A folk art form once thought to be dying out due to lack of interest livened up proceedings at Aspinwall House.The hour-long performance of ‘Payyunur Charadukuthi Kolkali’, a traditional form native to Payyanur in Kannur, did not want for an audience at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
The Kolkali (or ‘stick dance’), which is said to have be referenced in Sangam literature, had performers swivel, twirl and strike their batons (‘kols’) while circling around a pole with a mesh of thread fabric. Moving in tandem to live rendition of ‘shlokas’, the dancers would change steps mid-routine on the instructions of the ‘Gurukal’ (master) and ‘Asan’ (teacher).
“Usually each ‘kali’ – there are 60 different variants of the movements – takes a lot longer and this makes it more demanding. For the first time, we curtailed each movement to showcase the intricacy of the entire form without losing its core,” said Prabhakaran Tharangini, the Gurukal of the troupe ‘Mahadevadesai Vayanasala Kolkali Sangham’.
In another first for the art form – traditionally performed as a temple ritual by men, the troupe included ‘kalis’ by women in their show. With not a beat missed, the nearly 40-strong group of dancers – “from ages seven to 70” – moves to the tune, clacking batons to the chanting.
Kept alive by the townspeople of Payyannur, but for whom the nuances of this art form passed down through oral tradition over generations would have been lost, the ‘Kolkali’ is derived from the traditional martial art ‘Kalaripayattu’. The two share movements and steps.
“Payyannur Kolkali also has similarities to Thiruvathirakali, but it is more closely related to Poorakkali in its steps, expressions and music too. It is both a temple ritual and an art form. The chanting in particular invokes the presiding deity of the Payyannur Subramanya Swamy temple,” said K. Shivakumar, the Asan.
Though a part and parcel of life in the district, the Payyunur Kolkali is less well known beyond its borders than the Mappila Kolkali – a cultural marker readily identifiable with the North Malabar region.
“The Charadkuthi kali is a special form of Kolkali. Atop the pole is a circular disc from which multi-coloured strings are hung. The other ends of these strings are tied to the little fingers of the performers. As the kali progresses, the strings wind themselves around the players’ palms to create a net structure that will come undone once the performance ends,” said Prabhakaran Tharangini, who expressed the troupe’s appreciation for the platform to showcase the Kolkali.
“Living folk arts like the Payyunur Kolkali are an integral part of Kerala’s cultural legacy. It was wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm of the performers. I am glad we could offer a space to them at the Biennale,” said KMB co-founder Bose Krishnamachari.