In an era when cinema and other forms of infotainment threaten native folk art forms and amidst heavy pressure to compromise on quality, Therukkoothu is alive and thriving.
“The reception is encouraging. In the past, there used to be five or six troupes in an area. Now, there are 30 to 40 groups. But the only disadvantage is that there is more competition and only the best will get more opportunities,” P.K. Sambanda Thambiran, who has won this year’s Sangeet Natak Akademi award.
The ‘P’ in his initials stands for Purisai, a small village in Tiruvannamalai district, a name synonymous with Therukkoothu and which has produced some great artistes incluing Sambanda Thambiran’s father Kannappa Thambiran.
Sambanda Thambiran, a fifth-generation artiste, was in Chennai to train students of the National School of Drama in enacting Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the street performance form.
Sambanda Thambiran said the dress code, make-up, singing style and music differered from region to region. While the ‘therkatthi paani’ (southern style) is practised in areas around Villupuram and Tindivanam, the art form that prevails in Tiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram, Vellore and other districts is called ‘vadakkathi ‘paani (northern style).
Muhaveena, harmonium, dolak, mrindangam and jalra are the musical instruments used in Therukkoothu.
“We usually use Carnatic ragas such as naattai, kedara gowla, muhari, and nadhanamakriya for singing viruthams,” he said, as he rendered a high-pitched song in muhari that narrated Panchali’s lament on how a loafer grabbed her hair and dragged her away.
“We have never been under pressure to introduce vulgar body movements, dialogues and music that have gradually crept into other folk arts. In fact, we will be chided if we resort to cheap methods to please the audience,” said Sambandan.
He expressed happiness over the award. “It is a recognition, not just for me, but for all Therukkothu artistes and members of my group,” said Sambandan, who has been running Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Paramparai Therukkoothu Mandram.
The Mahabaratha is usually the preferred subject for Therukkoothu, which is normally performed during the Tamil months beginning from Chithirai to Purattaasi in Draupadhi Amman and Mariamman temples. But in the 1980s, the trend changed with the arrival of Sambanda Thambiran, who was also trained in modern theatre at Koothu Pattarai, the experimental theatre group based in the city.
“The interaction between Therukkoothu and modern theatre led to many more experiments. We started performing Subramania Bharathiyar’s Panchali Sabatham, Kambaramayana and other literary works. Though we introduced novel ideas, we never deviated from the basic structure of the art form,” said Sambandan, who has travelled to France, Colombia, Sweden, Singapore and US to give performances.
In Colombia, he staged Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings during the fifth international Theatre Festival.
Asked whether people in a Spanish-speaking country were able to understand a story rendered in Tamil, he said the narrator of the prologue (kattiyankaran) explained everything to the audience in a nutshell.
During Bertolt Brecht’s birth centenary , he also adapted The Caucasian Chalk Circle in the Therukkoothu form.