“Theru Koothu” – The Street Play – Part:A

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My Childhood Nostalgia Series – Chapter 6

The domed bullock cart, with two cone loud-speakers fitted at top and blaring cine music of yester years turned corner and entered into the street. We children playing odd and sundry games in the hot evening of the summer holidays naturally got distracted. We ran up to the cart to know what all the noise was about.

“As part of the ‘Kappu kattu’ festival at the local ‘Pidariamman‘ Amman temple, there will be Therukkooththu enacted for five days by the famous Sri Ganesa Nataka Company. The popular dramas “Alli Arjuna”, “Satyavan Savithri”, “Harichandran” “Nallathangaal” and “Sri Valli” will be enacted at the specially erected dais at the paddy fields adjacent to Lord Shiva Temple. The plays will begin at 9:00 PM. All are cordially invited….”

The children vied with each other to collect the green and pink bit-notices that were distributed from the cart. The notices contained dull, block-printed black and white pictures of gaudily made-up artists in the guise of Lord Krishna, Archer Arjuna and such mythological characters. The program timings and the names of key artistes were found elaborated.

I ran with a notice in hand to my father who was sitting at the ‘thinnai’ of our house, curiously looking at the cart that was passing around the street.

“Appa! What is Theru koothu?”

“It is a good old form of drama, mostly to enact mythological stories for the entertainment of village folks during temple festivals; they sing and they act; the drama troops are always mobile; they go from village to village, based on invitation and contract; all the artistes, musicians, instrumentalists, make-up men, stage- decorators,mike and sound system persons and their cooks all travel together, stay in one place, eat at one place, conduct the shows at late nights and then pack off to next place” my father explained.

“Shows are conducted only late at night?” I asked with a shade of disappointment. As typical village folks, our family usually took dinner at 7 to 7:30 PM and we all used to go to bed a shade before 9:00 PM. Midnights were never known to us! My father nodded his head.

“But why?”

“Somehow, it is the tradition”

“Appa, if we have to see, are we to pay and buy tickets?” I was smart enough to probe into my father’s slippery arena. I was sure, if there were to be tickets to be bought, it means a sure no-entry for all of us!

“No, no. It’s all for the sake of poor people. It’s all free”

I got excited. “Can we go, father?”

“Can you keep awake, past mid night?” he shot back.

“I will try. But I want to see it for sure, Appa!”

“Okay. We shall all go!” That was quite unusual of our father! Hey!

S.G.Kittappa, whose singing of "Kodaiyile Ilaippattrikkollum" song was beyond compare.
S.G.Kittappa, whose singing of “Kodaiyile
Ilaippattrikkollum” song was beyond compare.

P.U.Chinnappa - he had his field day in Tamil Cinema too for a very brief period. Another impressive singer.
P.U.Chinnappa – he had his field day in Tamil
Cinema too for a very brief period. Another
impressive singer

.

K B Sundarambal. A scintillating singer, whose voice continued to ring in Tamil Cinema over two decades.
K B Sundarambal. A scintillating singer,
whose voice continued to ring in Tamil Cinema
over two decades.

Let me digress a bit from the story here. At the age of 10 or 11 when this happened, I was too small a kid to know anything more about Theru koothu and its significance as a prestigious Tamil performing-art form. But at later years as a grown up, I learned more about it and I could grasp certain facts and ground realities about the state of that art form. Actually, when Therukkooththu came to our village for the first time (to my knowledge) it was a period when it was becoming virtually a dying art, dying for want of patronage.

Theru Koothu as performed in Tamil Nadu, I learned, had two distinct styles, the northern and the southern. What I saw in my childhood was the southern form. The northern form actually seems to have been influenced in the peformance style, heavily built-up and colorful make-up pattern ofYakshaganam, the popular folk drama art of Andhrapradesh. The southern (‘Therkathi’) style, was rather more mellowed in the make-up of the artists and the music was more classically based.

This art form evolved by the untiring efforts of Sankaradas Swamigal, who penned most of the mythological dramas viz Sathyavaan Savithri, Pavazhakkodi Charithram, Valli Thirumanam, Harichandra etc. By bringing in the right mix of dialogs with songs, tuned to melodious classical music with necessary touch of lightness to them, he made sure that entertainment along with our culture and tradition was given to the common folks to enjoy and absorb. Later, Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar, poet and playwright was one of the greatest patrons of this art form. It was he who penned most of the dramas that evolved at later years.

