Kerala art lovers work to popularize Christian drama

February 23, 2017 by  
Filed under India, newsletter-india

Kochi, February 22, 2017: Art lovers in Kerala have joined with Catholics to revive a Christian art form introduced by Portuguese missionaries to the southern Indian state centuries ago to help their evangelization efforts.

The art form, called Chavittunatakam (foot stamping drama), is believed to have been created by the Portuguese in the 16th century by blending European opera with local folk arts to tell Christian stories.

The performers pound the dance floor with great force to accentuate the drama. Historians say that the Portuguese missionaries used it in parishes as entrainment and as a means to evangelize.

“The stories in this art form were mostly heroic episodes from the Bible or tales of Christian warriors. Wearing glittering medieval costumes, the performers would tell the story through detailed gestures and body movements presented in time with music and percussion,” said Ajith Kumar, president of Kerala Chavittunataka Academy.

The art form gained popularity among the Latin-rite Catholics in the present-day districts of Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kollam where the Portuguese mission was concentrated but over the centuries its popularity waned, Kumar said.

Kerala is home to three Catholic rites — the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites that belong to the Eastern churches and whose members trace their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle that tradition says landed on the Kerala coast in 52 A.D., and the Latin rite, which European missioners introduced in the 15th century.

Art enthusiasts, cutting across religions and rites have now joined together to revive the dance by shortening its length and introducing non-Christian and secular themes.

A typical show in the olden days used to last three to four nights and comprised 150-200 artistes. It was usually performed on open stages in parishes. A major reason for its decline was a lack of patronage, according to Thambi Payyappalli, an exponent of the dance-drama.

“The new generation does not have the patience to watch a show over multiple days. Moreover, producing a story lasting several days was huge cost … for the artistes, who hailed from poor families. They eventually abandoned it as their patrons moved away,” said Thambi.

In the revived from, the performances do not take more than three hours. “We have also developed capsules lasting 20 to 30 minutes for competition purposes. The stories are now based on modern themes. These have attracted the younger generation to Chavittunatakam in a big way,” Thambi said.

Thambi said they also brought the performances from parishes into secular auditoriums and other venues incorporating Shakespearian plays and even one about Hindu god Ayyappa, a popular deity among local Hindus.

A major step in the path of revival of Chavittunatakam was the establishment of the Kerala Chavittu Nadaka Academy, an institution set up exclusively to promote the art form in Gothuruth, an island village in Ernakulum district, considered to be its birthplace.

Since 2012, Kochi Biennale Foundation has run a five-day Chavittunatakam festival every Christmas season in Gothuruth.

Following these efforts, the Kerala government introduced Chavititunatakam in the annual school youth festival. The Cochin Shipyard constructed a permanent stage for the art from at Gothuruth.

The stage is part of the Maritime Arts Centre established by the shipyard on the island under its corporate social responsibility initiative within the premises of Holy Cross parish church.

Popular Kerala film actor, Mammootty dedicated it to the state on Feb. 15 at a public function after Bishop Joseph Karikkaserri of Kottappuram blessed and opened it.

Two short plays were staged on the occasion with several dignitaries expressing hope that the art from would become popular again, albeit with a different motive.

– ucan

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