Keli festival
Chavittu Natakam - an ancient maritime theatre

Human life is incomplete and impossible without cultural identity, which is the essence of human dignity. When migrants go to distant shores, they take along with them aspects of their culture, which then mixes in with the local cultures to create unique cultural expressions. Chavittu Natakam, India's most ancient Maritime theatre tradition is a cultural expression which came out of such a mixing of cultures - drawing from the European operatic tradition carried by the Portugese Christian missionaries who came to Kerala's shores post the 15th century, and mixing in with the local Kerala martial arts and dramatic traditions. Chavittu Natakam tells stories from Christian legend and uses western operatic costumes and aesthetic elements of European opera along with the facial abhinaya unique to Indian performance tradition. The form is further infused with influences from Kathakali and the martial traditions of Kerala. In fact, Chavittu Natakam means the rhythmic steps which accompany the recitation of the lines of the libretto, producing resonant sounds to accentuate dramatic situations. Foot-stamping dance, fighting and fencing are essential parts of Chavittu Natakam.

Chavittu Natakam attributes great importance to the the performance manual, (Chuvati) which codifies everything from the rituals performed from the beginning of rehearsals up to the actual performance. The plays were probably written originally in Chentamil (ancient Tamil), for the texts in circulation at present show a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. The Chuvatis are considered by Asans (Masters) to be their personal property to be handed down orally through heredity, and hence they are never shared with others or printed. The performers consider the traditional performance manual (chuvatis) as divine property and handle themĀ  with utmost reverence.

The most celebrated play in this genre is undoubtedly Karalman Natakam. The drama focuses on the heroism of the Emperor Charlemagne the great, his men and nephew legendary Roland. This story was popular in southern Europe up to the middle of the twentieth century.

Chavittu Natakam has a significant place in the art history of the world. A pattern of culture that migrated from across the sea; a theatre form that was nurtured and developed by the coastal people; a tradition of drama written, directed and enacted by the same coastal people; a theatre movement with performance spaces, created at the coastal villages from out of meagre donations collected from the villagers; an artistic emanation which draws its audiences from the same coastal people - Chavittu Natakam is truly the most authentic ancient maritime theatre tradition in every sense of the term. It is the only existing ancient maritime theatre tradition in India which has survived for over five centuries. Unfortunately, no serious research or academic studies have been done on this fascinating art form so far, nor have academies and state patrons extended significant attention towards preserving, developing and propagating this tradition. The form lives on due to enthusiastic artists, passionate audience, and the support and dedication of a very few art lovers.

On its 22nd anniversary, Keli continued its commitment to preserving, developing and propagating the enormously exciting cultural heritage of India with a theatre festival dedicated to Chavittu Natakam. This is the first time this art form was presented in Mumbai.

All art lovers of Mumbai shared the joy and excitement of this unique festival which presented in three parts, spread over three days, the valorous story of Emperor Karalman (Charlemagne the great) who ruled over France in the 8th century A.D.

About Keli

KELI is a Mumbai based Charitable organization striving to preserve, develop and propagate the classical and traditional cultural heritage of India. Keli has been active in this field from the past several years and during this period, has successfully handled a number of important projects in furtherance of its objectives. The annual Keli festivals, structured thematically every year, are well known to artists and art lovers of the City and have earned the organization a significant place in the cultural life of Mumbai.

Junoon is delighted to have Keli as an Organising Partner for Mumbai Local, and to partner the outreach efforts of the Keli Festival.