When one thinks of the words Kerala and dance in the same context, the first image that pops up is a heavily bedecked and painted Kathakali dancer, enacting the Hindu epics through hand gestures and expressive emoting.
However, it is a little-known fact that Kerala’s Christian community has their own counterpart of this art form, known as “Chavittu Natakam” (pronounced chowtnaadagam), literally “Stamping Drama,” named so because of the stamping sounds made by the artists during the performance.
Origins of Chavittu Natakam
Chavittu Natakam originated in Kerala’s Ernakulam district around the 16th century AD, after the coming of the Portuguese to the Kerala coast. It is largely considered a Latin Christian art form.
The Portuguese made attempts to spread Christianity in the largely Hindu and Islamic Kerala population, and the converts evolved Chavittu Natakam as their own folk art form. Chavittu Natakam artistes enacted Biblical stories and even tableau resembling the European opera.
Costumes and Music
Chavittu Natakam is a distinct Kerala art form, set apart from the rest by their highly westernised costumes, typical of the medieval age in Europe. However, its song and dialogue are in the regional language, Malayalam. Traditional Kerala instruments like chenda, maddalam, and tabla are used to provide the music.
It is not uncommon to see Malayali actors dressed in brightly-coloured gowns and robes, complete with Caucasian wigs, gesticulating and stamping their feet as they narrate the Latin Christian tales that they have made their own.
Popular stories depicted as plays in the Chavittu Natakam format are Carelman Charitham (the story of Charlemagne the Great), Brijeena Charitham (on the life of Queen Brijeena), the story of St. Sebastian, Daveedhum Goliyathum (the story of David and Goliath), Mahanaya Alexander (the story of Alexander the Great), and Veerayodhakkalude Anthyam (the Death of Great Warriors).
In the eighteenth century, Chavittu Natakam moved on to spiritual themes, for example, “Allesu-Nadagam” and “Cathareena- Nadakam.”
However, in the nineteenth century, it moved on to more moralistic themes like “Sathyapalan,” “Njanasundhari,” and “Anjelica.”
Chavittu Natakam Today
Chavittu Natakam has declined tremendously in popularity over the past two hundred years but still holds a cherished place among Kerala’s indigenous art forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, and Oppana, to name a few.
Many Malayalis today are unaware of the existence of Chavittu Natakam as an art form, but there are still mentions of it in popular culture, for example, the early 2000s novel by N.S. Madhavan, Litanies of Dutch Battery.
In order to preserve this slowly fading art form, the Kerala Chavittu Nadakam Academy was established in 2005 in the village of Gothuruthu. Even though the art form is not as popular today as it was two hundred to four hundred years ago, it is far from forgotten and is performed at certain occasions in order to honour and maintain its legacy.
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