‘I yearn for aesthetic performance spaces’
Kapila Venu is in Bhopal when I call her for an interview. A couple of days ago, the petite Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu exponent was honoured with the Kumar Gandharva Award of the Madhya Pradesh Government.
The latest in a long string of achievements for her exemplary work as a performer and torchbearer of the ancient Sanskrit theatre of Koodiyattam, Kapila says she was humbled by the award. But what was really an honour for her was to be given the award along with Dhrupad Rudra veena exponent Ustad Bahauddin Dagar for whom she has immense respect and whose music she has been following carefully in the past few years.
“I feel that both Dhrupad and Koodiyattam have a meditative quality; a search for a finer aesthetic experience. It was a special occasion to be on the same stage as this great musician.”
Over the years, Kapila has been redefining the feminine and women characters from our mythology and epics. Her interpretation of their decisions and lives have given many iconic characters a different dimension altogether. Even while adhering to the traditional framework and aesthetics of the ancient Sanskrit theatre, she has brought in a new dynamics to the art form.
Excerpts from an interview with Kapila.
Are there any characters in Koodiyattam that you identify with? If so, who and why?
I am always excited about reinventing female characters with a lot of feminism infused in them. I love playing women who are able to look their lovers directly in the eye, who speak for themselves, question injustice and have their own existence. I try to bring these elements into most characters that I play even though they are all deeply embedded in texts or myths that are very ancient. There is obviously more scope to do this in new choreographies than in plays from the traditional repertoire but even so I never completely give up even on the very traditional characters.
Is there an additional responsibility when prestigious awards are bestowed on you?
Yes! There is definitely a lot of responsibility that comes with this kind of public recognition.
I feel deeply humbled and honoured but I am also compelled to do an introspection on my work with all honesty. I would like to have my feet firmly planted on the ground and continue to work to the best of my abilities. Having said that, I am also fully aware that this award is not only about me but also a recognition of the tradition itself and particularly the legacy of Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar.
How does it feel to be the torchbearer and heir to such a hoary legacy?
I do not see myself as THE torchbearer or heir of the legacy. I am one among several other practitioners in my generation. We are all bearing the torch together. Collectively, our work in keeping alive and relevant a tradition such as Koodiyattam is quite a challenge on many levels. Everything from finding ideal spaces for our performances, generating finances to support our work and life, running and managing our small-scale institutions and training centres to finding the right people to hand over the tradition comes to us only through immense effort. Times are changing and we have to adapt to everything from lifestyle changes to new teaching methodologies for the younger generation who are growing up in a completely different world than we did.
As a SPICMACAY ambassador of Koodiyattam, how do you connect with students of the present day?
Looking back at my experiences with SPICMACAY over the years I am convinced that when presented with high quality art in the right ambience with a good introduction, young people are the best audiences that an artiste can get.
When they are convinced about the beauty and relevance of an experience they really get involved and in most cases these experiences influence them for life. Whenever I have the opportunity, I particularly love to perform for and interact with young people and I try to make sure that it is done with extra care because I fear that the slightest carelessness could dishearten them.
What was it like to grow up in a world steeped in the arts?
I think that if it were not for all the exposure that I got at a very young age to various kinds of arts practices, I may have never developed the kind of sensibility that I have now. Growing up in a home frequented by artistes of various kinds and having both parents immersed in the arts is really what shaped my own aspirations.
Three artistes under the same roof is often very intense. We have all needed breaks from each other in order to find our own space and grow but at the same time there are things about an artiste’s life that only other artistes can truly empathise with. The kind of support and space that my parents have given me is unparalleled.
What is the care to be taken when new productions are staged? Do you think new themes for the present day ought to be introduced to give a contemporary relevance to the art form?
Whenever one attempts an experimental or new choreography, one always needs to do justice to the form by strictly maintaining all those core elements that characterise the form and make it what it is. In the case of Koodiyattam, one needs to really be aware that one is handling a very sophisticated technique that was passed down through generations for centuries. Of course, the form has been evolving and needs to continue to evolve but in the process we must not loose precious elements and basic principles through senseless innovations.
Naturally, experimentation with new themes and revival and continuation of the old repertoire are both crucial but the actual outcome depends on the skill and aesthetic sensibilities of the artiste who is doing the work
As an artiste what is that you yearn for?
Good audiences. More importantly, I yearn for aesthetic performance spaces that are in sync with the performance ethos of Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu. Some venues leave me in tears.
Look at a magnificent place like Khajuraho. The stage is made up of thermocol and plastic and is so far away from the audience. On top of that the dancer has to perform under the glare of hundreds of electric lamps beaming on her. It is heartbreaking.
Koodiyattam recitals were once held only in Koothambalam of temples. But in many places, I would not be permitted to perform or it would not be open to non-Hindus. I am looking at a secular space that is designed for recitals that could be seen in the light of traditional lamps; places where the magnificent costumes, designed by our maestros, and movements, codified by thespian, get a chance to be seen and enjoyed in all its majesty.
Performer, teacher and choreographer Kapila Venu began her journey in Koodiyattam at the age of seven when she was formally initiated into Koodiyattam by the legendary Koodiyattam maestro Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. His birth centenary is being observed this year.
Usha Nangiar taught her for a few years before she was trained rigorously under Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar for more than 10 years in the traditional training methodology of Gurukula-Sampradaya. Kapila also learnt from Kitangur Rama Chakyar and Ammannur Kuttan Chakyar. At present, she is being mentored and trained by her father, G Venu.
After her formal debut in Koodiyattam at the age of nine, she has been performing with the Koodiyattam ensembles of Natanakairali and Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam. The 35-year-old artiste has performed at some of the most prestigious venues in the world.
Kapila is also adept in Mohiniyattam, which she learnt from her mother, Nirmala Paniker. She has been trained in Kalaripayattu, Kathakali music and yoga in addition to specialised training in different aspects of acting.
Kapila says the workshops conducted by renowned Japanese avant garde dancer-farmer Min Tanaka, which she attended from 2005 to 2010, has been a significant and deep influence in her performance and life.
At present, Kapila teaches Koodiyattam at Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda. She is also a visiting faculty member at the National School of Drama, New Delhi and the Intercultural Theatre Institute, Singapore.
From 2005, Kapila has been executive director of Natanakairali Research, Training and Performing Centre for Traditional Arts, Irinjalakuda.
Nangiarkoothu choreographed by her in collaboration with G Venu:
Portrayal of a woman
* Saudaryalahari Nangiarkoothu
* Sakunthala in Kalidasa’s Abhijnana Shakunthalam
* Urvashi in Kalidasa’s Vikramorvasheeyam
* Gandhari in Bhasa’s Urubhangam
Kapila collaborated with Scottish artist Hanna Tuulikki for her audio visual installation titled ‘Sourcemouth Liquidbody’ for the third edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale
She was chosen as one of the 10 most promising Indian dancers for Attendance, edited by Ashish Khokar
She won the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, in 2006
Sanju Surendran’s film on the life and work of Kapila, titled Kapila won the National Award for the best film on culture in 2014