Theatre

The thrill of Therukoothu

Arul Kumar in the costume of Dushasana  

A few hundred people had gathered at the courtyard of Perks School on Trichy Road on a warm and sultry Saturday evening. A small stage with a white backdrop stood at an angle to where the audience was seated. We were all there for a performance of Adavu, a Tamil play based on Therukoothu, directed by MV Vetri.

Just two towels to create a Ganesha

Just two towels to create a Ganesha  

The first sign that we would soon see some action was a whiff of sambrani. A jangle of ankle bells heralded the arrival of the actors. They walked in screened by a white cloth with a slit and disappeared behind the backdrop. With Aarthi Paranjothi and Vijay Priyan providing the musical accompaniment, the actors gathered round the stage. The first surprise was the Ganesha vandanam. An actor (Sathish) sat on the stage as the kattiyakaran or narrator (Dharanidharan) flung a cloth over his face. A red towel was wound round the head to keep the cloth in place. The piece flowing down was twisted to form the trunk. The prayer had tongue-in-cheek references to current issues like the Cauvery crisis.

Just as they finished the prayer, the lights went out. A collective groan went up and director Vetri jumped up frantically asking for a few minutes to set things right. Even as a few members responded with “it’s not your fault” or “we're not going anywhere”, a man walked in holding a lantern and asked the performers to pack up.

There were laughs as the audience realised they'd been taken in. The setting was that the troupe was performing in a village when the power goes off. The villager with the lantern (Antony Felix) is most unsympathetic — No, The lights won’t come on. No, he cannot arrange for a generator. He doesn’t need them; he has a radio for entertainment. And can they just pack up and leave? — and so the artists sadly leave. Even as the shadow of one performer in full koothu costume was highlighted behind the backdrop, I could hear murmurs of “what's going on?” behind me.

Suddenly the lights blazed and the kattiyakaran came dancing out. The scene we are going to perform, he informed us, was Draupadi vastraharan. He gave us the background of how Draupadi laughed when Duryodhana fell into the pond and the prince’s need to take revenge. Next we see Dushasana (Arul Kumar, in full koothu costume) telling the kattiyakaran that he has been sent to bring Draupadi (Kavitha Sudharsan) to the sabha. Draupadi was already behind the screen and the audience could only see her shadow on the screen.

Dushasana drags Draupadi to the sabha

Dushasana drags Draupadi to the sabha  

The infamous game of dice was staged as a flashback when Draupadi demands to know why she should go with Dushasan. The audience watched breathlessly as Dharmar (Yudhishtra played by Srivatsa) was welcomed by Sakuni (Nandakumar) and coaxed to stake his jewels, his kingdom, himself and his brothers and finally Draupadi. When Draupadi refused to come out, Dushasana stormed behind the stage and dragged her out.

The disrobing of Draupadi

The disrobing of Draupadi  

The staging of the disrobing was slick and neat. As Dushasana chased Draupadi round the ground, she jumped up on the stage. Two others quickly held up the cloth with the slit up to cover her until her waist. A third person threw a sari out through the slit and Dushasana pulled sari after sari out until he fell down in exhaustion. I had been wondering about the slit in the cloth when it first appeared and now I knew why.

As the other actors melted away, the shadow of Dushasan’s figure was seen on the backdrop. Again the villager with the lantern walked in. Seeing the actor, he asked, “Haven't you left yet? The others from your troupe are long gone.” What we had watched was actually a scene from the performer’s store of memories; a subtle hint of how traditional arts have been forsaken by the modern audiences.

The kattiyakaran welcomes Dharmar to Hastinapur

The kattiyakaran welcomes Dharmar to Hastinapur  

Arul Kumar as Dushasana danced and twirled as if his heavy costume was the lightest thing. He used his voice to full effect to express Dushasan’s pride. Kavitha Sudharsan was a perfect foil. Much of her singing was done from behind the screen but she conveyed Draupadi’s contempt and anger evocatively. Her expressions of terror and Dushasana’s roars of rage kept the audience on the seat’s edge. Srivatsa played the Dharmar with a regal air and later took a turn as Krishna. Dharanidharan held the show together as the narrator with occasional wisecracks about modern politicians.

The infamous dice game

The infamous dice game  

But it was Nandhakumar who stole the show as Sakuni. With smirks, leers and eye rolls, he leaped and gambolled around the stage; his body as tightly coiled as a spring. In fact, some among the audience wondered if he would trip over the children seated right in front. But his control over his movements was impeccable. One little boy actually climbed on to his father's lap for comfort when Sakuni was in full flow; so scared was he of the character.

There were no mikes or sound systems but the audience had no trouble hearing the dialogues or the songs. When the performance ended, there was a minute of stunned silence before the performers were given a well-deserved ovation. Vetri had earlier said that the play was meant to raise awareness of Therukoothu. Judging by the audience’s reaction, he seems to be well on the way to achieving his aim.

The power of koothu

Before the performance began, L Ramraj, Professor in PSG College of Arts and Science, introduced the art of Therukoothu. “The tradition of Iyal (Literature), Isai (music) and Nadagam (drama) all had their roots in traditional arts like Therukoothu,” he said. “At one performance in Nellivasal, the scene had children begging for food. The audience was so disturbed that they ran into their houses and brought out food. Without even realising that they were interrupting the show, they began to feed the performers.”

The show was a collaboration between Coimbatore’s Udalveli and Chennai-based Theatre Akku.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 12:38:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/a-review-of-the-therukoothu-based-play-adavu/article23655671.ece

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