Chavittunatakam was created as an art-form by the Latin Christians during the 16th Century which they could use to entertain and popularize their religion. Gothuruth in Cochin is considered to be where the colorful art-form of Chavittunatakam was born. Chavittunatakam is basically a dance-drama depicting the stories from the Bible.
Photo by Tim Moffatt
Though the land originally belonged to the Hindus, the foreign settlements from abroad brought in Christianity and Islam to the state converting many of the Hindus into their religion. The traditional art forms of Kerala were all performed in the Temples and were based on the epic Hindu Puranas of Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The Christians soon realized their need for a performing art form and created Chavittunatakam or the Stamping Drama. It is a beautiful mix of the European Opera and the native dance forms of Kerala.
Chavittunatakam is basically a dance-drama. The name literally means the stamping drama. The stage is usually wooden and the performers stamp on the floor to keep up with the rhythm of the music in the background. The bell and the drum are used for background music. Even fights and fencing are showcased through the dance-drama as the story unfolds. The actors sing the songs themselves loudly during the performance. The music, stamping and the drama are all quite colorful depictions of the story. The performers would be completely exhausted because of the high drama and energy required throughout the performance.
The performers wear very colorful and glittering European costumes with shiny crown and loud makeup. This is to make sure that even the last row of the crowd can clearly see what is being performed on the stage. The props and settings are quite elaborate and colorful too, which is a welcome change from the typical temple art forms where the background or the stage settings are never required. Since this is a dance-drama, the complete settings of the dramatization are elaborately done which enhances the storytelling significantly.
Photo by The Art of Nature…
Chavittunatakam is usually based on stories from the Bible or on famous Christian Warriors. Stories of heroes like Alexander the Great and spiritual stories are also enacted through the art-form. Classics like David and Goliath have also been popularized through Chavittunatakam. Of late, more modern social themes and stories are being enacted in Chavittunatakam to keep connected to the changing audience. Depending on the story chosen, as many as 40-50 people perform on stage at a time especially while showcasing the battle sequences.
As you watch the live performance of a Chavittunatakam, you will clearly come across the Western influence and the strong Indian flavors which are quite evident. You will see Kalarippayattu Vs Fencing and Malayalam verses sung by performers in European attire. There’s strong influence of Ottam Thullal where the performer is the singer too. You will find influences of the Roman, Greek, Portuguese and European cultures in the costumes and props used for Chavittunatakam.
The Present Scenario
Though Chavittunatakam is not as popular a performing art as Kathakali or Mohiniyattom, the life of the art is still very much preserved by the few artists who practice, perform and teach them to the newer generations. It is a competition item in the academic cultural programs. The government conducts regular programs to keep the artists motivated. Live performances are arranged for the tourists who visit the Muziris Heritage location near Gothuruthu.
You can learn more about the history of Chavittunatakam when you visit Gothuruthu or the Kreupasanam center at Alappuzha which has been formed for the revival of such ancient and precious art-forms exclusive to Kerala. Training on Chavittunatakam performance is also given here.
Featured Photo by Koshyk