Chakyar Koothu is believed to be an offshoot of Koodiyattam and was breathed into life in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. The Koothu is a long monologue that depicts extracts from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. It is traditionally performed by a vidushakan (narrator), from the Chakyar community, in a stage within a temple called the Koothambalam.
The vidhushakan, in his vachikabhinayam (monologue), combines both prose and poetry- a style called Champu Prabandha. He plays all the characters in the story – turning into a narrator, a singer, a jester, and a dancer over the course of the performance. The performance is accompanied by two musical instruments – a mizhavu and a pair of ilathalam.
The Chakyar is dressed in a special headgear, his face is painted in bright colours and a moustache is drawn, and smeared in sandalwood paste or vibhuthi on his torso covered in red dots. All this is done to evoke the appearance of Anantha, the sacred serpent, who is said to be narrating the story to the audience.
The Chakyar starts his performance with a prayer to the deity of the temple. He then recites a Sanskrit verse, and interprets the verse in Malayalam. In the early days of the art, it was performed in Sanskrit and Manipravalam. But as Malayalam gained its unique identity in the 16th century, Chakyars were given the license to use Malayalam. And with Ezhuthachan translating the Ramayana and the Mahabarata into Malayalam, Chakyar Koothu took the form that we see today.
But what makes the Chakyar Koothu uniquely entertaining is the humour. The Chakyar engages and entertains the audience with his use of sharp wit and sarcasm. No topic is too sacred and no one is spared. It is quite like the modern stand-up, with the Chakyar drawing parallels and mocking current socio-political events.
Like the modern stand-up comic, the Chakyar uses improvisation to add flavour to his performance and make each performance relatively unique. Chakyar Koothu often serves as socio-political commentary, with the Chakyar expressing his opinions and drawing the audience’s attention to relevant topics.
While it is hard to affirm if Chakyar Koothu was the first form of stand-up comedy, it definitely is a testament to the Malayali’s sense of humour and ability to get away with sarcasm. It shows us that the right to free speech existed, at least to a select few, from the Middle Ages in Kerala.
Feature credit: Kerala Culture