people art festival dancing

Written by 3:43 PM Art

Is the modern-day stand-up inspired by 10th-century Chakiyar Koothu?

Was the chakra koothu the earliest form of stand-up comedy?

Was chakyar koothu the earliest form of stand-up comedy?

The first stage productions of Chakyar Koothu appeared in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is believed that Kutiyattam, the earliest surviving form of Sanskrit theater, is the ancestor of Chakyar Koothu.

Historically, the koothambalam,  a performance area in a temple built to specifications in the Natyashastra (a detailed manual about dance and allied subjects), was the only venue for Kutiyattam and koothu performances. Painkulam Raman Chakyar (active 1905–1980), a rebel with a cause, was responsible for the first public performance of koothu outside of the koothambalam, which caused widespread outrage and earned him social isolation. He also played a crucial role in adding it to the Kalamandalam ( a premier dance and music school of Kerala) curriculum.

Chakyar koothu accords great importance to the vidushaka (jester/ narrator, very much like the modern stand-up comedian), and his monologues combine prose and poetry. The vidushaka’s commentary is full of biting sarcasm and witty asides. Although the choreography is light, he makes his point clearly through his facial expressions. He makes the act more contemporary and inclusive by getting responses from the audience, making analogies, and commenting on current socio-political events. Minus the profanity and the cussing, doesn’t this describe a stand-up comedy show?

Here is an invitation to witness a chakiyar koothu by a modern-day artist.

The artist begins with a Sanskrit verse and invites people to watch him perform in Malayalam as spoken by the Namboothiris and Chakyars!

Typically, the vidushaka or the performer would first offer his prayers to the presiding deity. He then chants a shloka or verse in Sanskrit, which is an outline of the theme he is going to perform. The verse is then translated into the local language for everyone to understand. Although a central theme is specific to the performance, nothing stops him from dragging various contemporary subjects like politics into it. He is accompanied by the mizhi, a large copper vessel with it’s mouth covered by a taut skin on which the drummer plays and a pair of large cymbals.

It is a ritual specific to the Chakyar people (a priestly caste). The performer wears a colorful headdress, has a bushy black mustache, which is deliberately exaggerated, and is covered in sandalwood paste with bright red spots. His very appearance is quite comical.

It is only the male members of the Chakyar who perform the koothu.  Not to be outdone, there is also a female version called Nangyar Koothu, which is by the Nambiar community of Kerala.

So, it would be safe to say that modern-day stand-up shows originated in Kerala in the tenth century. 

The costume of the modern clown is very similar in color combination to the performer of the koothu.

What say you? Write to me if you don’t agree!

Photo credits

koothu” by Paul Varuni is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

mizhav” by Arayil is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

File:Vidushaka-Mani Madhava Chakyar.jpg” by Sreekanth Vis licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bring on the clowns” by markleepower is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Suyash Dwivedi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


%d bloggers like this: