“Theru Koothu”- The Street Play – Part: B – My Childhood Nostalgia Series -Chapter:7
(Continued from the Previous part. Please read it first and resume here)
I was impatient that we were so slow to start. I wanted to walk briskly, but the pack of sleeping mats that father asked me to carry was rather heavy.
“Why should we take the mats? I am sure we are not going all the way to sleep there!” I protested to my father earlier, but he was unrelenting.
We reached the side of the Shiva temple at the entrance of the farmers’ street and there was a series of tube lights guiding people from the path to sideways down to the paddy field, through a worn out bullock cart track. The paddy fields were bone dry and full of cracks typical of the parched clay-soil. At a distance of about 300 meters from the temple, a brightly lit, newly erected dais was visible. Old film songs were blaring from the loudspeakers.
As we reached closer to the dais, I was surprised to see that the crowd gathered there was not big. People were all seated sporadically in bunches, mostly as groups of family members; most of them were squatting cross legged in mats spread on the open field and some of them reclining or lying flat, gazing at the half moon shining at the sky! It was a big relief to me that the front curtain on the dais was fully closed, indicating that the program had not yet started.
My father spread a few mats we had brought at a convenient place and all of us squatted on the ground. “This is the sofa and chair for you” he said with a broad smile.
Once one film song blaring at the cone speakers stopped, I would jump up eagerly to see whether there was any sign of the curtain opening, but nothing of the sort happened; the next song would continue with monotonous regularity. It went on and on for next forty five minutes, thoroughly testing my patience!
At least ten times I would have asked my patient father “Appa! When will it start?”
“Go to sleep if you want, or shut up!” My elder brother became impatient, pouring out his part of anger on me borne out of the boredom of waiting. My immediate elder sister was fighting tooth and nail to prevent dozing off.
At last, by about 10:30 PM, the screen finally parted and a big noise of musical instruments and chorus singing in the form of prayer started, bringing the much awaited enthusiasm to the bored crowd.
That night’s drama was Sathyavan Savithri. It was the story of a very determined and pious woman by name Savithri, who, out of her staunch love and devotion to her husband, was adamant and obnoxious enough to bring her husband back to life after his death by arguing and convincing lord Yama, the God of death. Of course, I have heard this story earlier.
I cannot recall now how the story unfolded on the stage and I don’t remember most of what I saw there. But I vividly remember that the hallmark of the whole performance was the leisureliness in pace. There was an over doze of songs and songs were too lengthy. Every actor and actress was delivering dialogs at the top of their pitch and the style of dialog delivery was too peculiar for me to follow them fully.
Despite my tender age, I had a discerning ear for good classical-based music and I had the capacity to differentiate good from bad. While all those acted were delivering music at the top of their voices, hardly one or two had a sense of music and melody. Mostly, the music was sub-standard.
One thing amused me in the dais was that the entire orchestra was occupying a sizable corner of the dais and all of the musicians (with a huge harmonium, tabla, dholak, ganjira and jalra) were visible to the public eye. If there is a scene depicting something happening in the forest, the backdrop was full of trees and shrub colorfully painted, but the entire orchestra team was also sitting right at the corner of the forest, so to say, singing and banging along with the hero or heroine!
And there was this prominent co-singer sitting at the harmonium, giving a fitting challenge to the singing prowess of the hero or heroine by unfolding musicalsangathis and brigas one after the other. At times, the hero, singing laurels at her beauty, will walk away from the heroine leaving her high and dry, come and stand closer to the harmonium-player, swing his hand up and down in dishing out impromptu brigas, sangathis and sancharas as if he was angrily challenging the musical escapades of the co-singer!
Now coming to M.R.Mangalam, the sthree who donned the Rajapart! She appeared on stage as the Hero Satyavan amidst applause. The moment I saw her, it appeared obvious to me as to why she chose the role of a male! She was short, very stout, had a tough looking face and had a hoarse voice. She appeared to be in her late forties. He singing was definitely above average, far above many of her co-artistes, and perhaps that was another qualification that made her a Rajapart. She displayed the confident grit of a male and funnily, the heroine Savithri’s role was donned by a lean and lanky male artist!
