World Theatre Day: All the world is a stage

Therukoothu, where spectator is part of the spectacle

Kattaikuthu Renukambal Manram   | Photo Credit: S.S. Kumar

An overnight Ramayana Koothu. It is perhaps 2 a.m... dark all around barring the performing space in a village near Uttiramerur. Some in the audience are fast asleep while others are enjoying the drama being enacted. Rama and Lakshmana have just entered the story. Kattiakkaran prostrates but towards the audience. The lead singer, who is also the Annavi or the teacher, shouts: “What are you doing? You are doing namaskaram on the opposite side.” Kattiakkaran replies nonchalantly: “These are my friends just donning the role of Gods. Where is the story happening and the divine Rama present? It is in the minds of the audience. So my namaskaram is in that direction.” Therukoothu takes narration to an entirely different level.


The story belongs to the listener — the one who celebrates it. In Therukoothu tradition, it grows organically, like a live creature. The ownership stays hidden somewhere between the lines of a narrative. A village in North Arcot districts of Tamil Nadu, in the vicinity of a Draupadi Amman temple, is always awash with stories of the Mahabharata, to which people listen season after season.

Therukoothu, where spectator is part of the spectacle

The Mahabharata is intertwined with people’s emotions, values and attitudes to life in such a way that the story becomes an expression of the experience of the people. An interesting aspect of this theatre of the Tamils, which is a spectacle, a religious ritual, story narration and entertainment all rolled into one, is that it works on the collective memory and consciousness of the spectator, who is a part of the spectacle. An actor adds more and more layers and nuances to a role.

The narrative begins with the hoisting of a flag in the village. This means a ten-day Bharata Koothu has to be conducted in the village. First, a story narrator has to be fixed. He and his group will tell the story of the Mahabharata during the day. Each day one portion of the story is narrated in the space in front of the Draupadi Amman temple with her icon as the main listener. There is song, elaborate interpretation and plenty of humour with connections to reality. Nights are all given to the enactment of the story in the Koothu format with all its spectacular costuming and drama. The days are filled with rituals connected with the Mahabharata.

Kattiakkaran (the binder or the sutradhar, vidhushaka) makes sure that no one misses the narrative. When a character enters the story, Kattiakkaran questions the character who it is and what brings him or her there, giving a cue to the point in the Mahabharata where this narration begins. The dialogue is repeated as song and the chorus consisting of all the actors, musicians, the tea boy and the odds and ends person repeating it with full throated singing.

At the end of Bharatam is the Bhima-Duryodhana fight. Duryodhana is hiding in a pond and Bhima calls out to him in anger. Krishna comes in just as the dawn is breaking over the performing area announcing that the war will be taken to the field in the middle of the people. The people have been readying a huge Duryodhana statue in mud. A pot filled with turmeric water, to which red colour is added, is buried in the thigh of this huge Duryodhana statue. Actors Duryodhana and Bhima go around this statue in ritualistic rage and when the time comes, Krishna indicates to Bhima that he has to strike Duryodhana’s thigh. Bhima strikes at the mud pot embedded in the thigh of the statue and the actor enacts his death. To witness this, Draupadi Amman’s icon is brought out from the temple. The loose hair of the icon and the actor are tied up in a symbolic act of vow fulfilment.

Therukoothu, where spectator is part of the spectacle

Tamil Koothu, just like the Mahabharata, is never a single story. It is always a tree with many branches. One must take into account all possible events associated, to get the full picture. Koothu actors have a vast repertoire of 30-40 plays drawn mostly from the Mahabharata and some rare ones from the Puranas. The plays last eight hours overnight. The dialogues are long with rich literary content, the dance is vigorous and the singing high pitched to reach the vast audience sitting in the open space. They also conduct the rituals associated with the Mahabharata along with the villagers during the day.

The antiquity of Therukoothu is unknown. Being a generic term in Tamil for play, 11 types of koothu are mentioned in Silappadikkaram, but Therukoothu has remained the only total theatre with the actor having to sing, dance, speak and perform rituals.

A major point of discussion in the 1990s had to do with nomenclature. Seventeen koothu artistes with P. Rajagopal and his wife, the Dutch scholar of Koothu Hanne De Bruin called for a seminar on “Naming of the theatre” and formed the Kattaikuttu Sangham to have a collective bargaining platform for the actors. They preferred to take the name Kattaikuttu for this form as the headgear and jewellery worn is uniquely wooden (kattai is Tamil for wood)

Therukoothu, where spectator is part of the spectacle

“Terucuttu (academic spelling),” explains Hanne De Bruin, “is when amateur actors from the village dress up in Koothu costumes and take part in Mariyamman processions through the villages along with the Karagam.” This is different from the main story performance, she says. Hanne feels that it is the urban theatre activists, who have given the name Therukoothu to the form.

Dakshinamoorthy of Kandaiyar Thandalam village and Purisai Sambandan have never heard of the term Kattaikkuttu given to the form in the villages. “The participants in the procession also wear wooden ornaments and head gear and are a part of Therukoothu that comprises of procession, other rituals connected with the stories in the Mahabharata and the enactment of stories.” Earlier, torches would light the all-night performances in street corners. Then came the gas light followed by petromax and electric.

The problem of nomenclature arises when Therukoothu is translated as street play in English. It is not a street play alone but a whole festival celebrating the legend of Draupadi Amman of the Mahabharata. Artistes say that the number of performances and groups have been increasing. Some groups have over 200 performances in a year.

Whatever the name, everything hinges on participation and faith. There is a feeling of “ardour” that is deeply connected with the narration of the Mahabharata in ritual, drama and spectacle…

Therukoothu, where spectator is part of the spectacle

Woman Power

Thilaga, 25, is a graduate of Kattaikuttu Gurukulam and has a troupe of her own. The Purisai group also trains girls in the art, many of them doing very well. There are 57 Therukooothu troupes across Tamil Nadu and more are coming up.

Special performance

The Aseema Trust, in association with Sangeet Natak Academy, New Delhi, presents 'Thakkan Yagam' by Sri Krishna Kattaikuttu Kuzhu, today, 6.30-8.30 p.m. at T.N. Rajarathinam Muthamizh hall near the Adyar bridge. The performance will be preceded by the release of a printed draft script of “Thakkan Yagam” by K. Pandiarajan, Minister of Tamil Development and Culture. Munusamy, a senior koothu artiste of Purisai Therukoothu Manram will be honoured. There will be an all-night performance of “Thakkanyagam” by the same group at Perungattur village near Kanchipuram on March 24.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 11:30:15 AM |

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