Ottan Thullal – Question & Answer session with Suresh Kaliyath, Gopinath Prabha, Mohana Krishnan
Vinaykumar was the translator/ interlocutor for the session.
The discussion straight away went into the mode of asking questions. Vasanthi asked the artists whether the text “Ramanucharitham” was written by Kunchan Nambiar. Her doubt was based on the fact that the language of the text was different from that of the other texts by the same author. It lacked the lightness and easy flow that are attributed to Kunchan Nambiar’s
style of writing. Suresh mentioned that historians such as K.P. Narayana Pisharoti and V.S. Sarma had never doubted the authorship. Gopinath Prabha said that probably because this was not one of his earlier writings, the style might have changed and included more Sanskrit words etc. Also, as Kunchan Nambiar had mastery over many languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil and even Hindi, there would be language differences in his poetry.
There are three types of Thullals – Ottan, Seethankan and Parayan. They use different metres to express various kinds of emotions and there are some differences in the basic construction itself. Krishnaleela which he has written as Seethankan Thullal uses a different style and pace from Kalyana Sougandhikam which is also written as a Seethankan Thullal.
What is the history of the form?
The legend with regard to Ottan Thullal is that Kunchan Nambiar who was a mizhavu player for the chakiar, dozed off while there was a performance in the Ambalapuzha temple. Chakyar took exception and on stage made fun of him. Deeply hurt, Nambiar walked away from the performance and in one night created the text of Kalyanasougandhikam and performed it by himself on another corner of the temple premises. For costumes he used the towels which were spread out for drying by the Brahmins who visited the temple to take part in a festive lunch and the red silk cloth used on the deity itself. He twisted these clothes and made a “kacha’ out of it and using the tender coconut fronds hanging around the temple to make a skirt-like outfit. He used green colour to mask his face and began his performance at the same time the chakiar started his narration. People were attracted to the new form and they all moved away from the chakiar’s performance. The chakiar complained to the king and the king ordered Nambiar that he cannot perform within the temple premises. This suited Nambiar well as his intention was also to perform this art form in public making it accessible to common people at large. Whether this story is historically valid is debatable. A genius like Nambiar would not have dozed off while he was playing Mizhavu. The chakiar also would not have openly insulted him on stage itself. To top it all, he could not have composed the one thousand couplets of Kalyanasougandhikam Thullal within the span of one night. The truth may be somewhere around the story. But, the fact remains that he created a break-away form and called it OttanThullal which in later years became a very popular form.
Even though the text as well as the technique of performance are attributed to Kunchan Nambiar, the man who gave it a real form and made it popular and appealing was Malabar Raman Nair. He made suitable changes in the costume, head gear and mask and formalized the singing as well as the musical accompaniments. Instead of the Toppi Maddalam used earlier, he brought in Mridangam , Cymbals and Sruthi. He did a performance in Delhi where Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister saw it and requested Vallathol Narayana Menon, founder of Kerala Kala Mandapam to include it as one of the art forms to be taught in that institution. So, it becomes very clear, that without even understanding the language of the text, Pandit Nehru could appreciate the potential of this popular form.
Who was Kunchan Nambiar?
Very few details are known about him. He was born in Palghat district, next to a small town called Lakkidi, at a village called Killikurissimangalam. His house name was Kalakkath. His father was a Namboodiri from Kallampalli house in Kidangur. Nambiar was lucky to have been associated with learned people right from his childhood. He had a good education and he had traveled along with his father to Travancore and was part of the king’s court for some time. There also, he met poets and literary people and developed his talents in writing. He was not just a poet; He had mastery over many more knowledge systems such as music. He was exposed to other art forms such as Chakiar Koothu, Koodiyattam and Kathakali and adopted many techniques from these art forms. Even though we are not in possession of too many personal details about him, his literary works, the poems that he wrote with performance in mind will live as long as Malayalam literature is in vogue. Their appeal would never pall as they had a special literary quality about them.
Talking of the content of these texts, humour was the predominant emotion though other emotions such as anger, compassion, horror and sorrow were also reflected in them. Through his poems Nambiar aimed at social criticism – not of a personal nature, but a general anger and protest against the ills of society. He couched his protest and anger in humour which was very sharp. Even Chakiar Koothu was used for social criticism; but Nambiar, broke the temple hegemony and brought the art form to the public making it accessible to common people. The performer does not have the same license as the chakiar since the text is in poetry whereas chakiar’s text is in prose which gave more allowance to personal criticism.
