An actor’s guide to playing God

Mugamudigal, a city-based theatre group, gives lovers of the medium a chance to learn the ancient art of therukoothu

“An entire street would transform into a stage. The actors, positioned at two ends, would call out to each other. The fight scenes would be fearful. They would be shooting arrows at each other,” Priyanka Ulaganathan, a young architect, still recalls those nights she sat transfixed by the therukoothu performances in her village of Nangavalli in Salem. The stories were mostly from the Mahabharata. But soon, the culture of her village changed. Disco dancers replaced the koothu artistes and the memory of watching the men in colourful costumes and twirling moustaches faded from her mind too. She moved to Chennai and was soon consumed by a career in architecture.

So, it is no surprise that when she heard of a therukoothu workshop by Mugamudigal Performing Arts Group, she was the first to hop on board. The workshop made her dreams to be on stage real. The eight-day workshop culminated in a production called Dhuryian Padukalam, where Priyanka and the 14 other participants essayed roles of the Pandavas, Kauravas and Draupadi. Prashanth G, a participant, says he felt like a king wearing the therukoothu crown.

An actor’s guide to playing God

“They ask us to treat the crown like a god. And so, we never placed it on the floor. When I wear it, I do not feel like a mere mortal. There is something divine about it.” They also got to do their own therukoothu make-up. The participants were trained to apply the paints that suit villainous and heroic characters. At the Satya Mahal Mandapam in West Mambalam, around 10 people gathered to learn about therukoothu in the second workshop organised by the group. Some are theatre artistes, while others, business men and corporates. The workshop gives female participants an edge because traditionally therukoothu does not involve women. Even the feminine roles are essayed by men. Meenakshi, an English Literature graduate and researcher in folk art forms, finds that strange since theatre is supposed to be gender neutral. “Breaking the tradition is one of the proudest moments for me. As an actor, I have learnt so much from the workshop — how to break away from my inhibitions. We tend to exaggerate emotions. The workshop trained me to modulate my acting.”

An actor’s guide to playing God

S Sarathi Krishnan, their trainer, who is researching therukoothu at Madras University, is an unassuming man with a feeble voice off stage. However, put him on stage and he transforms into the fiery Duryodhana and playful Krishna in minutes. He grew up watching his father, S Seetharaman play colourful characters from the epics at the thiruvizha (temple festivals) of Sithathur, a village in Kanchipuram. “I gave my first performance when I was 12. I played Draupadi, a very important character in the therukoothu narrative. I remember being so moved by the performance of my co-actor, a legendary performer. He was enacting the role of Dushyasana. And, I almost cried out of fear because that’s how realistic and scary he was. I could see my mother, who was in the audience, in tears too.”

An actor’s guide to playing God

Krishnan and his wife, Antony Janagi attempt to keep the art form alive and relevant by joining hands with theatre troupes who call them for acting workshops. Media channels like Puthiya Thalamurai rope them in to deliver short performances for satirical news programmes. “Otherwise, there is no scope for therukoothu in Chennai. Many in the city, especially theatre and film actors, are fascinated by the medium. We get calls from groups like Koothu-P-Pattarai and Marapachi. Theywant to learn it in-depth.”

Therukoothu still survives in the villages of Tamil Nadu because of its divine association.

An actor’s guide to playing God

“It is a ritualistic form of theatre practised in the temples. The performance that begins in the evening lasts the entire night for 10 days of the festival. People treat the performer as God. So, after the show, everyone, including the feudal lord in the village, will fall at the feet of the actor who played Arjuna or any other heroic character. That’s why we love this medium. You get to play God.”

The Mugamudigal workshop will end with a performance on May 6, 6.30 pm at Satya Mahal Hall, Lake View Road, West Mambalam. Entry is free.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 7:37:33 PM |

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