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 taking the actor as the center of the same. In theory, a “jewel” of classic Sanskrit theater, Kutiyattam is also “a lotus” (K. Rama Cakyar) whose vigor lies in the memories of the masters as played out by the actor-narrator. These memories unfold on the stage as dramatic art and as a performance that, in this instance, is described as “epic,” with reference to playwright Bertolt Brecht and the history of Indian theater. Therefore, this work looks into the human roots, and the creative juice and sweat with which the actor is macerated, 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), whom they incarnate 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 serve as those of 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 works his way up to the level of poetry and its heroes. It is essential to establish these competencies so that standards for carrying out future performances can be understood.
The second part of the thesis analyzes the performance of the actor, on the one hand, by understanding the stage to be something akin to a veritable laboratory where micro-society and the macrocosm that brings it to life are analyzed, and on the other hand, by considering the texts (study of plays and actors’ manual, and the performances themselves (a triple-disc 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 the stoppage of time, a return to the past, interplay of mimesis and diegesis, and exchange of point of view, which all appear in the dramatic art of representations so that they are amplified through the actor’s performance. The editing adopted 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
Since 1998, when Virginie Johan discovered both the art of the Kutiyattam theater of Kerala, while with the Association for Acting Tradition Research, and the discipline of ethnoscenology at the University of Paris-VIII (which offers a methodology that she has adapted to her corpus of studies), she has, quite specifically, been studying the performances of its actors. She was initiated into Indian studies from the earliest years of her university studies, at the Univerisity of Paris-III, and has devoted what she remembers from her graduate-level studies and the DEA, respectively, to the study of actor language and the ethnography of its masters, the Cakyar’s. Co-directed by Indianist scholars, her work has been supported by scholarships (university and research), a fact which has allowed her to spend a great deal of time on the study of this field. For the thesis, she has been able to take advantage of her status as a research scholarship recipient so that she can then combine teaching and research assignment activities. In a parallel effort, she has taken it upon herself to learn Sanskrit (French acronym, EPHE) and Malayalam (private sessions) and is undertaking a study on films that considers principles of editing that would be appropriate for the analysis of performances (that sometimes are drawn out over several nights) in her department’s Audio/Visual and Computer Technology Center. From the start, she has wanted to have Kutiyattam theater recognized in the world of French research, and has progressively exposed her research at the national and international levels, inside of various scientific studies’ frameworks (theatrical studies, ethnoscenology, anthropology, ancient languages). These studies have been published, or are in the process of being published, for the purposes of some academic sectors.
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: www.reseau-asie.com.
- “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.