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Kutiyattam: Sanskrit Theater of India (A CD-ROM)

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By Farley Richmond
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
2002.
Web site: www.press.umich.edu
Phone: 800-621-2736

Reviewed by JOANNA KIRKPATRICK

 

This multimedia, interactive CD-ROM is a visually rich and appealing survey of the ancient South Indian theater of kutiyattam, associated with temples and religious ritual since the tenth century CE Special temple servant castes produce the dance-story performances that are considered to be visual sac­rifices to the temple deity.

The main musical instruments are a special kind of drum with an elaborate repertoire, hand cymbals, and a small hand drum. After years of comparative research on performing arts in India, Richmond learned that kutiyattam is probably the only kind of performing art in India that still carefully follows the ancient San­skrit treatise, the Natyashastra.

An unusual feature of kutiyattam is that actors playing male roles chant in Sanskrit, and while playing female roles they chant in Prakrit (also an ancient, classical language). The theatrically important clown figure speaks colloquial Malayalam, the main language of Kerala. Some female roles are enacted by men, some by a particular caste of women. The audience, which nowadays consists of anyone who wants to see the performance, listens to a short Malayalam narration of the story before the play begins. A kutiyattam performance is so complex that only segments of a story will be presented throughout an entire night, lengthened by elaborate conventional explanations and digressions from the nar­rative. Richmond states that kutiyattam was historically a precur­sor to the more familiar (to south Indian aficionados, anyway) Kerala kathakali dance theatre.

The self-loading CD is dual platform. It opens with a rotating globe upon which are superimposed photos from the CD. This fig­ure resolves into a faint background for the title, author and design­er names, publisher, and date. There is no main menu page, but all pages present the menu as a series of named colorful buttons, medallion figures suggesting a dancer’s belt, placed along the length of the left side of the frame. There are eight sections: Intro­duction, Contexts, Texts, Community, Training, Character, Music, and Reference. Below these are small signs for Navigation Help or Quit. When one clicks a bright medallion button, it enlarges slight­ly and one goes to the first page of its section. Subsections are accessed by clicking on buttons on the additional ribbon that appears at the bottom of the frame to announce them. Small pop-up windows also direct the reader/viewer to other parts of the CD.

The introduction presents basic information about kutiyat­tam, its history, locations in Kerala, etc. Its page nine presents the first video clip, a performer impersonating a queen’s handmaid telling about a bird eating a flower, about two seconds, with clear voice-over by Richmond. The contexts section on India includes three maps, showing significant places and the distribution across the country of the main religions and other performing arts. This section also has a button on Kerala with varied photos, including typical Keralan temple architecture. There is very much more in this CD, which includes 147 video clips, 76 sound clips, and 620 photographs. The most detailed, culturally-intricate presentations are found in the texts, training, and music sections. The reference section contains an appendix that lists major essays and also pri­mary sources, all hyperlinked in red to their respective texts, a full scholarly array. These texts can be saved or printed out. The last item in the appendix is a Sanskrit text on gesture, including audio clips of a Brahmin chanting the verses. A nice feature of this seg­ment—running the cursor over the Sanskrit verses gives the read­er the English translation. Reference also includes a bibliography, the credits, and a help section. The function of a glossary is sup­plied by small pop-up windows that open in the texts when a red, hyperlinked, technical term is clicked, providing a short defini­tion. There is no discography or video list, perhaps because recordings and videos are actually limited, and/or available only in India or Kerala.

This CD’s organization is broadly successful as an introduc­tion to the subject and could stimulate, through its multimedia offerings, the desire in some viewers to learn more about this ancient ritual theater. I’d expect musicians to find themselves absorbed in learning the talas (drum rhythms), and theater stu­dents inspired to work on the facial gestures. But students inspired by this work would need to find living instructors and courses in Indian theater and music, as the CD itself does not provide train­ing. (Richmond notes in one of his essays in the appendix that he created a training video when he was at the University of Michi­gan. This video is not listed in the appendix; one wonders if it is still available.) Kutiyattam could provide a valuable enrichment resource, either as operated with a multimedia projector in the classroom, or reserved in the library for courses on Indian arts and culture. If he has the video, perhaps Farley Richmond would soon consider putting a series of kutiyattam performances on DVD­ROM, a medium that, unlike a CD-ROM, provides more than four gigabytes of recording space. This CD certainly whets one’s appetite for more.