Satire, humour, and mockery have always been mankind’s way to understand and challenge their viewpoints regarding current affairs. Stand-up comedians and content creators are lauded for doing this. It is, therefore, important for us to look back at our history. Back in the day, we did have an artform that challenged societal norms. The artform spoke in the language of satire – our very own Ottanthullal.
Ottanthullal is a recite-and-dance form of art. It consists of a solo performer, who wears headgear and colourful makeup, with costumes that very closely resemble that of Kathakali. In addition, there is also a chorus that stands in the background and repeats the sentences recited by the performer. Natyashastra has inspired the performance principles of Ottanthullal (Ormayundo, natyashastrathil enthaa bharathamuni paranjittullath?).
History of Ottanthullal
The origins of thullal go back to the 18th century. This art form came to be when Kunjan Nambiar slept off during one of them (poor Nambiar!). He used to play the Mizhavu during the Chakyar Koothu performances. The agitated Chakyar ridiculed Nambiar. Nambiar left the venue in angst and created this artform overnight (Well, powerful people come from powerful places).
Kunjan Nambiar is credited as the OG creator. However, Mathoor Panicker played a huge role in popularising the art form. The passage of time paved the way for diversity as well. What started with predominantly male performers, now have female performers too.
Also Read: Women in Comedy in Malayalam Cinema
The performers often used the art as a platform to criticise the feudal landlords and people of the higher castes. Do you know who else wasn’t spared? The Royals! Legend suggests that the King of Chembakassery went on to ban the Ottanthullal performances at the Ambalapuzha temple complex after receiving complaints from the Chakyars (read professional jealousy).
The quirkiness of the art form is that every performance starts with the prologue “Ottanthullalil palathum parayum, athukond aarum khedikkaruth!“. It roughly translates to “Many things are said during Ottanthullal, so don’t get butthurt.”
Popular Forms of Ottanthullal
The most popular performance of Ottanthullal is the Kalyanasougandhikam, Santhanagopalam, and Kiratham. There are variants of Ottanthullal, which differ based on the rendering style and the costumes worn. Some of them are Sheethankan Thullal and Parayan Thullal. Even then, Ottanthullal is the most popular out of all (thattu thaanu irikkunna kandille).
Malayalis today have a host of tools for calling out the things they stand against – be it legal (defamation suits) or social (Instagram lives, YouTube channels). In this context, it is important to know that Kunjan Nambiar invented an art form that got back at toxicity and repressive mindsets.
In these testing times, how lovely would it be to get on a Zoom meeting and watch a live virtual Ottanthullal performance (coz stay-at-home mukhyam bigileee)!