Words, Action and Emotion

EFFERVESCENT: Professor S. Mounaguru. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R_ASHOK

“Andha pari poorani, sornam arul vagari…” “Thagatha thinginathom…” When S. Maunaguru sings and dances one feels the energy of the swirling rhythmic movements of the koothu art form. One of the iconic faces of Tamil Theatre and Culture in Sri Lanka, Maunaguru’s passion for the Tamil art form is deep rooted and on stage he is always in full flow.

When Sarat Chandra, a doyen of Sinhala Theatre, declared that his play ‘Maname’, a milestone in the Sinahala theatre tradition, was greatly influenced by the traditional Tamil theatre form of Koothu, it motivated Tamil theatre personalities Vidyanandan, K. Sivathamby, K. Kailasapathy and S. Maunaguru to swing into action. “It sparked a revival of sorts as Vidyanandan spearheaded a movement to rediscover the traditional koothu art form,” says Maunaguru.

A series of short-duration koothu performances evolved after that. As Maunaguru was equally adept in poetry and prose, he was entrusted with writing the script for most of the performances. “We experimented with this art and tried to present new ideas. We felt if Sarat Chandra could do it for Sinhalese, why not we for Tamils? Koothu has become our identity. Even today you can see koothu art in its purest form being practised in Batticaloa,” he says.

His first drama was ‘Karnan Por’ in traditional vadamodi style. Maunaguru researched extensively and documented the koothu tradition that was in practice among the Tamils. “There are 48 different types of ‘adavugal’(movements) in Vadamodi style and 80 different types of movements in Thenmodi style.”

With all its riches, he considers koothu truly classical. “Madhavi in the epic Silapathikaram performed koothu, it is the dance form of Tamil community,” he says.

Born in Silamunai, young Maunaguru was exposed to dance and music early in life. His father Sinniah, a temple priest well versed in horoscopy and traditional medicine, used to take Maunaguru to temple festivals. “I was brought up in a world of drum beats and cymbals. Music is deeply ingrained in me,” he laughs.

Maunaguru used to substitute his father in performing poojas and reciting mantras. With sharp memory and flair for dance, he also acted in dramas. Professor Vidyanandan, who was teaching Tamil at Peradeniya University, singled out Maunaguru for his spirited performance and took him into his fold. He calls Vidyanandan, Sivathamby and Kailasapathy as the Tamil theatre trinities in Sri Lanka. If Vidyananthan spotted him, Sivathamby moulded him into a theatre personality and Kailasapathy was responsible for his expanding his knowledge about world theatre.

“When I was staging historical and mythological plays, Kailasapathy asked me to concentrate on contemporary plays and introduced me to Utpal Dutt’s Yatra Pala, a Bengali folk art form. He introduced all trend setters in theatre,” he says.

Deriving inspiration, he produced Sangaram (Destruction), a powerful play that showcased how the lower castes are oppressed. The idea was new and it was staged in koothu form. Accolades poured in for his performance as the leader of the working class. The play was staged first in 1969.

He thought koothu could be an effective medium to bring forth important social messages and that propelled him to take up social issues like oppression of women. His 'Sakthi Pirakkuthu', staged in 1986, is still considered to be the first feminist play in Sri Lanka.

Living in the conflict zone, Sri Lankan Tamil scholars were reeling under pressure. None of their programmes got the support of the government. “Living amidst bomb explosions, you never know whether you would be alive the next moment. Everyone has learnt to live under constant fear. As scholars we were keen to continue with our work,” he narrates.

Then he again went into mythological stories but approached them differently. “It may appear to be a mythological story but only those who had undergone the pain would be able to understand the real issue,” he says.

His next play was Ravanesan, a masterpiece in Sri Lankan Tamil theatre. The script of Ravanesan, which he has rewritten and revised several times, is considered a modern classic amongst the Tamils. The most path-breaking aspect of Ravanesan, he explains was that the story evolved koothu into drama.

To understand the importance of Ravana, Maunaguru read Kambaramayanam thoroughly. “According to Vidyanandan, Ravana is a proud Tamil King who ruled Sri Lanka. The universality of the character appealed to everyone. I portrayed him as a tragic hero,” he says

Maunaguru now has a new theatre laboratory where he has more than 500 video and audio collections of dance and theatre related works. “Schools and universities only teach skill and not creativity. Students need space to let loose their creative faculty. I give plenty of opportunities to my students to think,” he says.

Maunaguru’s Batticaloa Theatre Laboratory will be performing Kandava Thaganam at the International Dance Festival in Colombo this November. Kandava Thaganam is a play based on the epic Mahabharatha in koothu style.


Maunaguru is a four-time winner of the Sri Lankan Sahitya Akademi award .

He has written 23 books and staged 20 theatre performances

He has written four children’s play. ‘Thappi Vantha Aadu’ and ‘Pazhayathum and Puthiyathum’ are the best known.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 1:09:03 AM |

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