Unfortunately, the advent and meteoric rise of Tamil Cinema Industry rang the death knell for drama as a performing art. Perhaps Therukkooththu was in its peak during 1940 to 1950, when some great drama artists cum musicians like M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Kittappa, Dandapani Desikar, P U Chinnappa, K B Sundarambal and the like were worshiped as demigods of performing art. Their grip on the classical music was above par, their voice capable of captivating thousands of people even without the need of mike and loud speakers.

As cinema started bulldozing the other art forms, many of these stalwarts started acting and singing in movies; MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar became a huge hit in cinema too. A little later, some of the popular figures in Tamil Cinema like Shivaji Ganesan, M N Nambiar, A P Nagarajan (director), V K Ramasamy, TKS brothers, N S Krishnan, S V Subbiah and so on had their origins in drama troops that were closing one by one due to lack of patronage.

T K S brothers, namely TK Shanmugam (who was extremely famous for his female role of Avvayar that fetched him the name Avvai Shanmugam) , TK Bhagavathi and others) had their own period of grand success in the field of Therukkooththu at their early ears under the patronage of Sankaradas Swamigal and later at stage dramas, that actually evolved a lot more sophisticated and “socialized” from Therukkooththu. At later periods, these stage dramas were doing well with more social (contemporary) story lines than mythological. But it was all in early/ mid 50s.

In reality, when I first encountered Therukkooththu at my village (during 1965/66) most of the popular troops were already closed. Perhaps the troup that came to our village was limping for survival.

Let me now come back to my story.

This is a typical Theru koothu of northern style, which seems to have been influenced by Yakshaganam, the folk art of Andhrapradesh.

This is a typical Theru koothu of northern style, which seems to have been influenced by Yakshaganam, the folk art of Andhrapradesh.

I ran into the house with the notices in hand, to announce the grand news of our father agreeing to take us all to see Theru koothu the next day.

My elder sisters aged 21 and 18 were quite eager to read every bit of what was in the bit notices. They were always too eager to listen every radio drama (we had the good old Murphy radio – valve set – in our house) aired by All India Radio those days and their excitement was more palpable, because here was a chance to see a drama enacted live. It looked my eldest sister had some rudimentary knowledge about Theru koothu too.

“Who is the Rajapart?” she asked.

“What is a Rajapart” I shot back.

“One who acts the “part” (role) of “Raja” (king or the main character, the hero) is the Rajapart” she said.

“Hey! Unbelievable! It is a woman! See her photo here dressed as Arjuna! Her name is M R Mangalam!” the second sister yelled.

“How is it possible? Theru koothu has always been acted only by male artists. The ‘sthree part’ (woman’s role) too is always done by males!”

“But K B Sundarambal too has been acting in Theru koothu; she is so popular!”

“But she was doing only female roles- not male”

My mother chipped in. “See, times are changing so fast! What a revolution here! A female donning the role of a male hero, that too in a traditional art like Theru koothu!”

In fact, M R Mangalam had caught everyone in the street by surprise. Every one was too curious to see a female acting and singing like a male, that too in a powerful role like Arjuna.

The next evening.

We all took our dinner as usual at 7:15 PM. I was running from inside of the house to out side, in an excited state, frequently looking at the wall clock, which seemed to be running unusually slower.

8:30 PM. My mother and sisters were still busy at kitchen, washing utensils and and cleaning the kitchen. Mother usually gets tensed up for no reason and a family outing adds fuel to the fire. She started shouting at our sisters for not doing the cleaning properly and in time.

“Appa! When shall we start? It is already 8:30 PM”

“There is no hurry. Things will start quite late”

“But it says starting time is 9:00PM. If we go late, we will get a seat only in the last row. Everyone would have occupied the front seats now”

“Seats? hahaa! What seats? Chairs or sofas?”

“No chairs? Benches at least?”

“You will see what it is when you go there” my father chuckled. He looked inertia personified. No inkling of moving from the chair where he was sitting and listening to Radio English news.

“Appa….Please! Let’s start!”

“Don’t worry. Nothing will start there till 10 PM” he said confidently.

My three sisters and elder brother did not normally communicate with father as freely as I did. They too were too eager to start for the program. When mother arrived at the hall after finishing her chores at the kitchen, a customary soap-washing of the face, a change to a new saree and swallowing her daily doze of pills, it was 9:15 PM.

When we stepped out of the house after father locked the front door, it was 9:40 PM.

(Continued in the next part – Theru Koothu-Part B – Chapter 7 – of my Childhood nostalgia series)

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