Theru Koothu: A Tamil street theatre tradition in danger of fading into oblivion has found a new lease on life
The slow decline of state patronage meant that Theru Koothu faded into oblivion, eventually forcing practitioners to take up menial jobs. Now, filmmaker Sankagiri Rajkumar is reinventing the art form by drastically reducing the performance time and introducing stories that weren’t originally a part of the repertoire.
Theru Koothu has remained confined within its districts of origin — in Tamil Nadu’s Salem, