The new-age European’s training in an ancient Sanskrit theatre thriving in faraway India doesn’t seem long, yet what Britain-born Hanna Tuulikki has imbibed from Kerala’s Koodiyattam comes across as intense. A work by the young Finnish-English at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) unveils this fascinating aspect, even though the effort is not merely to reproduce the charm of a 1500-year-old performing tradition the artist-vocalist learned under a young practitioner of Nangiarkoothu.
Nangiarkoothu—an offshoot of Koodiyattam—is a solo dance-drama performance of Hindu mythological stories, conventionally surrounding Lord Krishna and performed traditionally by females of a tiny community in select temples along the Malabar Coast down to Travancore. Kapila Venu is a noted practitioner having emerged in the 21st century from this stream of art that had opened its classrooms and stage to non-Nangiars since the 1970s.
It’s from Kapila, who lives in central Kerala’s Irinjalakuda and, like Hanna, is in her mid-30s, that the Sussex-born dancer undertook Nangiarkoothu classes—more specifically on the eye exercises. That is one set of lessons integral to the aesthetics of the vintage art and is tough to demonstrate: one has to keep the eyelids up even while rolling the pupils down. That would lend a bulged effect to the eyeballs—something which the lady from Brighton has brought out with reasonable effect from the Nangiarkoothu point of view.
The Edinburgh-residing artiste’s audiovisual installation at the third edition of KMB incorporates choreography, vocal composition and costume. Set in two tile-roof rooms of a sea-facing heritage property in a suburb that is the nerve-centre of the 108-day contemporary-art festival ending this month, ‘Sourcemouth: Liquid Body’ awaits visitors strolling along the first-floor venues of Pepper House in FortKochi. The entry chamber, with moist air and a musty smell, has one video screen—while there are two inside as one steps into the bigger one that is further dark.
The first of the three performance-for-camera screens shows a close-up of Hanna’s mouth—moving as it would with every utterance of instructions for the performance next room. The lips funneling briefly, the tongue rolling (sometimes momentarily almost sticking out), the saliva bubbling up and bursting through the moments of lyrical enunciation—all come into deep focus, evoking mixed feelings. Some of oral movements look a tad exaggerated, but they could have something to the do with the up-close version.
Opposite this screen, the adjacent room has at its other end a bigger screen. That is the key sight of the installation. The visuals, which run in a loop like the others too, do portray a self-adapted version of what Hanna has learned as the portrayal of a river gurgling down. Essaying its ripples requires a certain gesture-aided physical action equipped, more challengingly, by eye movements. It is in this aspect of ‘nadi varnana’—as the slice is called in Koodiyattam—that Hanna scores well (in multiple images). For, her eyelids don’t droop even as the pupils slide down.
As if viewing the show, a (smaller) screen against it shows the responsive expressions—with just the eyes. The KMB synopsis tacitly directs the visitor to watch the screen in the first room last, but then these are matters of personal choice. In fact, a look from the inside room can even give the impression of the two screens opposite the main as just one. Overall, the obsession with close-ups even while piecing together a big picture is one key feature common to Koodiyattam/Nangiarkoothu and ‘Sourcemouth: Liquid Body’.
Biennale works being site-specific, the Hanna installation can be interpreted also within the broader layout of the 19th-century Pepper House (originally a Dutch-style dockside warehouse). The flow of Hanna’s delineation of the river can be linked with the venue’s adjacent Arabian Sea, which has decided the currents of Kerala’s historical trysts with the rest of the world. Along that course down, on the central lawns is an installation that features a series of sculptures made out of coir. Praneet Soi’s ‘Work Station 2016’ explores how the host-state’s culture has organised itself around the labour and power structures of the commodity that is produced after being soaked in salt-water for no less than six months.
KMB’16, being organised chiefly by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (with support from the Kerala government) and curated by Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty, gives uncanny cues—within or outside of Pepper House. A quarter kilometre away is Aspinwall, the main of its 12 venues.