Nangiar Koothu: Exclusive Domain of Female Artists in Kerala

Kerala is home to several fascinating traditions and art forms. There is the graceful Mohiniyattam, the enigmatic Kathakali and the amusing Ottan Thullal. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, let us look at one such dance form that is interestingly, only performed by women.

Nangiar Koothu is an art form that evolved from Koodiyattam, an ancient Sanskrit drama tradition. Koodiyattam is performed by Chakyars (a Hindu ‘ambalavasi’ or ‘temple-dwelling’ community) and Nangiars (women of the Hindu “Nambiar” community) together on stage. The Nangiars or ‘Nangiarammas’ as they are called, performed Nangiar Koothu as solo performances purely as a ceremonial ritual in a few temples in Kerala. These performances are staged in a special theatre that forms a part of temples in Kerala called “Koothambalams”. During the 1990s, Nangiar Koothu also experienced a cultural revival much like many other classical art forms in Kerala. The dance form which was until then performed only by a few Nambiar women in some temples across Kerala gained traction after an old acting manual of Sri Krishna Charitam called “Attaprakaram” was discovered in 1982 by Nirmala Paniker and G. Venu. This manuscript which contained 208 slokas dealt with women’s roles in Koodiyattam. Ammanur Madhava Chakyar, a Koodiyattam exponent re-worked the manuscript and made it more popular. It was after this that Kerala Kalamandalam and other training institutions began to witness an increasing number of girl students in the Koodiyattam genre and its offshoots like Nangiar Koothu. This dance form is nowadays no longer restricted to just the Nambiar community. In 1971, Kalamandalam Girija was the first woman from outside the community to learn and perform Nangiar Koothu. Kalamandalam Shylaja, Margi Sathi and Usha Nangiar are other exponents in this field.

source: nangiarkoothu.com

Nangiar Koothu presents stories from Sri Krishna Charitam, which depicts the life of Sri Krishna. The dancer is accompanied by the vocal artist and percussion instruments such as the Mizhavu (pot drum), Idakka and Thimila. Traditionally, this dance goes on for 12 consecutive days. It has its foundations based on the ancient treatise Natya Shastra by Bharatamuni.

Nangiar Koothu is ‘abhinaya’ or acting-centric, the dancer expressing emotions with her eyes and hand gestures. ‘Nritta’ or pure dance is in focus only during the entry rituals (‘Purappad’). This dance at the beginning is called “Purvaranga Nritta”. During the performance, the Nangiar usually sits on a stool behind an oil lamp and acts out stories using intricate hand gestures, body movements and expressions. The dancer wears a red blouse and a white or cream-coloured skirt laced with gold or “kasavu” embroidery. She also wears red and white flowers in her hair and a distinct red headgear, with a hooded serpent on it probably symbolizing Anantha, the 1000-headed serpent.

This captivating dance form is still performed as a ritual offering in the Trissur Vadakkunathan Temple, Ambalapuzha Sri Krishna Temple, Irinjalakkuda Koodalmanikyam Temple, Tripunithara Poornathrayeswara Temple and Kottayam Kumaranellore Bhagavathy Temple. The performance begins on the day before Ashtamirohini, i.e. Sri Krishna’s birthday, in the Vadakkunathan temple and Ambalapuzha temple. Even though Nangiar Koothu is performed in the daytime, on Ashtamirohini day, it is held at night to match up with the time when Sri Krishna was born. The Koothu starts on the festival day in the Malayalam month of Chingam in the Poonathrayeswara temple and goes on for 8 days. It goes on for 12 consecutive days from the star-day ‘Uttram’ in the month of Medam in the Koodalmanikyam temple.

There is a variant form of Nangiar Koothu known as Dasamam Koothu or Chudala Koothu which is performed after an Akkithirippad has passed away. Akkithippad is a brahmin who has qualified himself to perform yagas including the athirathram, the most intricate of the yagas. The Nangiaramma performs on the ‘Sanjayanam’ day in a temperory koothambalam-like set-up, to help the deceased soul and his wife attain moksha. Though it is a rarely-performed dance form, artists like Aparna Nangiar have performed Dasamam Koothu in the last few years, even as recent as in 2021.

Over time, this art form which has historical antiquity of over 1500 years has also seen innovations in its story content. Dancers like Margi Sathi have introduced stories from Ramayana and the Kannaki Charitha into the performances. For art lovers and others alike, Nangiar Koothu is a very alluring dance form to witness and enjoy.