For bass guitarist Paul Jacob, who has been participating in the Berlin international music festival for over a decade, Thursday provided a never-before opportunity.

When he teamed up with Kaniyaan Koothu artistes from Tenkasi in Tirunelveli district and struck up an introductory piece intertwined with the beats of ‘magudam’ and ‘mandam’ — the percussion instruments of the Koothu — the result was terrific.

The crowd that had gathered at the YMCA grounds in Royapettah for Pongal and Tamil New Year celebrations organised by Kalai Ikakkiya Pakutharivu Peravai, at once, sat up and took notice.

“The art form resembles Western Blues exactly and has all the elements of an international theatre. It has a story, percussion, dance, vocal music, classicism and even classic ragas,” said Mr. Jacob, who went on to accompany the Kaniyaan Koothu artistes as they brought alive the story of Mariammal, a folk deity.

Kaniyaan Koothu, performed by Kaniyaan, a community now listed under Scheduled Tribes, is the main feature of festivals (kodai) of folk deities, especially the annual festival of Sudalai Madan, the graveyard god. According to legend, he is the incarnation of Lord Shiva, the destructor. 

The main singer or ‘annavi’ is accompanied by another singer when he narrates stories of folk deities punctuating them with songs set to classical ragas and folk tunes. Two men in the guise of women dance to the beats. “This is a demanding art form as we have to sing, dance and play instruments for hours together. Though it is a folk form, it can reach a wider audience if accompanied by other instruments,” said V. Manikandan, the ‘annavi’.

Karaikal Venkat, a violinist, who accompanied the troupe, said he was totally unprepared for the performance and was enthralled by the skills of the folk artistes.

“They maintained perfect ‘sruthi’ and effortlessly rendered ragas such as ‘bhairavi’, ‘shanmugapriya’, ‘saramathi’ and ‘kedaragowla’. But it was the percussion instruments — played on the ‘valanthalai’ and ‘thopi’ separately, but in perfect tandem — that caught my imagination,” said Mr. Venkat.

Mr. Jacob said he had decided to take the Kaniyan Koothu troupe to the Berlin festival next year. 

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