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Women's Role in Kudiyattam

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Item Code: NAL087
Author: L.S. Rajagopalan
Publisher: The Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, Chennai
Language: Sanskrit Text with English Translation
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 85170169
Pages: 268 (2 B/W and 2 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 370 gm
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Book Description


There is no doubt that the contribution of Sanskrit to dramatic literature is on a par with if not greater than, that of Greek or Japanese or English. But of still greater magnitude and magnificence is what it has contributed to dramaturgy and the art of the theatre. The Sanskrit theatre tradition is not only one of the oldest and one of the richest, but is perhaps the one with the longest sustained history too. Apart from providing the unique text on the science and art of the theatre appropriately called Natyasastra, it has also produced a repertoire of inexhaustible variety and unparalleled sophistication. The plays of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Sudraka, Sri Harsha, Bodhayana, Mahendravikrama, Visakhadatta, Kulasekhara and saktibhadra form, what may be called the mainstream theatre texts. Some of these continue to be read and appreciated as literary works, but several of them have maintained close association with performances on the stage in different parts of India.

It is commonly believed that Kudiyattam is the only surviving performance tradition of the classical Sanskrit plays written between the second and eleventh centuries A.D. The tradition has been jealously preserved by a few families of Cakyars and Nambyars as performers and a few hundred enlightened people around the temples as spectators. But for this close-knit relationship between the dedicated actors, actresses and drummers on the one hand and the alert discerning audiences on the other, it could not have continued for so long and preserved its integrity from the wrong kind of admirers as well as the uncomprehending detractors. The tight discipline and rigour with which the performers were trained perhaps accounts for the qualities of precision and orderliness that may still be regarded as the hallmarks of Kudiyattam performances. It is not clear what historical or geographical factors were responsible for keeping this tradition alive in Kerala in the deep southern part of Dravidian territory. There are scholars who believe that the persistence of art forms and their preservation cannot be explained wholly by history or geography: there are perhaps more profound and subtle pshychological reasons for it. The cultural ambience of Keralites may also be partly responsible for this phenomenon. The same facts that account for the discovery of the manuscripts of several texts including those of the plays of Bhasa in Kerala may hold the clue for this also. The innumerable temples and the existence of theatres attached to the temples favoured the privileging of a highly sophisticated kind of performance catering to the refined tastes of an exclusive, if not elitistic, group of sahrdayas. Perhaps it may be best to attribute it to several cultural factors in their rare complexity; the relative popularity of Sanskrit learning in Kerala, the temple-centred social fabric, the existence of entire classes of people known or identified like Cakyars and Nambyars, the natural propensity of Malayalis to find pleasure in histrionics and socially relevant humour, the continued presence of a scholarly community, etc.

But what distinguishes the Kudiyattam theatre from theatre in many other parts of the world is the active presence of women in it both as actresses and as singers. We know that at least from the time of Kulasekhara in the tenth century A.D., women have been appearing in different roles in Kudiyattam performances. This is in sharp contrast to the practice of men (or boys) appearing in female roles in European theatre and even in Keralas own Kathakali theatre. There was a whole class of people set apart for performing these female roles in Kudiyattam, namely the women of the Nambyar community known as Nangyars. Three kinds of function on the stage were usually identified for the Nangyars: 1, sitting on stage right in full view of the audience throughout the performance, playing the cymbals to keep time for the performance of actors/actresses and singing verses-either for invocation of gods and goddesses or for vocal support to the performer enacting Nirvahana or solo flashback; 2, taking the roles of women characters in the play, wearing the costume assigned to female roles in different situations; and 3, performing the special role of Subhadra's maid Kalpalatika in the Nirvahana mode in Nangyar Kuttu, dramatically narrating the entire story of Sri Krsna, impersonating the various characters in about fifty or sixty episodes without change of costume or make-up, but using the whole gamut of histrionic skills and presenting varied emotions through gestures and body language.

