On Krishnattam

P.K.S. Raja - Zamorin of Calicut

Krishnagiti was written between 1655 A.D. and 1658 A.D. by the then Zamorin Raja of Calicut, Manavedan Raja. During this period, both Vilwamangalam Swamiyar and the Zamorin Manavedan Raja were staying at Guruvayur. Vilwamangalam Swamiyar was such an ardent devotee of lord Guruvayurappan that he could see the lord in flesh and blood whenever he wanted. One day the Zamorin requested the Swamiyar to help him and show him the Lord. Swamiyar replied that before committing anything he will have to consult Guruvayurappan and get his consent. The next day the Swamiyar told him that Guruvayurappan has given his consent and the Zamorin can see Guruvayurappan playing in the early hours of the morning at the platform of the Elanji tree. When as per this agreement, the Zamorin saw the real Guruvayurappan, he was so excited that he forgot all the environment and decorum, rushed to the Elanji tree and embraced the lord. The lord immediately disappeared saying ' Vilwamangalam did not tell me that this will happen ' . However, during the melee, the Zamorin got one peacock feather from the head gear of Lord Krishna. Then probably to atone for the inadvertent discourtesy shown by him to the Lord, he immediately went to the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Guruvayurappan and pledged that with that feather of peacock, he will make a headgear , compose Krishnagiti in the form of a dance drama and dedicate it to Lord Guruvayurappan. Accordingly with single minded application, he wrote Krishnagiti in eight cantos, and without any assistance did the choreography, all the costume make up including Krishna's headgear, facial make up, details of instruments for the background music and prepared the list of all and sundry articles required for staging the dance drama. He himself selected the artists for the Arangetam and trained them to perform the dance drama. It is to be noted that the Arangetam of all the eight plays viz., Avatharam, Kaliyamardanam, Rasakrida, Kamsavadham , Swayamvaram, Banayuddham, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam were performed near the sanctum sanctorum of the Guruvayur Temple. On the ninth day, Avatharam was repeated as the Zamorin felt that it was not auspicious to end the series with the demise of Lord Krishna. This practice of performing Avatharam after Swargarohanam is being continued to this day.

Originally the performance of Krishnattam was strictly restricted to the Guruvayur Temple, palaces of the members of the Zamorin's family , temples and houses of Namboodiri Brahmins within the jurisdiction of the Zamorin's empire. Performances outside the jurisdiction of Zamorin were strictly prohibited. Only recently, about thirty to forty years ago this restriction was removed. Now it can be performed anywhere in the world. In fact a few years ago the troupe went even to Europe and gave performances. Also the Zamorins used to take the original headgear prepared by Manavedan Zamorin along with them when they went out on important occasions, particularly when they went to fight with the neighbouring rulers. But this was lost at the time of invasion of Hyder Ali.

The Zamorin adopted in Krishnattam many features from the dance dramas which were prevalent in Kerala at the time of introduction of Krishnattam. These were Koodiyattam and Ashtapadiyattam. Of this Koodiyattam is most important and is still prevalent in Kerala.

Salient Features of Koodiyattam and Krishnattam

According to Indian History, the Pallava Kings of Kancheepuram introduced in the early years of 7th century A.D. a dance drama in Sanskrit in South India based on the dramas prevalent in North India from Kalidasa's time onwards. The Chera Kings of Kerala introduced in the Koodiyattam form in a much more refined manner about a few years later by the end of the Seventh century. While the Sanskrit dramas in the North India and other parts of South India had a natural death, it is to the credit of Kerala that Koodiyattam is still prevailing in Kerala. The Zamorin mostly adopted the costumes, facial make up and mudras from Koodiyattam. While the music in both Koodiyattam and krishnagiti are in Sanskrit, there is a difference in performance. In Koodiyattam, the actors themselves recite slokas, while the slokas in Krishnattam are recited by expert musicians in the background. While there are Ragas and Thalas in krishnagiti, there is no such thing in Koodiyattam. While the percussion instrument in Koodiyattam is Mizhavu, there are two Maddalams in Krishnattam as background percussion instruments. One is called Sudha Maddalam and the other Thoppi Maddalam. While certain types of dances have been adopted in krishnattam from Koodiyattam, the Zamorin had invented several other beautiful types of dances in Krishnattam. In fact, in Krishnattam, much more importance is paid to the dances than to the background music. In Avatharam and Rasakrida, there is an exquisite piece of dance called Mullappoo Chuttal which is worth miles to go and see. Though in Krishnattam, lasya type of dance ( slow rhythmic dance ) is given prominence, the other types are not neglected. For example, the Thandava type of dance performed by the Mallas in Kamsavadham and by Murasura and Narakasura in Banayudham are perfect in style and rhythm. The Elakiyattam ( mostly depicting anger ) by Kamsa in Avatharam , Yavana and Rukmi in Swayamvarom and Sisupala in Vividavadham are brilliant pieces of dances. Even a little buffoonery is provided in the dance of Ghantakarna ( Lord Siva's watchmen ) in Banayudham.

Influence of Ashtapadiyattam in Krishnattam

Historians are of the opinion that Ashtapadiyattam was introduced by a Zamorin, prior to the era of Manavedan Zamorin. This was a sort of dance based on Geetha Govindam of the Bengali poet Jayadeva. Mainly the adaptation was only for the background music. A few dance steps here and there may also have been adopted. As a dance drama, the Ashtapadiyattam had only a short span of life. So no further authentic statement can be made regarding the influence of Ashtapadiyattam.

Life of the author Manavedan Raja Zamorin

There is very little record of the life history of the author. Not even his date of birth is known. There is no doubt that even from the young age, he was an ardent devotee of Lord Guruvayurappan and he stayed in Guruvayur several years before he became the Zamorin. As mentioned earlier, he was Zamorin only for a short period 1655 A.D to 1658 A.D. Normally the Zamorin for administrative reason had to stay in Calicut only. But Manavedan decided to stay in Guruvayur only. He built a palace at Guruvayur and shifted all his administrative offices to Guruvayur.

Historians differ regarding the place of death of Zamorin. A few historians are of the opinion that he expired at Guruvayur and his body was cremated in the palace compound. But a majority are of the view that as he was preparing for a war with the Dutch, he expired at Trichur and his body was brought to Guruvayur and cremated in the palace premises. However there is unanimity in the opinion that his body was cremated in Guruvayur. I had also stayed in this palace in 1956 for three weeks and I have personally seen that there was a slab in the South west corner of the palace where a lamp was kept burning always. So I can also authoritatively confirm that he was cremated in Guruvayur. The palace was acquired by Guruvayur Dewaswom a few years ago. The structure was demolished and the present Kausthubham Rest House was constructed. However in the area where the Zamorin was cremated, the Dewaswom has erected a beautiful statue of the Zamorin. When I became the Zamorin, I had the good fortune to pay homage and worship at the feet of the statue of that great soul.

Calicut - September 2004
Copyright, P.K.S. Raja (2004).
Shri P.K.S. Raja (Zamorin of Calicut)
19/ 1147, P.O. Chalapuram
Kozhikode - 673 002
Kerala, India