Writer M. Harikrishnan brings veteran street-theatre artiste Ammapettai Ganesan for a shadow-puppetry performance in the city

The entire village is gathered at the temple mandapam to watch a koothu performance based on the Ramayana. The programme goes late into the night and the actors decide to wind-up at the point where Ravana kidnaps Sita.

If such a situation arises, says writer M. Harikrishnan, the village folk wouldn’t let the artistes leave until Sita was safe with Rama. “There is a belief that if the koothu ends with an anticlimax such as this, rains would fail them that year.” The audience would even agree to pay the actors more to extend the performance and end it on a positive note!

An electrician based in Salem, Harikrishnan is doing all he can to document the lives of street-theatre artistes of the Kongu region. He has so far written three books, Arunkuthu, Naai Vaai Seelai and Mayil Ravanan, all of them based on street-theatre. He has also brought out Vidhaithavasam, a documentary film on shadow and string-puppeteer and street-theatre actor Ammapettai Ganesan.

Koothu, explains Harikrishnan, has been a symbol of Tamil culture and heritage right from the Sangam period. “There is even mention of it in the Thirukkural.” The Kongu region, that comprises Salem, Erode, Namakkal and Coimbatore districts, has its unique style of koothu, he adds.

Here, street-theatre is not looked upon an as mere entertainment. It is an art form that is associated with rituals. “A family may make an offering to their deity in the form of a koothu performance; a childless couple could promise to organise a koothu in their village if their wish for a child is fulfilled koothu …”

Taking it foward

Then there are the beliefs associated with koothu. “During the performance of ‘Arjuna Tapas’, the actor who plays Arjuna will fling flowers at the audience. Some believe that if it falls on the lap of a childless woman, she will be blessed with a child,” says Harikrishnan.

Harikrishnan wants to take street-theatre to the next generation. He has established a school in a rented building in Ervadi village, Salem district, to teach sevattam, shadow-puppetry, string-puppetry and koothu. Veteran street-theatre actor Ammapettai Ganesan will teach these art forms that he has learned from his forefathers. “Right now, we have 11 orphaned boys who come for classes during weekends,” says Harikrishnan.

He hopes that his school will one day take the form of a documentation centre for street-theatre in the Kongu region. But support from parents today, he says, is discouraging. “All they do is stand around and watch.” But Harikrishnan wants to change that. He is organising koothu, shadow and string-puppetry performances across South India to gather financial support for his school.

And who better than Ammapettai Ganesan to take his message forward? The 57-year-old will perform thorpaavaikoothu, (shadow-puppetry play) titled ‘Lanka Dhahanam’ in the city this Sunday. The paavai or puppet will glide across the screen. Based on a portion from the Sundara Kandam of the Ramayana, ‘Lanka Dhahanam’ will have Ganesan’s puppets dancing to classical music. He will be Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Ravana, Vali…his voice will be the soul of the play.

‘Lanka Dhahanam’ will be held at St. Antony’s Primary School, Puliakulam, at 6 p.m. on October 21. For details, call 98946-05371, 96775-20060.