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Theatre of the earth

A performance: Abhimanyu Sundari Tirukalyanam by Akkur Elumalai group.  

Some spell it phonetically as Therukoothu. Scholars go with the Tamil lexicon spelling of Terukkuttu. “ Kooththu,” says Prof. Jeyashankar of the Department of Performing arts, Eastern University, Batticola, Sri Lanka. Some call it Therukoothu, some call it Natakam and some call it Kattaikuttu. These and other issues were discussed passionately by Koothu actors and scholars in a weeklong festival and seminar of Terukuttu (pronounced Therukoothu) organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi at the Kuttu Kalai Kudam of Kattaikuttu Sangam, Punjarasantangal Village, Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu.

An exposure

“What a revelation,” said Pralayan, a grassroots Tamil theatre actor and director who was on the experts panel. For him, the staging of “Madurai Veeran” proved that Kuttu is beyond the Tondaimandalam area too. “‘Madurai Veeran' usually performed in the ritual spaces of Arunthathiyaars (a scheduled community working with leather) is rarely invited by theatre festivals. The performance was a revelation that ‘Madurai Veeran' is a Kuttu with a unique identity. The character of Madurai Veeran makes an entry in procession with a flamed arch worn around him. The music, rhythm and movement have given it its own mark of identity. The main character wears the Kattaivesham (the wooden crown and arm ornaments).

Traditionally, all koothu traditions had only the main character wearing the wooden crown and armbands. The other characters had costumes that evolved over time with different kinds of influences and artists' own ideas and of course “ gramathin ishtam” (desires of the villagers). Some gift saris of the latest trend to the actors donning female roles. So there were shining chamki work saris that adorned most female characters during the festival. Each more shining than the other!

“Twelve groups were invited,” says V.R. Devika, the coordinator of the festival. “Some Kuttus like the ‘Madurai Veeran' and ‘Vanniar Natakam', which are community rituals, as also ‘Prahlada Natakam' of Arsuttipettu in Thanjavur district, which is a ritual performance where an entire village performs, and the Kuttus which still call themselves Therukoothu and Kattaikuttu groups, and the youth theatre of Kattaikuttu Gurukulam with its impressive participation by girls… this was deliberately done to look at the diversity in kuttu.”

Heated discussions ensued on the naming of the koothu whether it should retain the name Therukoothu or call itself Kattaikuttu. Dr. Hanne De Bruine brought an end to the discussion by saying “name does not matter. Koothu should get the recognition it deserves as an intense art form and not be dismissed as a street play.”

Jeyashankar of Sri Lanka passionately describes the experience. “This was a unique experience to see different styles of Kooththu of Tamil Nadu in a particular place followed by interactions with the artists of kooththu next day. It is the first time that the multifaceted features of the art of kooththu in Tamil Nadu have been brought out and discussed. It is time for the academics to move beyond the existing borders and catch up with the reality in the field of Kooththu practices in Tamil Nadu.”

Totally passionate

A great revelation was the passion that koothu actors have for the art. Most of them revealed that they went in for Koothu against family advice. P. Subramaniam of Kakapalayam who belongs to the Kalari Tolkalaiyal Membattu Meyyam was tied to a coconut tree and beaten up by his father for wanting to become a koothu actor. He began performing on the sly and had to promise the girl's family that he would not perform koothu when he got married, but performed the very next day of his marriage.

Koothu actors’ life is hard. They have to carry their costumes and walk long distances in the villages to perform. Many times they are refused entry in buses as they carry their bags. Some times they return with no money for bus fare. They are teased and not treated well. Yet there are extremely passionate artists with tremendous talent for high-pitched singing and impressive literacy about mythology and Tamil literature. They sustain all-night performances with music, dance and dialogues, which are not just entertaining but also profound in their logic and emotional value. More and more koothu groups are being formed.

Fifteen-year-old Venkatesan is following the Yagasena Kattaikuttu manram of Kuizhpudupakkam in their all-night shows and hopes to join as an actor one day. It is the villagers who keep the art of Koothu alive.

Elimedu Kalaimagal Nataka Sabha sometimes has 30 shows a month


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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 10:25:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/theatre-of-the-earth/article2076401.ece

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