For C. Sitaraman and his troupe, Sri Renukambal Nataka Mandram, therukoothu is a way of life.
If one were watching a conventional play, one would have seen ‘Minnal Oli Siva Poojai' as a commentary on the double standards in society, where a much married Arjuna has acquired an eighth wife, about whom none of his other wives know. When Arjuna is ordered by his brother Yudhishtra to bring his wife home, Arjuna is suddenly impatient, and cannot wait until his wife Minnal Oli's penance has been completed. He tries to embrace her, and gets pushed away by her. Is he remorseful? Not our hero. He has been slightly injured in the fracas, and he is concerned about his looks being compromised by his injury! So vain is the hero!
Had it been a conventional play, we would have been amused by the comments of Arjuna's grown-up sons on the amorous instincts of their father. Not that we don't notice these things, and it is not that we are not amused where we should be. But it is not the messages that matter in this play, for the medium overwhelms the message.
Can it be otherwise, when we are talking about an engaging art such as Therukoothu? And Sri Renukambal Nataka Mandram's therukoothu is one of the best this writer has seen. C. Sitaraman, the one who leads the group, was captivated by the art form after watching the performances of Anakavoor Mani Asiriyar, Irungoor Narayana Murthy, Pudupakkam Vibhishanan and Kattaikkoothu Gurukulam's Rajagopal. Since his parents were also interested in koothu, they didn't mind when Sitaraman spent more time indulging his passion for the art rather than work on their fields.
At the age of 21, Sitaraman became the student of Raji and Kannan, both of Siruvanchipet. Why didn't he start at an earlier age? “Those days, the costume was too heavy for children, unlike now when it is modified,” he explains. A person who wishes to be a koothu artist must be able to sing. Sitaraman's teachers tested his ability to sing before they accepted him as a student. He sang a film song, but they wanted something classical. So he sang a song in Thodi that he had heard sung in koothu performances in his village. But how could he sing Thodi, a difficult raga, when he had no formal training in music? “I don't know about Thodi being a difficult raga, but I've heard it sung many times in my village,” he says, as if that explains it all!
After rigorous training, Sitaraman formed his own troupe, Sri Renukambal Kattai Koothu Nataka Mandram. Today, it has 16 members and four teachers. Sitaraman is one of the teachers, the others being Kizhvembakkam Dhanapal, Vadayilappakam Ezhumalai, Bhooderi Thiruvengadam and Bhoodheri Arumugam. Among the troupe's popular plays is ‘Vanniya Charitram', which is the story of the powerful Vanniya warrior who vanquishes the asura Vatapi. The script that Sitaraman managed to obtain came with the lyric too. All Sitaraman had to do was to set them to tune, and he has used ragas such as Nadanamakriya and Nattai.
‘Renukambal Charitram' is yet another popular play in their repertoire. It is the story of Jamadagni's wife Renuka, who is decapitated by her son Parasurama.
Sitaraman tells me that he and his troupe had performed for eight hours the previous night, but one does not notice any tell tale signs of fatigue. Their robust singing, voices that are stunning in terms of range and reach, the vigour they display in their dancing… they make it seem as if they have just comeback after a fortnight's rest.
After their performance in Chennai, the troupe heads back to Govindavadi village, where another lengthy performance awaits them – ‘Duryodhana Vadham.' For this play, it is customary for the villagers to make a clay statue of Duryodhana, which can be anywhere in length between 30 and 100 feet. To indicate the killing of Duryodhana, the artist playing the role of Bheema strikes the thigh of the statue. Who will play Bheema? “That will be decided after we reach the village. Everyone in our troupe is capable of playing any role. The only requisite is that the one playing Bheema must have a good physique.”
Yet another play that must be seen in the village milieu is ‘Arjunan Tapas.' Here a palmyrah tree substitutes for the Himalayas, where Arjuna is said to have done penance. Ledges are cut in the tree, and sturdy sticks are fixed, which serve as steps for Arjuna, who sings songs as he climbs the tree. There are so many songs to be sung, that the climb takes three hours! And what songs do they sing? “All kinds of bhakti songs, including Thevaram,” says Sitraman. Thevaram sung by Arjuna? But in therukoothu, one is so caught up in the lively performance, that one doesn't notice anachronisms. The medium indeed does overwhelm the message.