It is the artists’ love for the genre that has kept Therukoothu alive.

Watching ‘Draupadi Vastrapaharanam’ in Therukooothu style at the Rukmini Devi Arundale Auditorium on the Iyal Isai Nataka Manram premises was a refreshing experience. The earthy sincerity with which the troupe presented the show, although truncated to suit the modern requirement, was something unique. It is not often that city halls stage folk arts and a talk with the troupe leader was in order.

“Where could Therukoothu have originated?” Answering this question, Kalaimamani Gundayarthandalam Dakshinamurthy, took this writer into an engaging and informative conversation. “That must have been as old as our epics themselves. Theru means street, and so what is enacted on the street is this kind of koothu (drama, which includes dance and music). Personally speaking, my grandfather Chinnakuzhandai was a Therukoothu performer and my father, Varadappa Pillai, inherited it. We are performers belonging to the fourth generation.”

All of these stalwarts of the past had done ‘dusk-to-dawn-and-beyond” performances for paltry sums. Pride in their art overshadowed money matters.

The art form is also called Kattai Koothu because of the wood (kattai) that is basically used in the structures erected. Dakshinamurthi recalls: “Those days, light was provided by oil-dripping fire torches (deevatti) and then came the age of petromax (gas) lights. Mike did not exist. Our voices had to reach the last row. Actually we prefer to perform without the mike, which inhibits the natural flow. It is ‘paathadi koothadi,’ meaning one learns through observation.”

What about absenteeism? “Our team comprises 16 people. We have backup for four or five artists. But then we all can play each other’s role. The tales may be old but scripts are prepared and given to the players. I am now 54 with an experience of four decades. I have faced and overcome all kinds of hiccups. Koothu runs in my veins.”

Keeping the audience riveted is the aim of the artist. The voice maintains the same pitch (sruti), whether speech or song. Aridharam on the face and the costume (vastram) bring the character alive on the stage. The team takes up social issues too - dowry, polio awareness, tree planting, etc., and have done many programmes for the Song and Drama Division of the Government of India. But that is not the mainstay.

Future is a question mark, says Dakshinamurti. “The Iyal Isai Nataka Manram has given us a great opportunity. Others should encourage us too. Search should be made in each district to spot talent.” An umbrella on the lines of NREGS will be a great help, he feels. (An Administrative Officer informs that a scheme is on the pipeline.) Dakshinamurthy also makes an appeal to “bring down” the age of pensioners from 60.

Programmes for children

P.S. Sachu, member-secretary of Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram, is upbeat about the initiative. She says:

We’d love to host such programmes more often in Chennai. This is necessary, especially for children, because the practice of story telling at home has almost vanished. They should be exposed to folk arts such as Bommalattam and Therukoothu. The Government is keen on promoting our traditional arts and we propose to take these forms to schools. These performances can become part of wedding entertainment. There is plenty of demand from abroad for Tamil Nadu’s art forms - Pinnal Kolattam, Kummi, Kolattam, Kavadi Sindhu and so on. It should be remembered that heritage that includes traditional arts is the focus of our tourism.

Deva, Manram president, himself a composer and musician envies the range and stamina of the folk artists. “I have postponed recordings when my voice has played truant. But these artists are always ready. I have witnessed ‘Arjunan Tapas’ that used to begin at 10 p.m. and extend till 11 a.m. the next day. What stamina and perseverance and commitment. Our Chief Minister is giving great encouragement to these ventures that should take the art and the artists to the next level.”

(sivakumar2004@gmail.com)