Thattinmelkoothu, a ritualistic art form of Palakkad, is rarely staged.
Dance, to the accompaniment of percussion, was once a ritual offering. That must have been the nature of art forms in the initial stages of society. When festivals became associated with harvests in an agricultural society, ritualistic dance began to evolve into theatre. However, some of the earliest dance forms, even while adopting new elements, seem to have continued as dance itself. The traditional art form of Thattinmelkoothu, practised in certain areas of Palakkad district, is one such example.
Colonial anthropologist Edgar B. Thurston wrote in 1909 that Thattinmelkali was performed on the top of a wooden stage built of “two horizontal pieces of wood over which planks are arranged.” The performers dance to the accompaniment of “pipe and drum,” and the stage is “erected in front of the Bhagavati temple.”
At present, few are those who practise the art form and even the wooden (usually bamboo) stage is slowly disappearing. Thattinmelkoothu has turned into just another vesham, usually paraded on vehicles during temple festivals.
However, this does not dishearten the few surviving performers of the art form such as K. M. Viswanathan. “For us, it is a ritual offering to the Bhagavati as is the case in Tholpavakoothu. Even if nobody sees it, we perform in the belief that the Goddess is watching. It is a divine art, and is a form of Kathakali,” believes Viswanathan. According to him, there are four kalasams (rhythmic steps), and the dance begins with a propitiatory dance called ‘Thozhutu Kumbidal.'
What is striking about Thattinmelkoothu is the similarity of its costumes, make-up, and ornaments to Tamil koothu. Thattinmelkoothu is nowadays popular only in those areas of Palakkad district where the Tamil koothu tradition had a predominant influence. The known characters in Thattinmelkoothu are Krishna, the gopikas, Balarama, Arjuna, Hanuman, Soorpanakha, and Sooran. “Characters that are supposed to represent qualities of rakshasas have their faces are painted black,” says Viswanathan. Meanwhile, the faces of Krishna, the gopikas, Balarama, and Arjuna are painted green as they are pacha vesham characters. Hanuman is a Vellathadi vesham and Sooran is a Chuvannathadi vesham.
Painting the face seems to be a highly developed art among these folk artistes. For the pacha characters, a white and red border is given to the face painted in green. For Hanuman, the portion around the eyes is painted black with a red and white border. The character's nose and lips are painted red with a white border, while the forehead is painted in green, red, yellow, black, and white. Soorpanakha's face is first painted in black and then, the forehead, cheeks, lips, and jaws are painted red after excluding the areas around the eyes, nose, and upper lip. Around the cheek, a yellow border is given, with white dots around it. For Soorpanakha, Hanuman, and Sooran, rice flour is used for the chutti. The characters wear crowns of various types and ornaments like shoulder bands and necklaces. The crown used for the gopikas, Balarama, and Arjuna are known as ‘kinnam.'
Thattinmelkoothu continues to be performed to the tune of the drum and the pipe in some parts, though the element of dance has become a thing of the past in most cases. Nevertheless, watching Thattinmelkoothu is a thrilling experience. The stage for the performers is not limited to a particular spot. The entire street through which the temple procession passes is the stage. Characters such as Soorpanakha will sometimes engage with the audience. The ‘thattu' over which the performers dance is carried by four people. Artistes usually perform only when the thattu is rested on four poles. Achutan Asari, one of the traditional thattu craftsmen, says that usually, five thattus are required for a performance. However, “people now seem to prefer tractors or similar vehicles for the purpose,” he adds.