As the show went on scene after scene in a monotonous flow, there came a relief for me to have some entertainment. It was a comedy scene. The story goes that hero Satyavan would fight with a lion to save Savithri and she would fall in love with him. In the next scene, Satyavan’s personal assistant (comedian) would try to woo Savitri’s servant maid. The servant maid would get scared of seeing a small dragon lizard and the comedian will jump in as a hero, run behind the lizard, catch it, put into is mouth and chew it; the servant maid, impressed by his heroics, would instantly fall in love with him. All the bored little children who had been yawning all along had a roaring laughter!
Then came the anti-climax and the end to whatever entertainment I could muster so far.
Emotionally, women instantaneously connect with the pain of suffering and death.
To explain it, I have to digress from the story a bit again.
I came to know later that Theru Koothu was extremely famous amidst village women folk for the melancholy scenes. The life of village women those days were very hard indeed. Their sentimental resonance with the grief of death was always very striking. Grasping this emotional nuance, Theru koothu stories depict the meloncholy of death very elaborately. In Tamil Nadu, there was in vogue a unique performing folk song form called “Oppari”. Oppari songs are sung by rural womenfolk, in lyrics full of melancholy created many times improptu, when a person dies in a house hold. The oppari songs sing praise of the virtues of the dead person and express the grief of living without him/her.
This culture evolved over a period of time to a such a fashion that there were “professional” old women who were adept in singing oppari, who were available upon invitation for a fee for singing oppari upon death of a person in a household! These women will lead the crying studded with their lyrics and music, and the entire womenfolk gathered to mourn will join in chorus, shedding bucketful of tears around the dead body!
So much so for the attraction of Tamil rural women for celebrating melancholy! Let me return to the story now.
Professional rural Oppari Singers in Tamil Nadu!
After her marriage with Satyavan, and enjoing the marital bliss for a while, Savithri had to face an unexpected calamity — her husband meets with death. With Satyavan’s body lying motionless, Savitri deeply sunk in sorrow, cries and cries.
That was the real beginning of my sorrow of watching the drama! Crying, wailing and singing — singing song after song, deeply soaked in meloncholy, Savitri went on and on. Other characters in the drama too came to the dais, sat around the “dead” body of Satyavan and took turns to grasp the mike and sing meloncholy, to seemingly no end!
I could see sympathetic vibrations from the rural woman folk in the audience. Many older women threw up their hands, disheveled their hairs and started crying, soulfully sharing the sorrow of Savitri!
I started feeling very sleepy. “Appa! Shall we go back home?”
But my second elder sister, who was so immersed in the scene with tears flowing from her eyes, had no plans of returning till the whole drama came to the end. For her, any story should be read till the last page; any movie or drama should be watched till the end! My immediate sister was already sleeping, as all her efforts to keep awake failed after 11 PM.
My mother was a very sentimental lady, who was always very scary of seeing death and the crying surrounding it. It was not that she was very weak-hearted, but it was more of her dislike for anything amangalam (inauspicious). To her, crying and wailing so loud through loudspeakers was highly inauspicious.
When my mother said “Let us go. I can’t tolerate this wailing”, my father naturally had no option but to pack and move.
My father promised my second elder sister that he would positively bring all of us to the next day’s drama and would sit through the end. After lots of reluctance and persuasion, my sister got up. We all limped back to home at 12 midnight, feeling drowsy, dull and tired.
The next days’ drama was Alli Arjuna and as father told us in advance, it was not at all a tragedy and hence we all could enjoy it. It was a folklore from the epic Mahabharata, about Arjuna falling in love with Alli, a tomboyish queen who hated men, who ruled her country with all-woman ministers, officers and military!
Again, we could not sit through the drama till the end! With none of us children having any previous experience of keeping awake at nights, most of us felt very sleepy by 11:45PM and we all did retreat back home well before the the curtain was brought down.
Continued in Part 4C – Theru koothu and the Koothu in the theru (The drama that happened in our street)