It is this extremely fascinating aspect of the role of women in Kudiyattam and the related Nangyar Kuttu that L.S. Rajagopalan has undertaken to discuss in depth in the scholarly treatise that follows. Through long years of patient watching, listening and discussion, Rajagopalan has equipped himself to write at length on this very important, but also difficult subject. Living in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, as it is called, he has had plenty of opportunity to see ever so many performances ever so many times; he has also had the rare privilege of seeing the greatest artists in the field of this own time like Mani Madhava Cakyar, Painkulam Rama Cakyar and Ammanniir Madhava Cakyar, and perhaps many others with substantial creativity. Oral accounts of the remarkable proficiency of earlier masters in the art, of great savants like the poet-princes of Kodungalloor, and of scholars like K.P. Narayana Pisharoty, must have been poured into his ears from early years. Rajagopalan is one of the very few who can write with authority and conviction on this subject. It is a fertile and challenging field of investigation where facts are often interwined with legends, where the excited connoisseur flies into hyperboles of enthusiasm while recounting the unique excellence of certain performance.

As one can see, Rajagopalan begins with an account of the different attitudes to the position of women in life and in art in ancient India and then quite methodically he moves on to the social setting in Kerala with its matrilineal orientation; the micro-analysis he gives of the societal structure helps us understand the overall situation behind the Kudiyattam theatre. He then gives a graphic description of the 'Act of Surpanakha' or 'Surpanakhankam', the second act of Saktibhadra’s Ramayana play called 'the Wondrous Crest - Jewel' or Ascaryacudamani. The roles of Ravana's sister Surpanakha, both as Lalita in disguise and as the demoness without disguise are discussed in detail. This is followed by a similar account of the first act of Subhadra-Dhananjayam, and the fifth act of the same play. The other plays he briefly mentions as the current repertoire of Kudiyattam are Tapati-Samvaranam (Act I); Abhiseka (Acts I, III); Svapna-Vasavadattam (Act IV); Nagananda (Act II); Sakuntalam (Act III); Bhagavadajjukam, Ascaryacuedamani (Act IV). The references here are to the annual performances in Thrissur. (Other troupes like Margi, Trivandrum, which performs all the seven acts of Ascaryacudamani, are not specifically listed here).

More than half the book is concerned with Nangyar Kuttu, where the stage is exclusively dominated by the single woman performer. Rajagopalan has given a scene by scene account of the entire 'Sri Krsnacaritam', the story of Krsna told in a series of verses to be rendered solo by the actress. The rituals accompanying the performance are also touched upon. There is a more or less comprehensive survey of the whole performance running to several days. The points for our special attention have been highlighted, and illustrative verses are quoted in Sanskrit along with comments on the acting style. P.K. Narayanan Nambyar has published the text with Attaprakaram or acting manual in Malayalam along with an appendix of verses from other sources used for elaboration during performance. Rajagopalan's account in English will be of great use to those lovers of Nangyar Kuttu and Kudiyattam who know English, but not Malayalam. It is heartening that this book is written not from the point of view of a dry scholar, but from that of an art lover. The book gives a lot of information, true, but the important thing is that it creates in the reader a desire to see Kudiyattam, and prepares him to understand and appreciate the niceties of the performance.

Finally, a word of gratitude to the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute for publishing such informative monographs and thereby continuing the good work it is justly reputed for.



It is indeed a heartening development that an attempt is being made by Mr. L.S. Rajagopalan, a specialist in Kudiyattam, to highlight the role that has been effectively played by women in the stage performance of this art of hoary antiquity in Kerala. Today when Kathakali is, justifiably no doubt, being projected as the symbol of Kerala's cultural life, an impression is being gathered by the common art lovers that the classical forms of performing arts have, in the past, been male-dominated or even the monopoly of the male sex. When the classical dance form known as Ramanattam developed by the household Kottarakkara, as a rival to the Krsnattam that had already been initiated by the great Samutiri (Zamorin) of Kozhikkode (Calicut) according to some historians in this field, the female roles were assigned to men only. The King of Kottarakkara had gone along with the ruler of Kozhikkode in making this vigorous form of dance an all-male affair. Subsequently, when Kathakali dance form was further reformed in the new schools of Kottayam and Kaplingad, the same tradition continued and, for centuries, women were denied any kind of access to this art form either as performers or as supporting artists.