Ottan Thullal as a form is basically a monologue; the actor is the narrator, musician, characters and dancer. However, the performance calls for a greater participation from the audience as the actor would be directly addressing them during his discourse. The audience also become the characters in the story as the actor addresses them as narrator or even one character of the story. There is greater scope for audience participation in Thullal than many other art forms. When asked whether he would go beyond the invisible line that separates the actor from the audience, Suresh replied that he would not do that even though he would go very close to that line and erase the barrier between the actor and the audience. The close interaction with the audience and the transforming of the audience into characters of the story makes Ottan Thullal a specially appealing and popular form. As for improvisation, there is scope, but it is restricted to the boundaries indicated by the text itself which is fixed.
The mode of Ottan Thullal presentation is that the actor sings the line once, the accompanist takes over and sings once again thus giving a greater opportunity to the actor for abhinaya. Unlike other art forms such as Kathakali and Kutiyattam, the Ottan Thullal actor does not have too much time at his disposal to do his elaboration. So, the repetition in singing by the accompanist gives him an opportunity to show his gestures and express his emotions.
The humour of Ottan Thullal is not of the situational comedy variety. It is intended to make people laugh as well as to reflect. The social criticism implicit in Ottan Thullal is of a general variety and it affects all human beings rather than a particular person. Two instances of this subtle way of criticizing existing customs, especially those which are connected with kings and those who are in a higher strata of society are as follows.
1.One day while Nambiar was walking along with the king, he saw a cow shitting. It was having loose motion. Nambiar immediately commented, “Hey, cow, do you also take your meals for Pakkam?” (the place where all courtiers are served meal). He could not openly comment to the king about the mediocre quality of food served in the common dining room. He pretended to be addressing the cow and achieved to convey the message to the king.
2. The king had built a lighthouse and wanted all his courtiers to write poems on the same. The courtiers wrote long and highly embellished poems praising the lighthouse, as they knew the king would reward them with money if he was pleased with the poem. When Nambiar’s turn came he just said, “I do not have a poem, but this is what I want to say:
The lighthouse is indeed a great wonder,
I too should get money
The king immediately understood the implied criticism that the other poets did not write the long poems praising the lighthouse, because they really appreciated it, but in the hope of getting some money from the king.
Even now the piquancy of Nambiar’s lines or words has not been lost. Frequently they are quoted in ordinary conversations, literary discussions and even advertisements. They have an eternal quality about them and would be a part of the style of humour used in Kerala.
To a question whether he criticized caste and gender inequalities, the answer was that by using names such as Parayan, Ottan, Seethankan which are all lower caste names for his Thullal metres, he was giving them an elevated status. And in making his art form accessible for viewing as well as learning to all classes and castes, he was again, emphasizing on an egalitarian society. By creating a mass form he was giving importance to all sections rather than the elite of the society. He can be called an angry and revolutionary poet who criticized the ills of society.
Shanta commented that apart from the multiple skills exhibited by the actor such as singing, dancing, acting, abhinaya and transformation into different characters, she was able to see a deep consciousness and dignity in the performance. After the completely Lokadharmi acting, the actor withdraws and assumes a certain kind of dignity. The dynamics of a live performance connected to the present evidencing what all the actor can do to enhance the performance the narrator withdraws into a dignity which is very appealing.
With regard to the audience for this performance there are no caste or class barriers. It is open to all. Anyone can learn the art form and perform it. Anyone can watch it. This gives it a special texture and makes it into people’s art without losing the aesthetics. When asked whether he would do the performance without the costumes and the make-up, Suresh said he would. However, for formal occasions he would like to appear in full gear and with all the accompaniments.
Ottan Thullal is being taught according to the gurukula tradition in three places in Kerala
Kerala Kala Mandalam
Kunchan Smarakam at Lakkidi
Ampalapuzha Tullal Kalari
Rustom felt that the art form would benefit if the organizers used their imagination and found alternate performance spaces such as the street corners etc. But, Shanta felt that the impulse to break from the present practicing spaces should come from the artists themselves if it were to last. Rustom felt that one does not have to be so particular about who gives the impetus for the continuation of the art form so long as it took place. Shanta felt that archiving the songs from the existing Asans would be one way of preserving the tradition. But, again, Rustom felt that archiving would only help the art form to some extent; Continuation of performances alone would help in a real sense in the long term. He felt mere archiving would result in sanitizing the forms, like in the case of the revival and recording of IPTA songs. Devoid of context and performative quality they would loose their vitality.
Any way it was felt that interest by organizations such as Adishakti in archiving the songs and exposing people to performances and enthusing them to take up learning the form may also help.