swimming lazily through my website, i came upon this article from a February 25, 2006, issue of the indian express when my column WORDPLAY was alive and kicking.
Warriors of wit
In these days of enforced transparency when our ruling class can be closely monitored but rarely pinned down, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where powerful kings and emperors used to appoint critics who were licensed to laugh at them. Famous examples are Birbal and Tenali Raman.
Critics, whether independent or rebellious, hold up a mirror to their society. Their most effective cleansing mechanism is laughter.
In Kerala, the chakyar koothu was a dance form that told mythological stories embellished with music and dance, but it also made fun of aberrations and pomposity in the existing social system. The chakyars belonged to a higher caste generally associated with service to the temples. The performer was dressed and made-up in a unique manner. His only accompaniment was a drum known as the mizhavu. He told mythological stories and, during the explanatory narrative, added caustic comments on society and various individuals. The audience was never too sure when the chakyar’s attention would turn to them. The chakyar was licensed to mock. If anyone protested, he would remove his headgear and the performance was over. Even rulers and VIPs were not spared, and had to listen, silent and red-faced.
The audience was almost always on tenterhooks. Even their physical characteristics and modes of dress were made fun of, often bitingly. The chakyar would look around, and woe unto the members of the audience who had peculiar physical characteristics or mannerisms! He even picked on their known peccadilloes.
There is one such instance when a chakyar was singing of Hanuman’s flying visit to Ravana’s court in Lanka. Hanuman leapt over the ocean, completed his mission of meeting Sita, was tied up and brought before Ravana where he gave as good as he got and then, for good measure, set fire to the island as well! At this point, an old gentleman seated in the audience felt a sudden need to visit the toilet. The ideal time to slink away was while the verse was being sung. Which he did. God knows what compulsions delayed him, but as he returned the verse got over and the chakyar started on his commentary. He looked directly at the unfortunate old man and said: “Ah, what a smart creature we have here! He goes away on one mission, accomplishes two, and now he returns without even having touched water!”
Even royalty wasn’t spared. There is a story about how the Maharaja of Travancore, Ayilyam Tirunal, once became the butt of a chakyar’s wit. Despite the artistic immunity enjoyed by the performers, he was ordered to be arrested. The chakyar fled, fearing for his life. To trim a long tale, he was traced and brought in disgrace to the king’s court. From his position of superiority, the king looked down at the wretched man and thundered, “So how do you feel now?” The chakyar, looking appropriately chastened, replied: “Your majesty, I feel like a mouse in front of a cat!” There was stunned silence in the court. Everyone knew that the Maharaja had cat’s eyes! The answer had been so swift, accurate and unexpected that the Maharaja let out a guffaw and pardoned him right there.
More than 200 years ago, a chakyar koothu was in progress. Everything was going well when the man who played the mizhavu dozed off, producing a rather quirky, trailing-off percussion sound. The chakyar turned to him and made severe, mocking fun of him. The drummer felt terribly humiliated, but he held his peace. However, he closeted himself in his room and didn’t surface for an entire night and day.
The next day, when the chakyar commenced his act, he was disconcerted to find a second performance happening nearby. The performer was dressed differently and the language was the native Malayalam rather than the traditional Sanskrit. One by one, the chakyar’s audience stood up and started defecting towards the newcomer. Only then did he realise that he was being challenged by his former drummer.
And thus began the saga of one of Kerala’s proudest sons, Kunjan Nambiar, the poet with an acid tongue and giant wit. His contribution to the arts was the thullal performance, using an old poetic form in a new manner. His satire was unmatchable and his contribution includes over forty thullal compositions. Of these, Kalyana Saugandhikam is probably the most popular. Here, the proud Bhima sets out to fetch a rare flower for his wife Draupadi. On the way, he finds a large aged monkey blocking his path. Not realising that this is none other than his own half-brother, the mighty Hanuman, Bhima orders him to move. The resultant banter and Bhima’s final chastisement are depicted with typical artistry, humorous and poignant at the same time.
Nambiar, with a sharp tongue lodged firmly in his cheek, feared no one. When a local ruler built a giant temple lamp-post and invited poets to praise it for a prize, Nambiar, amused by the king’s pride, responded characteristically: Deepasthambham mahascharyam, namukkum kittanam panam!” (“What a wonder of a lamp, and I too want the money!”) Of course, he got it.
Today, cartoonists and columnists have appropriated the role of the court wit. They do reach the people, who laugh quietly, but it would take much more artistry to touch the conscience of our new ruling class.
The New Indian Express, Sunday February 25, 2006