Koothambalam
Literally, ‘Temple of Theatre” a Koothambalam is the Kerala adaptation of a traditional performance arena as outlined by the 2000 year old text Natyashastra.
Overview

Introduction


Natyashastra written by Sage Bharata (c.200 BCE - 200 CE) is the seminal extant work for almost all classical art forms of India. The two major streams of Indian classical music (Carnatic and Hindustani), a wide range of classical dance forms from different parts of India (Kathak, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam to name a few) and classical Indian theaters (Koodiyattam and Kathakali) all trace their foundations to this definitive treatise on arts. Natyashastra is primarily a performer’s (or actor’s) manual.

The book covers an incredibly wide array of topics related to classical art forms like theatre, dance and music. Most importantly it is an actors manual. Natyashastra and its commentaries - especially Dhvanyaloka by Anandavardhana in 9th century CE and Abhinavabharathi by Abhinavaguptha in 10th century, both from Kashmir school- have shaped almost all classical performing arts of India down the line.

Koothambalam


Into the twenty first century, Kerala has preserved the rich tradition of Sanskrit theatre in the form of ‘Koodiyattam’. Considered an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO, Koodiyattam is surprisingly contemporary in its approach to theater despite its tradition of several centuries and its very orthodox mien. Traditionally Koodiyattam is performed in purpose built spaces known as ‘Koothambalam’ (literally a ‘theater-temple’). in many temples of Kerala. The Koothambalams of Koodalmanikyam, Vadakkumathan, Kidangoor and Haripad temples (each of them having a legacy of more than a thousand years) are sterling examples. Among recent constructions, the Koothambalam in Kerala Kalamandalam is a noteworthy example.

Bharatha has devoted about 100 verses (400 lines) in the second chapter of Natyashatra to deal with performance spaces. Natyashastra has emphasized the need for an exclusive enclosed building for the success of any performance, ensuring a safe and secure space for the audience to watch the performances without any distraction. To emphasize his point, Bharata narrates an incident connected with a play enacted by Devas (Gods) that ended in utter chaos and disruption, when Asuras (demons) protested against the plot which they considered demeaning to their clan.

Central Facility
Overview

Natyashastra recommends three shapes (in plan) viz. Vikrushta (Rectangle), Chatursara (Square) and Thrasra (Triangle) for a theater. Similarly three sizes viz. large, medium and small are given for each shape. The classification is based on the dimensions of 108 Hastas; (1 Hasta= 72 cm) , 64 Hastas and 32 Hastas. Among the three sizes, the medium size is identified as the optimal taking into account viewing and listening pleasure for the audience. The recommended medium size for the rectangular theatre is 64 H x 32 H and 32 H x 32 H for the square theatre.

The “Ranga Mandapa” (stage) size is 8HX8H. Walls shall be well plastered with lime mortar and shall be decorated with mural paintings. Certain special requirements which differentiate the theatre from the residential architecture are also stated clearly which are comparable with modern acoustic design elements, to increase the quality of sound in the theatre and to reduce possibilities of echo formation. Small windows are recommended to achieve required reverberation and avoid external disturbances.

Kerala tradition


Koodiyattam as a Kerala tradition of Sanskrit theater depends largely on Natyashatra for its precepts and most artistes consider this as the fundamental text. At the same time, Koodiyattam has several points of departure from Natyashastra. These deviations - for example, in the case of Mudras or hand gestures - came about over successive centuries of evolution of Koodiyattam as a distinctive Kerala tradition separate from other extant Sanskrit theaters in India.

In much the same way, Koothambalam also has several points of departure from the performance spaces indicated by Bharata even as the fundamental inspiration and basic precepts are based on Natyashastra. Kerala over the years evolved a distinctive architecture style that combines elements from Indian schools with European and Arabic influences that distinctly characterized its early and late medieval history. Koothambalam is a beautiful amalgamation of the tenets of Natyashatra and the unique architecture of Kerala.

Central Facility
Overview

Natya Gruha in Neelambari


The size is derived from Natyashastra specification of ideal (uthama) shape, i.e. rectangular with Avara (Least) size. The least size is 32H x 16H. When 32H x 16H is adopted, the Preksha Gruha (seating area for audience) shall be 16H x 16H. The stage shall be 8H x 8H with 4H margin on either side. The rear side 16H x 8H shall be for the greenroom. In Neelambari’s Koothambalam the rear side i.e. the greenroom is merged with the Nalukettu. The sidewalls of Koothambalam consist of wooden railings considering the hot-humid climate of Kerala. Bharatha specified an elevated stage and the Koothambalam adheres to this. Stage height is reduced from what Natyashatra prescribes, considering the optimum height required or Kathakali & Koodiyattam preferences. Orientation is E-W similar to Koothambalam facing the River.

Ideally ehe space on the either side of the stage should have been left open (Mattavarani) with a raised platform. However given the extended functional requirements in Neelambari, these spaces have been used for other purposes. Mostly sustainable and locally available materials are used in the construction of the Koothambalam (and other buildings in Neelambari) including Bamboo reinforced foundation in lime, exposed laterite masonry and timber.

The content here has been provided by Sri Vaikom Rajasekhar, architect of Neelambari. For any additional queries / discussions on the concept of Koothambalam he can be contacted at aju58vaikom@gmail.com