Padayani, the traditional performing art form of Kerala, to be precise, of central Travancore, is the embodiment of so many elements depicting the innate as well as the acquired, the spiritual as Well as the temporal elements of societal structure of an ethnic group.
The term Padayani and Pateni are equated. The word Padayani had been evolved by combining two different terms pata and ani both having more than one meaning. In one sense, pata means group of soldiers and ani means rows. Hence the term Padayani can be used to mean the artistic performance of soldiers standing in rows and columns. It is this sense that tempts us to interpret Padayani as part of the martial tradition. Of course, there exists row—wise and column—wise movements in the performance, but it is not a mere martial art form. No doubt the traditional martial culture of Kerala has inﬂuenced Padayani; but it is basically a ritual, and not a martial art. In fact, it developed over centuries into a performing art with direct and indirect influences of both.
In another sense, pata means ﬂock, offering, creation, sacrifice etc. and ani means having the quality of, bearing the ornaments or costumes etc. One of the episodes in Padayani is known by the term Pooppata which means the offering of flowers. Besides this literal meaning, Pooppata stands for a type of sorcery devoutly carried out by the lower castes as well as the upper castes to get rid of the hysteria of women and to bless the married women for having children. This is an act filled with theatrical elements. This whole-hearted traditional sacrifice has nothing to do with the so called martial culture.
Further, the term Padachavan means the creator-the Almighty Lord. The term Padachoru means the rice boiled and moulded in a hemispherical shape as an offering to the deity. In all these cases, we can see that the martial culture has nothing to do with the terms Pata or Ani.
Linguistically, the term Pateni may be traced to Padayani. But, Pateni has now substituted the more refined and sophisticated Padayani in the hearts and tongues of the village folk. The term Pateni imbibes the sweetness of the rustic, rural and tribal dialects, the taste of the sweat of the villagers who have identified themselves with Mother Nature, the ingenuity of the rustic conscience and the rubescence of the life blood of the untainted, farm folk. However, we need not bother whether the term is Padayani or Pateni because in content and spirit, both are one and the same, of course with marginal but inevitable regional differences. The invocation of the deity to the main arena, the dedication of the instant artistic offerings, producing the costumes from the natural things, available in the surroundings itself- all follow the same pattern everywhere. Whether you call it Pateni or Padayani this traditional performance bears the common character of an exorcism, carried out by the villagers in all piety to ward off evil forces.
Again, the strenuous fight between Kaali and the demon or Asura king Daarikan, has become the basics of a variety oftraditionalperformances both within and outside Kerala. Her victory over the demon is explained as the victory of light over darkness, morality over immorality and enlightenment over ignorance. But the myth behind Padayani is not this victory of Kaali over Daarikan, but the victory of Lord Shiva – the creator of Kaali -over the uncontrolled rage and devastative power of Kaali. It is this process that leads Lord Shiva to win over Kaali-the expected protector who abruptly turns to be the destroyer. It is the imitation of the victory of the creator over his creation. See the thrill of the situation where the expected symbol of light, morality and conscientiousness turns abruptly to be the living symbol of darkness and immorality. Here, the struggle becomes the struggle for survival and existence. This struggle continues through aeons, and still exists, in every society, in every continent and continues to be relevant today and tomorrow also. Padayani receives social validity and relevance, of course, with situations slightly changing here or there. This mythical situation saturated with thrill, fear, devotion and excitement is an example of an exact exordium very rarely seen in the field of theatre. The theatre opens with confirmation of the will and vigour of the suppressed on the one side and oppressor -the demons – on the other side.
Considering the style of the textual composition and the visual structure of Padayani in total, it can very well informally be divided into three cantos. The first canto consists of the ceremonial perambulations of the Mother Goddess, accompanied by the traditional priest -Oorali-from the lower caste, the return of the deity after receiving the raw rice offerings and the traditional theatrical performance of the perambulating lower caste. The second canto consists of all the main performances of the villages. The third canto consists of the response of the deity on the last day towards the offerings of the devotees and the sending off of the deity to her respective abode by the raw drumming.
If it is in terms of acts and scenes that we demarcate the textual compositions informally, we see that there exists seven acts in total and a number of scenes in each act. Every scene is seen to be complete in itself, in all respects. But an invisible thread connects and controls the developments of the theatrical incidents leading to the catastrophe. The sounding percussions, rhythmic physical movements, with or without masks or headgears, the burning country torches, the hullabaloo – hurly – burly atmosphere created by the villagers, the sarcastic utterances of the expected arrival of the demonstrative protector, the occasional production and projection of the sudden sounding cracks, all alternately either increase the intensity to its meridian level or decrease this intensity by alienating the viewers supplying the essential comic relief at proper occasions. Thus the visual structure of Padayani takes the form and style of an epic theatre in its true spirit and content.
The technique to be adopted in the analysis of ethnic theatre is different from the technique applied to analyse the classical theatre. The percussion, the vocal renderings, the body movements, the costumes, the lighting etc, are identified with their own techniques. For example, the body movements in Padayani theatre are mainly based on the T hullal technique. They are entirely different from the system applied in Attam in the classical theatre. Natyam, Nrithyam and Nritham are the three main techniques applied in the classical theatre which constitutes the Attam systems. Attam mainly refers to the slow, stylized, deliberate and horizontal movements, while Thullal refers to the quick but gradually increasing, vertical body movements. In the classical technique the time measure admits three different stages – slow, medium and fast – all following the geometrical progression. The basic tempo of the time measure with which we start is to be kept intact upto the end. But gradual and even sudden quickening in the tempo is admissible in all ethno performances in general, always keeping within a fixed frame of reference following the harmonic progression. This type of key changes are admissible in western style also. Just like the concept of harmony, this polytechnic system generally attributed to the western culture is the most-fitting attribute of the Padayani theatre also. It may be due to this fact that the ethno culture, though with the racial and regional variations, bears a common root as well as a common fruit. As such, the Padayani theatre goes even beyond the boundary of the theatrics traditionally laid by Bharatamuni in his Natya Sastra.
The analysis of Padayani theatre is the analysis of so many languages – the language of the stylized prosodic, musical and vocal, the language of the percussion, the language of its application, the language of the physical body movements, the language of the costumes including the absurd marks and headgears, the language of the living light system, the language of the formation of body-mind-intellect trichotomy of the doers as well as of the seers and their identification etc. We need not listen to the linguistics or philology or even the phonetics or assonance of these languages but we have to listen to the fundamental and complex nature of the impacts of these languages when taken together.
In a way Padayani is a theatre of sound and light. We know voice is sweeter than noise or sound. It is this sweetness that makes the voice melodic. But it should be noted that it is not the melody that makes Padayani theatre musical, but the harmony emerging from the appropriate synchronization of these different components of these ethnic languages. The metamorphosis of the theatrical element is due to a particular type of metabolism derived from the impact of the body-mind-intellect trichotomy of both the doers and seers simultaneously. All these lead to a realm of trance, filled with bliss and satisfaction.
Of course, Padayani is a performing art. But it is more a cult than an art. Padayani becomes an art only for the outdwellers. For the indwellers who have not lost their umbilical relation with their own tradition, Padayani is nothing but a cult, a pattern of their life, evolved and developed by their forefathers and preserved by them for their younger generation. The existence of such an art even in this era of information techniques itself is enough to establish its everlasting social validity. The reason may be that Padayani is a cult derived from the life blood, though illuminated with the hopes and desires, and darkened with the unexpected maladies.
The ﬂora and fauna of Padayani tradition may be traced out to the banks of the river Pamba starting from the eastern hill tracks and ending at the sea shore.