By Ambika Raja
The beats of a folk song slowly emerge in the background. A middle-aged man clad in an orange dhoti is seen walking along the length of the stage. Three men adorned with jewels, crowns and gaudy attires enter the stage and dance to the rhythm of the music. After a while they go around in a circle, singing, chanting and jumping with ecstasy .The audience welcome the act with laughter and a round of applause.
Therukoothu is a traditional art form of folk theatre in Tamil Nadu that combines dialogues with songs and dance. Although literally known as ‘Street Theatre’ , the performance is usually done on the proscenium. The rich vibrant costumes that blend with the powerful background music make the acts adapted from Indian mythologies more expressive. For a greater share of artists, therukoothu is not a mere form of theatre; it’s a declaration of emotions, attitudes, morals and rituals. Purisai Duraisami Kannappa Thambiran Paramparai Therukoothu Mandram, situated in the Purisai village of Kanchipuram District in Tamil Nadu, has been fostering the art form for five generations. This theatre group has over the years gained international recognition and is renowned for its flawless performances.
“Our journey has never been a cakewalk. We have had our struggles and we still fight battles in our daily lives,” says Kanappa Sambandam, the current master and President of the theatre group. Having taught at the National School Of Drama (Delhi ) and Théâtre du Soleil(France), he recalls that his father never wanted him to take up this profession.” Money was tight in those days and several of my relatives had passed away due to starvation and poverty. He (father) hoped that I would opt for a proper occupation. But I had always wanted to be a therukoothu artist.”
During the revival years of the art form, there were only five theatre groups in Tamil Nadu performing therukoothu. The team from Purisai performed in other villages during festivals and slowly gained a provincial recognition. The freedom struggle years witnessed the actors spreading social messages through their performances. Several members of the Purisai group were imprisoned during the independence movement. After the 1960s, Kanappa Sambandam took over as the master and revolutionised the way therukoothu was being performed. Shifting the focus from Mahabaratha adaptations, he began including stories from Ramayana such as Vali Vatham, Indrajit, Hanuman Doothu, Ravana Vatham etc. Until then income was quite low for the 20-membered crew. A switch in tale ensured greater opportunities for performances. It also secured him the Sangeetha Nadaka Academy Award for best actor and the Kalaimamani award.
“People started hearing about our plays. We began giving interviews in the media and earned chances to perform in other states”
In later years, Kanappa Sambandam along with N.Muthuswamy, a contemporary playwright, adapted stories of Bertolt Brecht and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to deliver social messages through his plays. With international adaptations came international fame. “ Over the years we have performed in almost all the major cities of the world; Singapore, Chicago, Paris, Reunion Island .On 28th and 29th of this month we will be staging The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Colombia. We also took part in the 1987 Festival of India held in Sweden.”
The Therukoothu school located in the heart of the village trains students for a period of 5 years. The short term courses last only 20 days. Muthukumar a disciple of Sambandam eagerly talks of his journey to different parts of the world, ” The reception is always overwhelming. Everyday around 700 people come to watch the show. The performance is done entirely in Tamil, except for the narration delivered by the Soothradhar, which is done in the regional language .”
Inspite of the laborious training they undergo, the crew conduct performances only for six months of the year. The rest 26 weeks are allotted for agriculture and artisanal works.” We do not have any sponsors and people join the crew merely out of interest in the art. The money is not enough to sustain their livelihood. Hence it is essential that they pursue other occupations too” adds Sambandam .
Although the theatre group has broken several rules of traditional therukoothu, it hasn’t swerved from the gender distinction that the art imposes. Women are still not allowed to be a part of their crew owing to their restricted entry into temples (where therukoothu was traditionally performed ) during menstruation.” I do offer training to female students .Yet I cannot let them take part in the performances,” Sambandam adds regretfully.