Hary M Pillai
Not just stories from Hindu Puranas, but also the Bible have been performed for several decades by Kathakali artists from a small village, located on the banks of the Pampa river in the southern Kerala district of Pathanamthitta, earning it the right to link the classical dance form with its name.
After an effort spanning over 12 years, Ayroor village in Pathanamthitta will now be seen on the Indian map as Ayirur Kathakali Gramam — an indication of the prominence given to the dance form known for its elaborately colourful make-up and costumes.
Kathakali, which originated in Kerala over 300 years ago, combines devotion, drama, dance, music, costumes, and make-up to retell the great stories of the past, mostly from Indian epics, using hand and facial gestures and expressions.
Bible stories in Kathakali
In Ayirur, not only the Hindu epics but stories from the Bible, like “Abraham’s sacrifice”, “The Prodigal Son” and “Mary Magdalene” are also performed and are a hit among the Christian community, Vimal Raj, who hails from the village, said.
Raj, the third generation of a family in Ayirur of Kathakali artists and connoisseurs, is not a performer himself but his love for the dance form prompted him to start a District Kathakali Club in 1995 with some of his friends.
It was at the request of this club that the Grama Panchayat passed a resolution in 2010 to change the village’s name to Ayroor Kathakali Gramam, Panchayat president Ambili Prabhakaran Nair said.
However, the entire process took more than 12 years to come to fruition and was very cumbersome, Raj, also the club secretary, said.
‘Changing name not easy’
“A change in name is not that easy. It is a long drawn-out process as you need approvals of the state and central governments. Involves inspection by Intelligence officials to ascertain whether the renaming would cause any communal problems,” Raj told PTI.
There was never any such concern on our side as no one had objected to the renaming, he said.
Moreover, the Christian community here are the biggest contributor to the running of the club, he added.
“There are several Christians who are office bearers in the club. They also donate significant amounts. They too love Kathakali and come in large numbers to see the performances,” Raj said.
“It has been several years since the Panchayat passed the resolution. No one has objected to it till now,” Ambili told PTI.
200-year-old Kathakali heritage
On being asked why the club moved such a proposal in the first place, Raj said Ayirur village has a nearly 200-year-old Kathakali heritage.
Sankara Panicker of the Chirakuzhiyil family in the Puthezham area of the village was a Kathakali connoisseur and sowed the seeds of the dance form thereby starting a Kathakali Kalari attached to his ancestral home, Raj said.
It was a revolutionary step that brought the art form out from the four walls of temples, which the downtrodden section of society was not permitted to enter in those days.
After the club was set up, at its own cost taught dance mudras (finger or hand gestures) to school children from classes 1 to 10.
“Young children pick it up very quickly. So we thought it would be good to familiarise them with the dance form at an early age,” he said.
As the club’s endeavours gained popularity, more children turned up for the classes which were then held at some common venue.
Seven-day festival every year
In view of the growing interest among children to learn about the classical dance form, the club decided to hold a seven-day festival every year in the first week of January to not only teach mudras but also display Kathakali performances.
“The festival has been held every year for the last 17 years and witnesses a huge turnout of around 1,500 school children per day,” Raj said.
The festival is held on the riverbanks of Pampa at the cost of the club, he added.
Besides that, around 20,000 children turn up every year at the club in the village to learn about Kathakali, Raj claimed.
“All these factors possibly contributed to influencing the state and central governments to approve our request for renaming the village,” he said.
The proposal for change in name was unanimously approved in 2018 by members of the Kerala Names Authority, a statutory body headed by the state revenue minister, Raj said.
But when it reached the Surveyor General of India — the national authority on renaming places in the country — it hit a snag over the village’s spelling and resulted in the process getting delayed.
‘Ayroor’ to Ayirur
While for ages the village’s name was spelt ‘Ayroor’, the Surveyor General of India was of the view that it should be ‘Aiyrur’ and the matter was sent back to the state for reconsideration.
“It was a bit demoralising for us,” Raj said.
Thereafter, the process started again and the Revenue Commissioner said that the state government was in agreement with the name recommended by the Surveyor General of India.
“This expedited the matter and the MHA in March this year approved the renaming of the village,” Raj said.
On what comes next, Raj’s response is — a Kathakali museum.
The club gave up a piece of land it had for setting up the museum and the Kerala Tourism Department and the panchayat approved the project which would cost around ₹1.5 crore, he said.
Titled ‘Tourism Destination Challenge’, the museum project envisages not only showcasing the exquisite costumes and make-up styles of the classical dance form but also giving details of how they are made.
Additionally and interestingly, artificial intelligence would be used to show Kathakali dance performances by mannequins dressed up in the dance attire and sporting the vivid make-up that it is known for, Raj said.
The idea is to show a Kathakali performance on demand to tourists or visitors to the museum as it otherwise takes nearly a week to prepare an enactment by artists, he said.
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