Theatre

Where Koothu makes village girls liberated

Artistes performing Kattaikoothu at Sangeeta Isvaran’s Lorry Lolakku

Artistes performing Kattaikoothu at Sangeeta Isvaran’s Lorry Lolakku   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Women find their feet at Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu near Kanchipuram

The open sky. Stars are twinkling even as tube lights illuminate just the square where the koothu is taking place. It is 11.30 p.m., when the act begins. The entire village has had dinner and brought their mats to sit and watch ‘Saidavan Garvabhangam’ Kattaikuttu by Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu.

First, the formalities. Every leader of the village must be honoured. Then the melam begins its prayer to the five Gods of learning and auspiciousness and play all the prescribed talas (rhythm units). What is interesting is that all the actors are standing behind the musicians in their ordinary clothing and playing the cymbals or singing as chorus. As the entry of the character they are playing nears, they hand over the cymbals to someone else and go backstage to put on make up and costume. There are always at least eight people behind the musicians to sing along, so the audience misses nothing. The speciality of Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu is that even a petite girl with a thin voice like Prabhavathi can lead the singing and reach high octaves. She can also play male roles. Prabhavathi, who trained to be a nurse has decided to be a full-time koothu artiste and use her nursing training to help the villagers.

Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu was founded four years ago. Thilagavathi Palani became the youngest and the first woman to be a part-owner of a koothu group and the group prides itself on its young performers, who are also students in different colleges and schools. Some of the actors are graduates of Kattaikuttu Gurukulam of Punjarasanthangal and some are drop outs from there. The group is now performing almost 200 all-night shows in a year. They began performing the episodes from the Mahabharata they knew initially, but two years ago Thilagavathi took a sabbatical from the group for a year to work with Mandaiveliamman Koothu group to learn more plays and expand their repertoire.

A new play they worked on was ‘Aravan Kalabali.’ The group worked for three months, learnt the dialogue and songs and performed the play full of pathos. ‘Saindavan Garvabhangam’ is a new play of the group. The story of Saindhavan or Jayatratha, who had kidnapped Draupadi and how he gets humiliated for his action provides enough space for plenty of humour and heroic scenes. Green Kumar as Saindhavan and KYC Murthy as Dharmaraja and Thilagavathi as Duchala stole the show.

Where Koothu makes village girls liberated

Koothu does not have a static microphone bound stand-and-deliver theatricality. It requires that the audience knows the play and can critique if the expectations are not met right then and there. There is an acute sense of habitation of the story in the audience and the actors beyond space and time. The clown narrators in Kattiakkarans (there were two in this play) with their humour show us that the secret is in laughter. They develop an intimacy, which is communicated to the audience. The grandiosity of the Kattai Vesham costumes and movements are matched by the bonhomie and heartiness of the Kattiakkarans, who are brimming with frenetic, inventive and whimsical energy.

Just 25, Thilagavathi Palani has built a small space at Kalavai Kootroad village. This will be used for Koothu workshops, for village kids to come and study, host inspirational talks and also for young people of the village to be trained in the Koothu theatre form after school hours. This Dalit girl, who comes from a poor family, is doing it all from her own earnings as a professional koothu artiste.

Thilagavathi has proved that determination, hard work and sincerity of purpose will win over all opposition. She remains unmarried — after convincing her parents — to be a travelling professional koothu artiste doing even male roles in all-night performances and educate her younger sisters.

She says that one must go on with one’s work, whatever people might say. “They will get bored and look for something else to talk about when they see you are sincere in your work,” says Thilagavathi. “We must enter the grand space of this amazing form to succumb to it and create our own thinking, feeling, autonomous world. Working with an inspiring artiste like Sangeeta Isvaran and keeping an eye open for the many strands and making them available to my group is both enjoyable and energising. Access to this wealth of experiences impacts all our lives,” says Thilagavathi.

The two women have looked at ways to foreground these strands, embellish hidden connectives, indulge in emphasising parody, and with a great generosity of spirit, peddle it with humour captivating the audience with its multi-dimensionality.

Sangeeta Isvaran

Sangeeta Isvaran  

Sangeeta Isvaran’s unique artistic vision

“Some talk with eyes and a face sweet and bright, but me I converse with the wind in the night”

Sangeeta Isvaran dances in a solid, flesh and blood human way. She uses her dance in a lonely desperation to make her art be relevant with social issues with no half measures or whispering or compromises. She uses the energy of her art bubbling over with enthusiasm to communicate something sublimely important like gender equality.

In Sangeeta Isvaran’s world, the classical and folk are not two different entities but require the same persistence and earthly passion. She does not think that the hallowed performing spaces of Chennai sabha circles are any holier than the village earth open to the sky. This brilliant mathematics graduate from Madras Christian College, who learnt Bharatanatyam and Carnatic Music at Abhinayasudha run of Kalanidhi Narayanan decided to make her dance a tool for social activism. I remember the long talks we used to have when I taught dance theory to her three decades ago, that dance is not just for performance. After Sangeet Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar and travels around the world be it working in war zones in Indonesia, in the deep Amazon forests of South America or with sex workers in Cambodia, Sangeeta continues to amaze everyone with her striking artistic personality and her original ideas for using the arts for social and health issues.

‘Lorry Lolakku’ was an idea born out of a necessity to tell different kinds of stories that are not generally told. Sangeeta founded ‘Wind Dancers’ and began the first year of her Katradi experiments to tell the stories of kuppams to clear misunderstandings about them. She went to the different kuppams and collected stories of how they came to be, what identities they have for themselves and told these to others through her collaborative theatre and dance. Every year she picked up one theme and worked on it.

This year Sangeeta and her colleague Liz Haynes decided to look at gender. Sangeeta wrote a comic book in Tamil, called “Vetri” on women super heroes. It reached to over 40,000 children. She then decided to produce it as a performance with Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music and Therukoothu/Kattaikuttu as complementary forms. She roped in Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu of Kanchipuram, decided to get a lorry as a stage and perform in unlikely places like Kuppams and village crossroads.

“The tagline for Vetri is that the smallest lamp can light up the darkest abyss. dispel the deepest darkness. Everyone has a light and that needs to shine. Gender stereotypes are so limiting and children make terrible choices devoid of mentoring. Girls get married off at the age of sixteen for fear of males lurking around. They are not given any choice by their families.”

At a women’s college in rural Arcot, girls were embarrassed with the theme of menstruation and marriage in the beginning but went backstage and hugged Sangeeta and Thilagavathi after the show. Sangeeta has also started a programme called job readiness for girls looking at strategies to deal with the issues. Domestic violence comes down when the woman has worked even for two years. because the girl knows she can stand on her own two legs.

“The Power of arts cannot be denied,” says Sangeeta. “The Koothu songs on these issues have an amazing aural ear wormness quality. We found several kids humming the songs long after the shows. It makes us happy that they are even thinking about it. I know that this is just a drop in the ocean. But this work is precious for me. The kind of affection we are given in the rural areas is unbelievable. Taking Bharatanatyam to the children kids in a small village and Koothu to cities is very satisfying. One can become a person of power if one has the will wills with confidence to deal with situations. Making eye contact with children and treating them as equals produces so much power. This is magic for me.”

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 5:56:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/where-koothu-makes-village-girls-liberated/article26598757.ece

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