Stories of yore get a new life

Kalamandalam Aswathy Narayanan is on a mission to revive ottan thullal by performing the stories of many forgotten writers 

author_img Krishna P S Published :  13th April 2022 05:32 PM   |   Published :   |  13th April 2022 05:32 PM
Kalamandalam Aswathy Narayanan

Kalamandalam Aswathy Narayanan

Kalamandalam Aswathy Narayanan fell in love with ottan thullal due to its fast-paced rhythm and satirical humour. She became determined to learn it. So, as soon as she entered college, Aswathy started looking for an ottan thullal guru, under the guise of performing in the university arts festival. After a decade, the 27-year-old has been performing across Kerala, spreading the joy and humour of the art form. Recently, she went national and performed in New Delhi at Hyundai’s Art For Hope festival . 

However, rather than treading the traditional path, Aswathy decided to do something new for her performance. Usually, artists and audience prefer the writings of Kunchan Nambiar, the founder of ottan thullal. “Everywhere people want to see Kalyana Sougandhikam, a popular story by Nambiar. It has become somewhat monotonous. I believe unless we explore beyond the normal, ottan thullal will never see growth,” says Aswathy. So when she found out about another writer, Koyipurath Panikar, who followed in Nambiar’s footsteps, she decided to perform one of his stories. 

“There have been many writers after Nambiar. However, not many artists have portrayed their stories on stage. When I read Sundari Swayamvaram, by Panikar, I chose it for my maiden performance outside the state,” says the young artist. 

Ottan thullal is a solo dance form where artists enact myriad characters in the story. The artist herself has to narrate the story and act as each character maintaining their individuality and quirks while entertaining the audience with spontaneous interactions — something Aswathy thrives on.

Sundari Swayamvaram is inspired by the Mahabharata. It is a love story between Krishna’s daughter Sundari and Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. “The story offers immense scope for acting and audience interaction,” says Aswathy.

“I had to edit the story and develop choreography from scratch as this was never performed as far as I know. My teacher helped me with editing the story. Many of my artist friends helped with the choreography,” says Aswathy, who directed the entire performance. 

A different stance

Aswathy entered Kalamandalam to pursue MA in ottan thullal after finishing college. “I had completed MSc in Mathematics at the time. So when I joined Kalamandalam, many people, including some artists, asked me why I was wasting my degree. They didn’t believe ottan thullal had a future compared to a regular job,” Aswathy says. This belief, she feels, stems from the lack of experimentation with the art form. “There is no dearth of ottan thullal artists. However, most of us are performing usual stories. Ottan thullal is supposed to show a mirror to society through its satirical humour. We are doing a disservice to the art form by not developing it further,” says Aswathy.

Ottan thullal is not completely devoid of new ideas. Some have started performing as a trio. “It involves one artist from parayanthullal, one from sheethankan thullal and one from ottan thullal. It is not that popular as many feel it breaks several rules of ottan thullal,” says Aswathy. Her next gig is a trio performance in Thrissur on April 23. Aswathy is also teaching students ottan thullal as part of the state government’s two-year fellowship in Thrissur, all the while pursuing BEd in Mathematics.  

On a mission 

The artist claims that Kalyana Sougandhikam by Kunchan Nambiar is what performed usually on stage. Exploring beyond the normal  Aswathy chose one of Koyipurath Panikar’s stories for her maiden performance. 

Know more

Kunchan Nambiar founded ottan thullal in the 18th century. Though the king banned the song-and-dance art form initially as it made fun of the many eccentricities of society, it soon gained popularity, surpassing even chakyar koothu and kathakali. The dance form essentially breaks free of the rigidity in koothu in terms of language and rhythm.