The credit for reviving Kathakali which had become a dying art in Kerala and taking it across the borders of India, rightly belongs to the great poet and connoisseur of art known by his family name "Vallathol". He also introduced a bold innovation of assigning the female roles to women themselves. The great savant has rightly concluded that women must have been kept out of this field due to social constraints and not by any apprehension that they might not prove equal to the task. At the Kalamandalam established by him in the centre of Kerala state, women were allowed to participate in Kathakali performances along with their male counterparts in female roles. It was his firm conviction also as once expressed by him to the present writer, that he had found them equal to the task that was assigned to them.

The impression had, however, gathered in the minds of both the common man and intellectuals that women were not expected to take part in such performing arts according to the traditions of Kerala. The fact that for at least one millennium, women had been taking part in the Kudiyattam performances did not strike many of them because this art form had practically ceased to exist for the common man and intellectuals alike. Kathakali dominated the scene and Krsnattam was occasionally performed in some of the temples or brahrmin households. Mohini Attam was the only classical form of dance in which women participated in Kerala. In the first four decades of the present century, it was the Tamil dramas that appeared very frequently on the stages. Plays like Sadaram, Kovila Caritam, Alli Arjuna, Pavazhakkodi, Vallittirumanam and Tukkuttukki used to attract mammoth crowds in towns and villages, often stages in the paddy fields on improvised stages after the harvest. Some of the popular actresses became great celebrities along with their male counterparts, but socially they were looked down upon. To the viewers, a woman taking the role of someone-else's wife or concubine on the stage was indulging in an act of promiscuity. Even the Mohini who gave solo performances in the Mohini Attam were not being looked upon with favourable eyes. In the educational institutions, musical dramas and popular plays were being frequently staged during the British period. Often the girls did not come forward to act along with the boys due to the social taboo. It was during this period, Vallathol came out with his bold experiment which was only a revival of the old tradition and certain professional troops also started staging plays in Malayalam with an enthusiastic welcome from the people at large.

We have got a recorded history of Greek dramas from the 6th century B. C. onwards. Though such records are lacking, it is to be concluded that stage plays must have been popular in India during the same period and, may be, much earlier. In my Introduction to the Bhasa-plays, (p.xxxviii.Vol. I, New Delhi, 1996), I had taken a view that Bhasa might have flourished during the 5th century B.C. or even a century later. In one of his recent articles (p.58 Indian Horizons, 44.4) Prof. Shrinivas Rath has taken a view that Bhasa must have been a contemporary of Candragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan empire and his son Bimbisara. In some of the Bhasa-plays, an actress makes her entry along with the Stage Manager and it is to be assumed that female roles were enacted by talented women. In the Sanskrit dramas of the great masters like Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Sudraka and others, the heroines and some other female characters have very difficult roles to play. This requires great talents and a good deal of scholarship as well, even though in most cases, female characters, speak in Prakrt language which is considered as the language of the common man.

If the 4th or 5th century B.C. could produce a great genius like Bhasa who has composed some of the finest stage plays that could stand the test of time, the tradition of staging plays must have been there for a few centuries prior to their composition. In a separate study on the subject I have taken a view that the staging of Sanskrit plays must have become quite popular in Kerala by the 5th or 6th century AD. at least (pp. xvi, xxxviii. Complete Plays of Bhasa. Vol.I). During the Sangam period, stage performances of various genre were no doubt popular in the whole of Tamizhakam and the present State of Kerala was an integral part of that cultural unit upto the time of the Kulasekharas. In this background, Sanskrit plays must have been accepted with great enthusiasm by the public of Kerala when they made their debut on the Kerala stage. Saktibhadra, the author of Ascaryacudamani, is generally claimed as the first Sanskrit poet who produced the play meant for the public stage in the southern part of India. The apprehension expressed by the Actress about staging the play of a local playwright reveals a lot to an interested historian of literature and arts. These are the words of the Actress :

Actress : Unbelievable indeed! The sky may as well put forth blossoms and oil come out of sand if a drama could come from the south!

