The methodological infrastructure employed in the study of Malayalam theatre, in the broadest sense, incorporates the historical-materialist theoretical framework. The equality and democratic collectiveness of the pre-historic communities of Kerala had been completely destroyed by the newly emerged, undemocratic social apparatus based on 'high' and 'low' castes. Social life in Kerala was in no way fundamentally different from the rest of India. Kerala's caste organization was, if anything, even more unequal than in other parts of India; the system of untouchables here was far more rigorous.
It is true that most of the cultural and art forms arose within the narrow compass of one caste or group of castes belonging to separate class categories. The classical literary works of Malayalam were mostly produced by Hindu authors and dealt with Hindu religious themes; so were Kathakali, Koodiyattom and other arts mainly of Hindu origin. It is also true that most of these national literary and art places were confined to upper caste (class) circles. Nevertheless, these works of literature and art forms have laid the basis for the creation of a style and technique that go beyond all castes and communities; they are truly national. Moreover, men of culture, drawn, of course, from the upper classes but of all castes began to appreciate and even adopt this style and technique in their own particular caste or religious circles. The Chavittunatakam of the Christians is a simplified adaptation of the Kathakali form of the Hindu.
History of Malayalam theatre, in the ultimate analysis, is the history of performance and performance of any kind is a socio-cultural act. Basing oneself on the assumption that all cultural artefacts are socially symbolic acts, one has to realize that in order to articulate the past historically, it is not sufficient to recognize it "the way it was".
One aspect in which this wide and varied culture has found expression is the stage and performance which had made its valuable contribution to the sum total of Indian culture. The orthodox section of this stage which has a religious atmosphere attached to it and is, therefore, beyond the gaze of profane eyes, plays no inconsiderable role in helping the reconstruction of the ancient Sanskrit stage - the active traditions of which have died out elsewhere in India.
Malayalam as a distinct language had its formulation almost a thousand years back and Malayalam drama in the form of the texts written by the Sanskrit dramatists and European dramatists has only a history of hundred years. Indian theatre or Sanskrit theatre has a tradition, as every one knows, which goes back thousands of years. Kerala which had been closely linked with the Brahmanical tradition for centuries had to wait till 1898 to find the first dramatic text to be produced, that too a translation of Kalidasa's Sakuntalam. This does not mean that Keralites had no theatre movement of their own. On the other hand, the tradition of Sanskrit drama find itself manifested only in Kerala in the form of Koodiyattom and lot of Sanskrit plays derived from Sanskrit Literature have been written by Keralites in the past. But, there was not even a single drama in Malayalam till 1898 when all other areas of literature were making headway.
The simple reason usually attributed is that of the dominance of ideologies related to Sanskrit and Brahmans, over the vernacular. It may be true that Brahmanical dominance might have discouraged every development based on the vernacular culture. But the change in the sensibility which came to manifest itself in the people for the emerging language made the dominant ideological machinery of the upper castes disturbingly silent. The result was that the complex technicalities and structure of the feudal arts forms gave way to much more simpler theatrical experience for the people. But these innovations could not provide any lasting contribution towards the development of modern Malayalam theatre. The origin of modern Malayalam theatre which took place in the second half of nineteenth century finds itself distanced by atleast hundred years from the Christian theatrical forms.
It was indeed a major event in the performance history of Kerala that a Sanskrit play got translated into Malayalam, (the hybrid variety of Malayalam which is known as manipravalam) for the first time by a person belonging to the feudal class structure. The ideological underpinnings of the innumerable translations of plays from Sanskrit and English created an atmosphere which was very much in accordance with the value systems of ruling class. It must also be remembered that almost all the translations were not performance-oriented and the reason for this can also be attributed to the dominance of theatrical forms like kathakali which could fulfil the theatrical urges of the upper classes in general.
A major change in the style of producing a dramatic text with a newly structured performance pattern which is known as Sangeetha Natakam (musical drama) is worth mentioning in this context. In the history of modern Malayalam performance patterns, this new development which had spread over to Kerala from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka demands particular attention from a socio-political perspective. The verse form of this performance pattern which developed slowly was very much based on the vernacular Malayalam with its highly flexible metrical pattern and this was really a major break through in the performance history of Kerala.
In 1889, Chathukutty Mannadiar translated Ramabadradikshita's Janaki Parinayam and Bhavabhuti's Uttara rama charitam, which stood even above the translation of Kerala Varma's Sakuntalam. The language employed by Mannadiar was highly relaxing and acceptable to the majority than the intellectualised Sanskrit/Malayalam of Kerala Varma.
Some original plays were based on themes from epics and stories from history. Thottakkad Ikkavamma's Subhadrarjunam, Natuvattachan Namboodiri's Bhagavadoodu, Kunhikkuttan Tampuran's Lakshmana sangam, Varghese Mapila's Ebrayakutty based on the Old Testament are all worth mentioning in this context. K.C. Keshava Pillai's Sadarama and T.C. Achutha Menon's Sangeethanyshadham; Kuttamath Kanniyoor Krishna Kurup's Balagopalan were the most popular sangeethanatakams of Kerala.
The effervescence in this form of theatre activity was inspired by the famous actor Thiruvattar Narayana Pillai who organized the first professional theatre company manomohanam in the south of Kerala. In central Kerala Chathukutty Mannadiar gave shape to rasikaranjini natana sabha. But in the north of Kerala this musical drama movement had a different orientation other than purely being commercial. Vidwan P. Kelu Nair's (Pakkanar Charitam, Lanka Dahanam, Paduka Pattabhishekam, Srikrishna leela, Kabeerdasa Charitam, Vivekodayam) plays and their presentations were very popular especially in Malabar in the 20's. The Sangeetha Nataka performance pattern in Malabar popularised by Vidwan P. Kelu Nair, Kuttamath Kunniyur Kunhikrishna Kurup(Harischandracharitam, Devayanee-charitam etc.) Ananthan Nair (Kuchelagopalam), Kunhambu Kurup (Vydarbhivasudevem, Amsumathidha ramagupta etc.) and a host of others in collaboration with great actors like Rasikashiromani P. Koman Nair, C.U.K. Nambiar, Malabar Raman Nair stands apart mainly in one respect from the tradition. One can obviously find certain elements like the affinity for themes from epics and the dominance of carnatic music in the Sangeetha Nataka tradition of Kerala. But in Malabar this performance pattern had its roots in the turbulent struggles for national liberation and most of the playwrights of this form were involved in one way or another in the national liberation struggle. Most of them had the experience of being in prison for participating in the struggles of the period. The newly emerged theatre practice, they thought, would inspire the people to make their contributions towards the transformation of Kerala society in particular and Indian society in general.
The play Chakkichangaram by Munshi Rama Kurup made a fierce attack against this onslaught of the new type of performance pattern. It is against the vulgarisation of taste that Rama Kurup took arms against. The play was in the form of an English farce and it had the aim of cleaning the taste and sensibility of the upper middle class which was being polluted by the sub-culture of the Tamil musical drama and the imitations in Malayalam based on them which were becoming very popular.
Moreover, cultural practice in the vernacular was looked at with contempt; by those belonging to the upper strata but the social forces that unchained the human energy in this particular period was beyond the control of the ruling class alliance of the British and the regional monarchies. It is to be noted that even as early as 1880's when the commercial theatre practice based on Sangeetha Nataka tradition was making its headway in the south of Kerala, in the north Malabar and Malabar in general this tradition was being nurtured with a radical perspective. This radical development in performance practice, it can be rationally argued, did exert great influence upon the progressive theatre movement of Kerala in general which started with V.T. Bhattathiripad in 1929.
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