From Ramayana to Marquez: keeping an art alive

Asha Sridhar
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Curtain Call Therukoothu rehearsal in Chennai.Photo: M Karunakaran
Curtain Call Therukoothu rehearsal in Chennai.Photo: M Karunakaran

Like other prominent t herukoothu artistes in the state, Purisai Sambanda Thambiran and his family have been bringing gods, kings and their opulent tales to the village streets for five generations.

Come December, they will engage Chennai’s residents for five evenings with their distinguishing string instruments and boisterous costumes.

Here to train students from the National School of Drama who are undergoing a workshop in therukkothu , his troupe’s performance would be the opening one at the Koothu Festival beginning 1 December at the Government Museum in Egmore.

As the 60-year old with a taut back, booming voice and nimble feet rehearses to embody yet another character from Ramayana and Mahabharata at a resort in Mamallapuram, he like other traditional artistes of this art form has learnt to arrange his intense swirls and elaborate narrative within the available space, understanding and more importantly, time.

The performances which begin at night, go on for close to eight hours until sundown and last several days, are in the words of K. S. Rajendran, professor, NSD, “part of the social fabric in the villages”, unlike in urban spaces, where they have to be miniaturised. Sambanda Thambiran, says that though therukoothu is not universal, it can be widely adapted to enact various texts, and condensed to suit a reasonable timeframe.

A few years back, he had adapted Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ in therukoothu .

However, Hanne M. De Bruin, facilitator, Kattaikkuttu Sangam believes that the real connoisseurs of the vibrant performance art are in the villages, where art is an extension of the society and the social conditions.

“Unlike in villages, spectators in the city do not know how to fully appreciate it because they have had little exposure to it,” she says, adding that they sometimes have English subtitles accompanying the performance to make it more accessible. But, performing in cities, she thinks, is vital to keeping the art form economically sustainable. Ms. Hanne observes that there is still a certain degree of prejudice and stigmatisation, which needs to be weeded out.

Senior students and apprentices from the sangam will be performing, “Ramaravana”, which blends traditional and contemporary elements.

M. Harikrishnan, another artiste from Salem district, who will be performing ‘Aravaan Kalapali’ from the Mahabharatha, believes that mass media and other forms of entertainment have not managed to relegate the patronage and significance of this performance art.

But, women still remain outside its domain, they observed, stating that men still play the role of women.

Calling therukoothu a complete form of theatre, Mr. Rajendran, whose students would be performing therukoothu -inspired Macbeth at the end of the workshop, believes that the active performance art offers scope to respond to changing social situations in real life. The fusion between Macbeth and t herukoothu should be organic, and not artificially transplanted, he believes. “Otherwise it would like be abusing the art.”

The other troupes who would be performing are Kalar Heritage and Chariatable Trust who will be performing ‘Arjunan Thapasu’ and Sri Mariamman Therukkoothu Nadaga Sabha who will be performing ‘Draupati Vastraparanam’. Nigazh Theatre Centre, Madurai, is coordinating the workshop.

Unlike in villages, spectators in the city do not know how to fully appreciate it because they have had little exposure to it

Prominent t herukoothu artists will engage Chennai’s residents for five evenings from the first of December.



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