This is a clear indication of the fact that the audience was accustomed to the performances of great masters of the northern region for a long time, may be two or three centuries. It was indeed a bold experiment to stage a play composed by a local author before the audience with high expectations. Following the model of Sanskrit dramas in the north, women must have been participating in a big way in all these stage compositions.

The specific role that is being played by Nangyars in the Kudiyattam has been adequately elaborated in the present monograph by Sri Rajagopalan. It would, therefore, be superfluous to go into that aspect which has been carefully studied by him. It might, however, be worthwhile examining in some detail, the system of education and training that existed in ancient Kerala if women belonging to a particular caste group could play such difficult roles with a sense of achievement.

The first question that arises is whether education of women received careful attention during the post-Sangam era. According to Ilailkulam Kunhan Pillai (The Studies in Kerala History, National Book Trust, 1970, Chapter xvii), one of the path-breakers in the field of the history of ancient and medieval Kerala, a large proportion of employment in temples was reserved for women though they were not employed in government services. Among these, the post of devadasis was the most important to which well born and highly educated ladies proficient in the arts were appointed. It is also accepted that devadasis have played a prominent role in promoting various forms of performing arts and music. They were known by such epithets like Tevaradiyal, Tevadiyal and Adigal. Far from any kind of stigma such names had a halo of devotion and religious aura around them. Some members of the Kulasekhara household including the daughters of Sthanu Ravivarma, emperor of Kerala (844-885 A.D.), had become the servant maids of the Lord with the much venerated term of 'Adigal' attached to their names. Those days, the term 'Adigal' was fixed only to the names of kings, sanyasins and devadasis. Their status was not inferior to that of a princess of the royal household since both of them were dedicated to the Lord himself for different tasks.



The present work on Kudiyattam represents part of a project on the subject, carried out during 1992 to 1994 by Sri L.S. Rajagopalan as A. C. Rangarajan Scholar for Indological Studies at the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, and is now being published under the same auspices. Hence it has a special place amongst the Institute's publications.

This monograph on 'Women's Role in Kudiyattam', treats adequately and with documentation for the first time, of the Nangyars, the women of the Nambyar community, also called respectfully as Nangyaramma in some parts of Kerala. The contribution of the Nangyars to, and their participation in the Kudiyattam are quite considerable. They sing songs and keep tala in the background; but more importantly, they play the female roles against the Cakyars, thereby providing the significant meaning to 'Kudiyattam' as 'combined' or 'ensemble' acting.

In keeping with the evolution of Kudiyattam during the last 1000 years or more, and as necessitated by the social, religious and economic conditions of the changing times, the status of the Nangyars has naturally undergone some gradual changes. These aspects are covered in the first introductory chapter.

The next four chapters are crucial to the critical study and appreciation of the literary and technical aspects of Kudiyattam performances, as chiefly enacted by the Nangyars in their heydays within the temple-precincts, singly in the context of Nirvahana or along with the Cakyars. These presentations include the enaction of the difficult and demanding roles of Surpanakha as Lalita and a demoness, of Subhadra and her maid Kalpalatika as prescribed in the enlarged Nirvahanas and acting manuals of the Vth and Ilnd acts of Subhadra-Dhanahjaya. The texts of the Nirvahanas which are mostly in Sanskrit and the related acting manuals that are not easily accessible currently, are given in the book for the first time in Devanagari with their English translation and comments. Besides, it has been possible for the author Sri Rajagopalan and for myself as editor, to identify some of the sources of the interpolated verses traditionally used in stage-representation by the versatile Cakyars and the Nangyars, and these have been indicated in the text and the foot-notes. A further detailed study on these lines would be a rewarding project, revealing much additional material of significance in the assessment of Kudiyattam as an instrument for both the preservation and communication of traditional Sanskrit and Prakrit literature through the medium of theatre.

