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Cultural expression takes myriad forms

In a rich celebration of the theatre, Koothu 2005 featured arts, traditional and contemporary. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM touches on the highlights.

A scene from "Pancha Pandavar"

THE ALL-WOMAN troupe performing Isai Natakam is in full flow at the Koothu festival. The talented artistes are enacting "Draupadi Kuravanji" with gusto, infusing a warm glow of appreciation in the audience despite the sharp dawn breezes blowing in from the arid bed of the Palar.

In a rich celebration of the theatre, Koothu 2005, organised recently by the Tamil Nadu Kattaikkuttu Kalai Valarchi Munnetra Sangam, featured a myriad forms of cultural expression — traditional and contemporary, dance and drama, solo and group performances at Punjarasantankal village near Kanchipuram.

Apart from the six styles of Koothu from the four districts of Tamil Nadu, there was also Yakshagana from Karnataka, Ottanthullal from Kerala, Veedhi Natakam from Andhra Pradesh, and Prahlada Natakam from Orissa. The rural audience from in and around Kanchipuram as well as theatre enthusiasts from India and abroad also got to see puppetry, experimental theatre and classical dance. For those from the urban areas, the festival opened glimpses into forms they were not familiar with.

Women's acrobatic skills on display. — Pics. by A. Muralitharan

The Saraswathi Nataka Manram presented ``Draupadi Kuravanji" with all the male roles being enacted with ιlan by the women. "Why not feature this troupe on television?" asks a village elder, seated next to me, of his neighbour. ``They perform so well." The women's body language, singing and delivery of dialogue were impressive as they enacted an episode from the Pandavas' exile. On Krishna's instructions, Draupadi, in the form of a gypsy, outwits Duryodhana with the help of Arjuna.

Though male performers have dominated the form, the role of women artistes has been highlighted since the mid-1990s by Hanne de Bruin and P. Rajagopal, who helped form the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, and Mina Swaminathan of the Voicing Silence group.

This hybrid form of theatre evolved during the second half of the 19th century and was the offshoot of colonialism. Features from the indigenous theatre were fused with melodramatic performance and techniques obtained from the Victorian stage. The repertoire could range from the narration of the epics to tales from Shakespeare.

It is heart warming to see how the women artistes, who do not have much formal schooling, recite huge passages and give such energetic performances. But when you meet them backstage it is painfully touching to hear their stories. These hereditary performers seem oblivious of the wealth of talent they have. But in the absence of assistance from the Government, the talent, far from enabling them to thrive, only makes their penury and hardship seem more poignant.

The circus and record dancers is another category of performers at the festival which is going through hard times. The once itinerant artistes now live near Tambaram. In the open space at the venue of the festival, they held the teeming crowd of onlookers spellbound with their acrobatic feats in which the women are as skilled as the men. Walking the tightrope, jumping through hoops of fire and swinging like marionettes on strings. Not even the mishap where a girl got tangled in the wires stemmed their professionalism — the show went on.

Delightful performance

The record dances, which had become infamous because of the sexual innuendoes that had infiltrated the songs and gestures, were presented purged of the vulgarity. Young men and women imitated their favourite stars to the accompaniment of film songs though the scene stealer was a small girl with her unbelievably graceful movements. But was there an element of exploitation in this? The leather puppetry group, Chaya Nataka Brundam from Andhra Pradesh comprising members of one family made for another delightful performance.

The narration punctuated with songs dwelt on the episode of Hanuman going in search of Sita to Lanka. The colourful huge puppets were manipulated with great skill. The fights and the wrestling of the figures made you feel you were watching scenes from the cinema. The chief narrator had a voice whose rich timbre filled the entire ground.

In the Kathakali show too of ``Keechaka Vadham" by the Abhinavam School of Theatre Education, the magic notes of the singers' voices cast a spell.

``The Embassy of Krishna" by the Kattaikkuttu Sangam gave a taste of an almost all night traditional Koothu. P. Rajagopal as Duryodhana stole the show.

``The festival took two years to organise. We were helped by various organisations, local sponsors as well as well wishers in Holland. We want to transcend barriers that divide high and low art, village and town, insider and outsider at least for the duration of the festival. We want to give rural audiences access to various forms. Our festival coordinators Maitri Gopalkrishna and Julie Terlunen have worked hard to make this event possible. And we hope it will open up a new channel between performers, patrons and audiences to create mutual respect for the forms and stimulate the birth of new festivals," said Hanne and Rajagopal, directors of the festival.

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