Crafting Kathakali Koppu

Mar 01, 2017 | Vol 09 | Issue 02
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Surviving Traditions of River Nila- 13

There are many folk communities, traditional artists and artisans who have been living on the shores of River Nila (Bharathapuzha) since centuries. This article features about Kothavil family from Vellinezhi in Palakkad District, the masters in the making of Kathakali head gears and wooden ornaments.

Vellinezhi near Cherupulassery in Palakkad district is a rustic village nestling on the banks  of River Kunthi, a tributary of the  River Nila  (Bharathapuzha) and the places bordering this stretch  is known for its  rich  cultural heritage especially Kathakali, the classical dance-drama of Kerala.

In the history of Kathakali , a major transformation and stylization  took form some 150 years ago  when a  Kathakali  training and performing centre was functioning at Olappamanna Mana the  residence of  the land lord at Vellinezhi. Thus Kalluvazhi Chitta, the present form of northern style was evolved. One of the main reasons why Kathakali is a standalone form among other art forms is its usage of intricately designed bright head gears and elaborate costumes.

But very few people knew that the head gears and the ornaments are carved from wood. The creation of these wooden head gears and ornaments has been for the last sixty four years under the craftsmanship of the Kothavil family of carpenters from Vellinezhi village. It was the late Kothavil Krishnan who at the age of twenty started making Kathakali head gears.

Kothavil Ramankutty, aged sixty eight, the present master craftsman and the son of late Kothavil Krishnan remembers that it was the three brothers Raman Varrier, Krishnan Varrier and Govindan Varrier, the Chutti artists (those who do facial make up in Kathakali) from Vazhengada  who had selected his father, when they were in need of a set of head-gears and ornaments for Kathakali . The combo of head-gears and ornaments for Kathakali is known as Kathakali Koppu or simply Koppu. Regarding the early history of the making of Koppu, Ramankutty told “There is no proper information about the craftsmen who made Koppu previously. But I have seen in my childhood, some Koppu engraved with the name E V Mankada, a craftsman from Mankada (Palakkad Dt) with the name E Vasu”. Ramankutty discontinued his studies at the age of 12 and joined his father to learn carpentry as well as making of Koppu. He says that, during that period the work of Koppu was mainly for two months, during monsoon.

They also make head gears and wooden ornaments for other performing arts like Kuttiyattam, Krishnanattam, Ottanthullal, Chakyarkoothu, Poothan, Thira, Pavakathakali etc. His father Kothavil Krishnan died at the age of 69, in 1989. At this time Ramankutty was the only known craftsman of Koppu. During the years 1990-91, Kerala Kalamandalam, the centre for art and culture (now a deemed University) took initiative to train some students in the making of Koppu and appointed Ramankutty as trainer, but the project was dropped after two years. Ramankutty continued his tradition even in the difficulties in life and later brought his two sons Unnikrishnan and Govindankutty to his work after they completed their secondary school education.

During the period 2007- 2014 he got assistance from Ministry of Culture, Govt of India through Kutiyattam Kendra, a centre to promote Kutiyattam, the ancient theatre tradition of Kerala, to train five craftsmen in the making of Kutiyattam headgears and ornaments. This benefited his two sons and nephew to learn the craft.

Making of Kathakali Koppu

Following the tradition, the making of Koppu is done in two phases. One is the crafting of the headgear and wooden ornaments, which is done by Kothavil family. Decorating the wooden head gears and ornaments with stones, glass pieces, peacock feathers, golden/ aluminum foils etc is another work which is done by Chutty artists. Ramankutty says “ To carve out one headgear  it will take on an  average of a month and another one month to complete wooden ornaments for the character. Almost same number of days will take for a Chutti artist to complete the decorative work on it.”

Ramankutty explained the different types of head gears in Kathakali. The headgear used commonly by the heroic characters is known as Adyastana Kireedam and sometimes called Adyavasana Kireedam. The circular portion of this headgear called Keshabharam is 15.5 Viral in diameter. (Traditional unit of measure, 1Viral = 3cm), where as the biggest headgear in Kathakali, which is also in the same form is called Kutti chamaram. The diameter of Keshabharam of Kuttichamaram is 18.5 Viral. These head gears are used by Thadi characters (evil/demonic characters). There are other types of head gears used by characters like Hanuman, Sreekrishna and Kari (Tribal) characters. The types of ornaments used by Kathakali characters are Chevippovu, Thoda, Kathila (for ears), Paruthikkayamani, Hasthakadakam, Vala (for hand and wrist), Tholpoottu (shoulders),  Padiyaranjhanam,  Elassu and Mani  (for waist) and Koralaram/Mula Koralaram (neck/chest). A type of soft wood locally called Kumizhu (Gamhar/ Gmelina arborea) is used for crafting these items as it is light weight and durable. The wood also has medicinal uses in Ayurveda. Some timber mills in the nearby locality are supplying this wood to him. According to Ramankutty even in Kumizhu, there are different species. The Kumizhu we use is locally known as Karim kumizhu, Kattu Kumizhu or Vettila kumizhu. Some other species called Puzha Kumizhu and Thavala Kumizhu are not fit for wood carvings, says Ramankutty.

Ramankutty along with his wife, mother, two sons, in laws and grand children are now staying in the same place, where his father stayed. The workshop is adjacent to his home. He is always happy to receive guests and travelers who come occasionally to understand about the craft of making Koppu.

Location/access: On Cherpulassery- Palakkad Road, take diversion from Mangode to Vellinezhi. Ask any local person, they will guide you to Kothavil's house. Cherpulassery- Vellinezhi is 6km.

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