Purisai Sambandan redefines Therukoothu

Purisai Sambandan during a Therukoothu performance   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

“They made our village famous. I will take you there,” said the young man, getting down from his bicycle. I was looking for the house of Therukoothu artiste Purisai Kannappa Thambiran. They were rehearsing for a new play, ‘The old man with huge wings,’ based on Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes by Gabriel García Márquez — a collaboration between Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Paramparai Therukoothu Mandram of Tamil Nadu and Mapa Teatro of Bogotá, Colombia. I watched as Kannappa Thambiran’s son Sambandan put the story into the koothu mode with Heidi and Rolf Abderhalden of Mapa Teatro.

The story metaphorically unravels as an inter-cultural, theatrical and human experience. A man from another world appears one day, falling from the sky into the backyard of Pelayo, a villager and his wife, Elisenda. The production was, for both companies, an experience in alterity and difference, where an experimental theatre from the ‘new continent’ searches the tradition of popular theatre from the ‘old continent.’ The ancient art of Therukoothu discovers the possibility of exploring new horizons and revitalising its tradition through the work of a contemporary playwright.

According to Mapa Teatro, the experience revealed “a post-dramatic theatrical form approaching pre-dramatic forms and vice-versa, creating a dialogue between past and present in the performance space.” A video documentation of this project shows backstage pre-performance activities, following various actors through their preparation routine — drinking coffee and applying make-up. The play was premiered at the fifth International Theatre Festival at Bogota (1996). “We were surprised by the number of invitations we got for staging the play in villages across Tiruvannamalai district, Chennai and other places,” says Sambandan.

During a play rehearsal

During a play rehearsal   | Photo Credit: S.S. KUMAR

Sambandan is the fifth generation Therukoothu artiste. His ancestors were singers in bhajanai groups. His father discouraged him from becoming a Koothu artiste. He was bundled off to Chennai to work as a casual assistant in a post-office. Sambandan decided to stealthily learn adavus of Koothu from Vedachalam. It took a lot of convincing for Kannappa Thambiran to induct Sambandan into the group. “I really worked hard to impress my father,” says Sambandan.

Sambandan recalls that the association with N. Muthuswamy, who founded the avant garde theatre group Koothuppattarai inspired by Therukoothu, widened their horizons. They were invited to perform at Padma Subrahmanyam’s house and she encouraged Sambandan to go back to the village and become a full-time artiste.

Sambandan seized opportunities to train himself also in modern theatre, attending workshops conducted by Bansi Kaul, Badal Sircar, Peter Brook and other directors. These workshops honed his acting skills, teaching him to use body and voice to fuller effect. He has played principal roles in many traditional koothus, acting as Arjunan in ‘Vil Valaippu,’ Duchasanan in ‘Draupati Vasthraparanam,’ Duryodhanan in ‘Rajasuya Yaagam,’ Karnan, Arjunan, and Bheeman in ‘Karna Motcham,’ and Abhimanyu in ‘Veera Abhimanyu’ to name a few.

Purisai group became the first traditional theatre group to break the template and create new stories. In 1980, Kannappa Thambiran’s brother Natesha Thambiran split from the group as he did not agree to producing Subramanya Bharati’s ‘Panchali Sapatham’ in Koothu mode. Thereafter more and more modern plays were cast in the manner of Koothu — ‘Vellai Vattam,’ an adaptation of Brecht's ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle,’ directed by K.S. Rajendran, for instance. Sambandan also appeared in ‘England,’ directed by N. Muthuswamy, and ‘Kaalam Kaalamaaga,’ directed by P. Krishnamoorthy. During Brecht’s centenary, ‘Caucasian Chalk circle’ became a full-fledged Koothu in Sambandan’s direction. There was also a humorous play, based on Thenali Raman of Tamil folklore, and a Koothu version of Bhasa’s Sanskrit play ‘Doota Ghatotkacham.’ He choreographed the production of Avanthi Meduri's ‘God Has Changed His Name’ for the Koothuppattarai group. He worked on Macbeth and a complete Ramayana, unlike staging episodes from the Mahabharata.

He conducts workshops at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, at the University of Pondicherry, and at Bhaskar’s Arts Academy, Singapore. He travels around the country and has performed in several countries such as France, Sweden, the U.S., Singapore, Sri Lanka and Colombia. These opened the door to a new world.

A Koothu training school has been functioning in Purisai since 2003 and after the passing away of Kannappa Thambiran, an annual festival is conducted in his memory, where artistes such as shadow puppet expert Murugan Rao are honoured. The third day after his father died, Sambandan was playing Keechakan at the village Perumal temple. After being conferred the Kalaimamani (1995) title by the Tamilnadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram, came the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and now, the honorary doctorate.

Sambandan says that he is intrigued when people say Therukoothu is a dying art form. “I do not know what they mean by dying. It is difficult to make a good living but more and more companies are being formed now. There were just about ten companies during my father’s time but now there are lots more. How can this happen if the form is dying? When we produced ‘Indrajit,’ people were surprised but it has done more than 1,500 shows and has travelled to villages my father had never gone to.”

About the nomenclature controversy, Sambandan says, “We never called the form Kattaikuttu and never performed in processions. We are happy with the name Therukoothu used traditionally for the form.”

Now the sixth generation of Koothu artistes in the family are performing, some of them women. His daughter Gowri, who has studied music accompanied him to Paris, where they collaborated with Theatre Du Soleil.

Sambandan says that he was emotional on hearing about the “It is an honour not for me, but for the work done by forefathers.”

Purisai Kannappa Sambandan applying make up before a performance

Purisai Kannappa Sambandan applying make up before a performance   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Rare Honour

The Tamilnadu Fine Arts University was created by the former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2013. It now carries her name and is called the Tamilnadu Dr.J. Jayalalithaa Fine Arts University. Colleges of music and dance, those of fine arts, architectural and sculptural institutes and Government-aided colleges such as Kalai Kaviri in Tiruchi come under the umbrella of this university. At its first convocation, presided over by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Edappadi Palaniswamy, who is also the University’s Chancellor, Purisai Kannappa Sambandan became the first folk artiste to be given an honorary doctorate by the university. Vice Chancellor Prameela Gurumurthy listed the colleges that are affiliated to the university and said it was a matter of honour that they could bestow the honorary doctorate on two excellent artistes of different genres — mridangam legend Umayalapuram Sivaraman and Therukoothu artiste Purisai Kannappa Sambandan.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 11:29:17 AM |

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