Kerala known as Chera was in existence even in the third century B.C. The old Tamil works mention the Chera kings. The whole of South India was the home of the Dravidians. As part of Tamil gram, Chera had a lot of interaction with the country on the other side of the Western Ghats in religion, customs and language. In fact its contribution to the Sangam literature is of paramount importance. Ilango Adigal, the author of the treatise Silapadikam brought about a metamorphosis and thereby imbibed each other's culture. A lot of Sanskrit found its way into the language making it a unique one.
In fact the Sanskrit word for Chera is Kera and Alam means country. Sanskrit scholarship began shaping the cultural ethos of the region and produced Sanskrit poets and dramatists of the likes of Adi Shankara whose treatise Soundarya Lahiri, etc. represents the highest form of this tradition. Theatre was a way of life and great literary dramatists like Bhasa and Harsha wrote Sanskrit plays. Many elements from the Natya Shastra were introduced in the native folk theatre to evolve a dance form peculiar to the land- the Koodiattam and Koothu.
The Koodiattam is a unique style of enacting Sanskrit dramas. It is traditionally performed only by the Chakyars or a small sect of the Brahmin community attached to the temples. It is preceded by a number of religious rituals and the performance goes on for many days. The Chakyars also did the Koothu or a solo performance.
Here, he (the Chakyar) dons the role of a Vidushaka or jester. This Koothu or the folk theatre goes by the name "Chakyar Koothu". The 'Silapadikaram' mentions the dance of the Chakkayan - a Brahmin well versed in the four Vedas and a dancing expert from Paraiyur. He performs the Koothu of the Ardhanareeswara, donning the role of half-man and half-woman and extolling the virtues of both. This shows that the Koothus were staged in the courts of the then ruling Perumals. In fact, in the 9th century A.D Kulasekhara Perumal composed the Sanskrit plays of Subhadra Dhananjayam and Tapati Samvaranam for Koodiattam acting and brought about certain reforms in its presentation. Many of the Slokas of the Vidushaka are attributed to the court poets of Kulasekhara Perumal. Tolan incorporated many non-textual elements and verbal elaborations by the Vidushaka. The Vidushaka is a clown. He creates laughter. He is an essential part of a Koodiattam performance as he sets the pace of the story. His is a solo performance, mono-acting the character he portrays. While the rest of the cast speaks chaste Sanskrit, he has the liberty to talk in the Prakritha language or local language. He is at once the companion of the hero, entertaining him, with freedom to visit the harems with message from the hero and vice-versa. He also makes the audience laugh. While normal mono actors talk to imaginary characters on the stage, the Chakyar in his Koothu, chooses someone from the audience and treat him as the character in the story. He makes fun at them, and while acting like a fool ingeniously brings into relevance some event or episode from the story. With wit and humor not only has the audience in splits but at the same time conveys to them knowledge and wisdom and try to correct and expose the individual's defects. The Chakyar is the voice of the media. Himself always inviolate those at the receiving end of his sarcasms and jaunts have to just grin and bear, be it even the king for as long as the Chakyar wore his outfit, taking action against him was incurring the wrath of the masses.
While the hero converses in Sanskrit, the Vidushaka humorously parodies the speech in Malayalam interspersing his narration with witty remarks and humorous stories that not only provide laughter but also sets one thinking. He has malice towards none. His role thus becomes much more than the hero himself. His dress is very peculiar. He wears a headgear or kiritam in red, gold and white. It has small glass mirrors representing the 2000 tongues of Adiseshan signifying that he is quick witted as the tongues of Adiseshan and underlines the Chakyar's predisposition to sting. The headgear has a small tuft of red threads hanging like the hair. His chest is painted white and red like a blouse. He wears a white dhoti like cloth which is held at the back and puffed up like the back of a swan. His face is also painted white, red and black. Eyes are blackened and lines elongated till the temples. Two moustaches, one a drooping moustache and one raised up and down. A huge kumkum adorns his cheeks, tip of the nose, chin and upper arms. He wears the poonol-sacred thread of the Brahmin community.
There is no music. It is narrative style of slokas. The only accompaniment is the Mizhavu. It is a huge round copper jar with a narrow mouth covered tight with leather. It is made out of clay in the olden times, but these days it is made of copper. The Mizhavu is usually played by a person from the Nambiar community. The Koodiattam and Koothu are performed mainly in the Koodiattam or the temple theatre. Within the temple compound, a little to the right outside the main shrine the theatre is built. A stage is erected with a roof of its own in addition to the main roof of the auditorium. The acoustics are perfect and such that not only can one see the artiste from any corner but can clearly hear every word uttered on the stage. The chief source of light is usually the from the Nilavilakku or lamp. For special occasions large torches and hanging lamps are lit giving the entire place an ethereal ambience. The Vadakunathan temple in Trissur boasts of a beautiful Koothambalam and is one of the few in existence today.
The stage is set with a huge Nilavilaku and lamp being lit. With a nod from the temple priest the Nambiar starts playing the Mizhavu. As the mizhavu reaches a crescendo the Vidushaka walks in with a peculiar gait. He faces the Mizhavu and invokes the blessings of the Lord. Playing with the red tuft on his crown imagining it to be his hair he faces the crowd from then on and starts his communion with the audience.
The Chakyars and the Nambiars flourished on the patronage afforded to them by the temples which provided them with lands and met their other needs. They devoted all their time to the arts and had little time to tend their lands and farms, which were gifted to them. With the Kerala Tenancy Art coming into force they lost their holds on the lands and the income from the temples became so meager that the younger members had to give up practicing the art. The art is thus languishing.