The theatrical aspects of Kudiyattam are varied and unique, as drawn from Bharata's Natyasastra, indigenous Keralite theoretical and practical conventions and traditions. These facets are also revealed in and through the English versions of the acting manuals, that are added as required in the various contexts, as also in the descriptive Glossary.

The K.S.R. Institute is indeed privileged to, bring out this publication for more than one reason. Firstly, it is to be noted that Prof. Kuppuswami Sastri was not only a pioneering research-oriented scholar with a rare mastery in Sastras and Darsanas, but was also greatly interested in promoting and propagating Sanskrit through interesting cultural programmes. During 1927-43 Prof. Sastri, as the first President of the Samskrita Academy, was responsible along with his friends, for the presentation of the Mrcchakatika at its inauguration in the immediate presence of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. In December 1928 the Academy also celebrated the Sanskrit Drama Day under the Chairmanship of H.H. Rama Varma Parikshit Tampuran, when scenes from well-known Sanskrit dramas were presented. Amongst them the IVth act of Sakuntalam was staged by a cast consisting entirely of the lady members of the Academy. Such activities were continued in the successive years also. Again, it was prof. Kuppuswami Sastri who brought the Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra to the notice of non-Malayalam scholars for the notice of non-Malayalam scholars for the first time by his critical edition of it in Devanagari characters in 1926.

Prof. Sastri's prime student Dr. V. Raghavan founded in 1958 a unique organisation called the Samskrita Ranga devoted to Sanskrit drama, its presentation, research and other aspects. Under the auspices of the Samskrit Ranga Prof. Raghavan arranged for bringing to Madras in August 1962, a party headed by the famous Mani Madhava Cakyar for a three-day Kudiyattam performance of scenes from Subhadra-Dhananjaya, Abhiseka and Nagananda. It is to be remembered that it was the first time that a Kudiyattam party presented its programme outside Kerala. In fact, according to Dr. Raghavan, one of the lines of activities of the Samskrita Ranga is "to study the Kudiyattam in order to derive from its tradition such help as is available in it for the reconstruction and understanding of the Sanskrit drama and production as set forth by Bharata and exemplified in the classical plays of the great masters like Bhasa, Kalidasa and Sudraka”.

The Kudiyattam research project by Mr. L.S. Rajagopalan was possible under the A.C. Rangarajan Endowment for Indological Studies at the K.S.R. Institute, created in 1990 by Sri A.C. Rangarajan, a keen student of Sanskrit and Indological studies and a long-time admirer of and an enthusiastic participant in the various research activities of the Institute. As a serious and competent research scholar Sri Rajagopalan was able to collect valuable scattered materials on the literary and presentational aspects of Kudiyattam. A part of this project is now brought out as a monograph on "Women's Role in Kudiyattam” as sponsored by the same Endowment mentioned above and is dedicated to the donor's grandfather, Dr. S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar. I am happy to announce a follow-up publication on the Kudiyattam tradition that is to be published soon by the Institute and this would carry the further available materials collected by Mr. L.S. Rajagopalan. The Institute is sincerely thankful to Mr. A.C. Rangarajan for enabling it to make such valuable contribution to studies on ancient Indian theatre.

I cannot adequately thank Prof. K. Ayyappa Paniker, a versatile poet, and a specialist in Kudiyattam and Kathakali, for contributing a valuable Foreword.

My sincere thanks are due to Dr. K.P.A. Menon, a rare administrator-scholar, for his excellent Introduction.

No effort has been spared in making the monograph useful for a range of Indian and foreign students and researchers in Kudiyattam and in the ancient Sanskrit Drama and Theatre, who are conversant in English and Sanskrit but not in MaJayalam. With this audience in view detailed Contents, Glossary, Bibliography and Index have been included.


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