Virginie Johan

From “the I” to the actor’s performance of Kutiyattam: epic theater ethnoscenology (in Kerala Province, India)

Description of Thesis

The issue at hand is to define and establish the epic character of the esthetics of Kutiyattam by considering the actor as its central feature. In theory, Kutiyattam is the “jewel” of classic Sanskrit theater. It is also “a lotus” (K. Rama Cakyar) whose vigor lies in the memories of the masters, played out by the actor-narrator. These memories unfold on the stage as dramatic art and as a performance that this thesis describes as “epic,” in reference to the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the history of Indian theater. Therefore, this work looks into the human roots and the creative sweat in which the actor bathes before inhaling the living bouquet of the work and distilling its subtle aromas.

The first part of the thesis, devoted to “competencies,” looks into the “I” of the Cakyar masters. As actors-narrators from birth who offer their art to gods in the Kerala temples, they lay claim to a double-faced ancestor, Bard (Sutra) and Actor (Sutradhara), who they embody during ritualistic scenes. The oil lamps’ flames that light up the representations call for an intimate solo performance in which the actor’s and narrator’s faces give form to the characters. The actor’s learning of the language (based on minutely detailed voice, gesture, face, eyes and breathing codes) allows one to make a clear distinction between the man and the actor: only the latter attains the level of poetry and its heroes. It is essential to establish these competencies to understand how future performances will be carried out.

The second part of the thesis analyzes the performance of the actor, on the one hand, by considering the stage as something akin to a laboratory where the micro-society and the macrocosm that brings it to life are analyzed, and on the other hand, by considering the texts (studies of plays and actors’ manuals), and the performances themselves (a triple DVD offers extra cinematic features). In this way, one exposes and explains the omnipresent Kutiyattam phenomenon of “distancing,” which rests on principles similar to those that Brecht proposed for his “epic theater,” namely the principles of suspending time, returining to the past, the interplay of mimesis and diegesis, the exchange of points of view, all of which feature in the dramatic art of representation and are amplified through the actor’s performance. The editing used for films, which fixes the image, is meant to exalt this dramatic art. This thesis finally leads to a re-examination of the well-known comedic paradox, as well as the probable epic origins of Indian theater.

Career and Research studies

Virginie Johan has studied Kerala's Kutiyattam theatre and particularly the performance of its actors since discovering it in 1998 via the Association for Research on Actor Traditions. It was also in 1998 that she first came into contact with the discipline of ethnoscenology at the University of Paris-VIII (which offers a methodology that she has adapted to her corpus of studies). She was introduced to Indian studies at the beginning of her academic career and consecrated her MPhil and Doctorate theses to the study of the actor's language and the ethnography of his masters, the Cakyar. Co-directed by Indianist scholars, her work has been supported by university and research scholarships, enabling her to devote a large amount of time to fieldwork. Awarded a research scholarship for her thesis, she has been able to combine teaching and research assignment activities. In a parallel, she is learning Sanskrit (at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes) and Malayalam (private tuition) and is undertaking a film study that considers appropriate editing principles for the analysis of performances (that sometimes last several nights) in her department’s Audio/Visual and Computer Technology Center. Eager that French academic research should (re)discover Kutiyattam theater, she has progressively exposed her research at national and international levels within different disciplines (theatre studies, ethnoscenology, anthropology, ancient languages). These studies have been published, or are in the process of being published.

Some Published Studies

- “Kuttu-Kutiyattam: théâtres classiques du Kerala.” Revue d’histoire du théâtre 216, 2002-4: 365-382.

- “Intrigue et représentation dans le théâtre kutiyattam.” In: Intrigue et représentation dans le théâtre Sanskrit et le théâtre gréco-romain. Official Symposium Records from January 25th and 26th, 2002, Toulouse, publication of the Centre de Recherches Appliquées au Théâtre Antique (“CRATA studies”), 2004: 38-75.

- “Préludes à une ethnoscénographie filmée de performances d’acteurs.” In: C. Guillebaud & V. Johan (dir.). Atelier 31. Vers une anthropologie esthétique? Le cas des arts performatifs en Asie: terrain et méthodes. International Congress of the Asian Network, December 28-30, 2005:
- “Pour un théâtre des yeux: l’exemple indien.” Coulisses 33 (publication of Franche-Comté’s university presses), 2006: 259-274.
- Soon to appear: “Actresses on the temple stages? (the conception and performance of women’s roles in Kitiyattam Ramayana plays).” In: H. Br?ckner, A. de Bruin, H. Möser (eds.): Changing roles and perceptions of women performers in Indian culture. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Publishers (“Drama und theater in Südasien,” Vol. 7): 20 pp., 2 films in: Möser (ed.). DVD.