Did you know that the Lion Throne, the most important and only surviving one of Myanmar’s eight royal thrones is carved from the wood of Gmelina arborea tree? This tree species is also known beechwood, white teak, Kashmir tree and in Kerala, it is locally known as Kumizhu. This rare wood is the source for all the headgear and ornaments created for art forms like Kathakali, Kooodiyattam, Nangiyarkoothu, Krishnananttam or Ottanthullal. The combination of headgear and ornaments for these dance forms is called Koppu and its making is known as koppunirmanam. The art of koppunirmanam has been handed down from one generation to the next and is largely localized in the Vellinezhi village of Palakkad district in Kerala.
Kumizhu is the medium of choice for ornament makers because of its inherent qualities. The wood is relatively lightweight, in spite of which it is strong enough to be shaped into thin strips that do not easily break.The makers also have the freedom and flexibility to carve minute details into it.There have been modern-day attempts to find suitable alternatives in materials like fiber glass. However, most art lovers opine that these have not been able to completely match the adaptability and aesthetic quality of Kumizhu.
Vellinezhi is the homeland of nearly all of the Koppu being used today. KoppuNirmanam is a two-phase process that requires days of dedicated effort and perseverance. Phase one involves carving of the headgear and ornaments from wood and is done by skilled carpenters with years of experience in handling them. The Koppu created by them can include
Headgear for male characters: Keshabharam, krishnamudi, maharshimudi, karimudi, vattamudi,kuttichaamaram etc. Krishnamudi and karimudi can be done in chooral(rattan cane) as well.
Costumes for male characters: Thoda for ears (pair), chevippoovu for ears (pair),tholpoottu for shoulders (pair), paruthikkayamani for biceps, koralaaram for neck, padiyaranjhaanam for waist, vala for hands and wrist (pair), hasthakadakam as hand ornaments.
Ornaments for female characters: Kaathila for ears, mulakkoralaaram for chest, aranjhaanam for waist
Phase two of Koppunirmanam is when the decoration of ornaments begins. Once the headgear and ornaments are carved in wood, chutti artists decorate them with materials like stones, beads, glass pieces, peacock feathers and feather stalks, golden or aluminum foils etc.
A key criterion for Koppunirmanam is that the carving can be done only on fully grown Kumizhu wood which is as old as 35 years. This means that trees for our future generation will have to be planted by us today. In addition to ornaments, Kumizhu has medicinal effects as well. Even if it is worn on the head for long durations, there are no side effects to airflow or respiration in anyway. On the other hand, Kumizhu is believed to enhance positive energy of the body.Kumizhu is also said to be a key ingredient in the materials used in ancient rock paintings. The semi-solid white ochre used in these drawings is made from the ash of Kumizhu tree. When burnt, only the Kumizhu tree gives white ash, whereas all other trees yield black or grey ash. There are paintings as old as 5000 years or more that have been discovered in Tamil Nadu, which show traces of it. In this way, nature yields many wonders and it is up to us as end-users to make sure that we utilize it sustainably and judiciously.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Myanmar (Burma), Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2016
Kathakaliyude Kaipusthakam by Vellinezhi Achuthan Kutty