. Between 1949 and 1965, it underwent some radical changes. It was brought out of Kerala’s temples by Paimkulam Rama Chakyar, and its teaching moved to an institution called Kalamandalam, where it acquired students and practitioners from other castes as well. In the temples of Kerala, however, even today the chakyar has monopoly over the right to perform koodiyattam (adyantara koothu). And only the six remaining chakyar families have the right to act in the plays offered as ritual.

Mantrankam’s plot is simple — King Udayana, a follower of Buddha and the ruler of Vatsa kingdom with Kosambi as its capital, has been captured by the king of Ujjain, Mahasena, through a devious plot. There, Udayana falls in love with princess Vasavadatta (she and Udayana are characters in Bhasa’s other play, Swapnavasavadatta, and also to be found in the folk story compendiumKathasaritasagara).

Udayana’s three wise ministers, Vasantakan, Yougandharayan and Rumanvaka, set out on a journey to free their king, disguised as a jester, a mad beggar and a Buddhist monk. Using their immense wit and gift of the gab, they manage to talk their way into the prison. Here, the king, who never once appears on stage, refuses to leave without the princess and the three ministers take a vow to bail him and his beloved out. There the third act ends.

The play starts with the ministers setting out on their adventures. But, thereafter, Bhasa only has occasional say in the chakyar’s creative journey. Expounding on a single shloka on kingly virtues, the chakyar can traverse the Ramayana, which then becomes the subject of a 10-day telling. Or on the subject of morals, Vasantakan can launch into four days of ghost stories; or on the demand of an imagined gathering retell the story of Hanuman.

So who spun Mantrankam, the drama, out of Bhasa’s bare-bones script? “It must have been the chakyars, adding to the original work over centuries. Bhasa’s works were discovered only in the early 20th century in Thiruvananthapuram and if his writing and all embellishments were nurtured simply as oral traditions over all these centuries, it had to be the performer’s doing. Bhasa couldn’t even have dreamt of the directions in which his play would be taken,” says Rama Chakyar.

Though the performance has been codified in a book by scholar P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, it is still in the chakyar’s hands to ensure that the tales flow seamlessly and the audiences don’t fidget. He plays king, Brahmin, courtesan, merchant, and warrior — the Bhrantan joins the play only sparingly — albeit convincingly. While the play allows for two actors, it is mainly Vasantakan, played by Rama Chakyar, who holds the stage on most days.

Mastering Mantrankam is considered the peak of a chakyar’s skills. Anyone who can acquire thisvaakchaturyam (wordskill) is believed to be good enough to play any other role. And the only way to master it is through observation of the great masters at work.

“I was a teen when I first saw it being performed by Kidangoor Rama Chakyar. I then started performing the smaller role of the Bhrantan and then grew into the role of Vasantakan over the last decades watching, listening and observing. There is no way you can hold an audience for 41 days without the ability to tell a story and without a firm grip on Sanskrit, Malayalam and Prakratam (a ‘vulgar’ variant of Malayalam presumed to be spoken by ordinary people),” says the chakyar.

Shailaja Poduval is a Mumbai banker who belongs to Peruvanam. For her, the event is a return to her childhood days. “We grew up watching Mantrankam. I can recall Mani Madhava Chakyar’s sharp eyes watch us even as we watched him. You couldn’t stir from your place, he wouldn’t think twice about calling you out in front of everyone even if you just glanced away from his face,” says Poduval.

Koodiyattam is not just hard on the artist, it is equally demanding of its fans. You cannot leave the hall without drawing the wrath of the chakyar and loud jibes about ill-mannered ignoramuses. Sometimes, he will raise a question aimed at you, but you may not answer. Not just you, but many more are watching from outside, through the slats of the wooden windows, or sprawled on the steps, resting through the long hours of the performance (on some days it can last up to seven hours).

On the stage with the jester’s mudi (hair) on his head, the chakyar is considered to be in an inviolable space. He cannot be challenged. He can, and did, in the centuries gone by, make fun of kings, ministers, clergy, courtesans, merchants and his own community. And even today, like stand-up comics, a chakyar is most valued and loved for his sharp take-downs of the establishment — politicians, the government, bureaucrats and officials of all kind. Sitting cross-legged on the stage, the chakyar mimics a battle between his two legs. “Who gets to stay on top – the Left or the Right?” he asks, and the gathering erupts in laughter at the eternal tussle between the LDF and UDF. The solar lamp scandal, the many sex scams, prohibition, stray dogs, deforestation, everything comes up for lampooning. Even the raging arguments over the village plans to green the temple compound come up.

Don’t expect political correctness. The stories and puns are no holds barred. Every caste cliché is used — the Namboodiris are privileged but foolish, the Nairs are muscular but empty between their ears, the Kurups are full of bravado and bluster, the Chettiars are wily, the Warriers are crafty and the Chakyars are forever avaricious…. There are endless references to women who are fickle and destroy men with their mercurial tempers.

As for sex, the narrative comes pretty close to Boccaccio’s 14th century Decameron stories — bawdy, full-blooded and curiously amoral, given their otherwise pious intent. There are young priests lusting after obliging wives of traveling merchants, matrons who set up trysts for eager lovers, and courtesans who use their charms to keep kings foolishly enamoured. In one story told by Vasantakan, the bodily fluids left by lovers in the temple compound is distributed as prasadam by unsuspecting believers. Thedouble entendre flows fast and free. “She is deeper than the well, as deep as a river. He is long, longer than the plantain tree, as long as the palm tree.” There is also passing advice on how to hold down the urge to defecate.

“I recall listening to the ribald story of the courtesan Anangalekha as a kid. It was explicit but the chakyar is king on the stage,” recalls Poduval. Rama Chakyar, himself an elegant scholar who wouldn’t be caught dead saying anything common, says the obscene stuff serves a purpose. “It is the most effective way to grab attention, isn’t it? Draw attention to the message at the end.” But the language for the obscene stories remains euphemistic and elegant, never once lapsing into everyday Malayalam.

At its core, beyond the riotous storytelling, Mantrankam is a treatise on statecraft. Chakyar explains itstattvam or philosophical kern. “Bhasa’s thinking is incredibly evolved and complex. He asks the ruler to pick between two principles of governance — atmodayam and parajjayam — through evolution of the self and through destruction and reacquisition. He recommends the first and then suggests four paths to it, then picks one path and offers five paths to it. Through our narrative, we have to keep converging on these ideas, moving away from them, and returning. But the underlying thought is this — a nation where the ruler is unthinking and the people are foolish will fall apart.”

Malini Nair likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.

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