Indian Actors Dust Off Ancient Sanskrit Drama at Yale

Apr 4, 2014

A troupe of actors from Kerala, India will perform an ancient, traditional drama known as Kudiyattam this weekend in New Haven.

Kudiyattam (or Kutiyattam) is the last known surviving form of classic Sanskrit theater. It flourished in the ninth and tenth centuries in southwestern India, but according to Hebrew University Humanities Professor David Shulman, the roots of Kudiyattam go back much further. "The mode of performance," he said, "the ritualistic aspect of Kudiyattam, come from very ancient materials, going back perhaps to the second century, B.C."

Actors, adorned in elaborate costumes and colorful makeup, use singing and intricate hand and eye gestures to move the drama forward.

Shulman said  it's a feast for the eyes, and it challenges the western world's perception of theater. "In a full scale performance," he said, "there is perhaps even an hour where nothing moves on stage except for the eyes. By our standards, the plays are very long. They could be days, or even weeks long."

Below is a video of the opening scene of "The Death of Bali":

Sunday night's performance of "The Death of Bali" will be much shorter -- less than two hours -- and is only one scene from a much larger performance called "Coronation" based on the life of the epic hero Rama.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has recognized Kudiyattam as a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity."

The acting troupe Nepathya performs "The Death of Bali" Sunday at 8:00 pm at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School Mainstage Theatre in New Haven. The performance is presented by the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music.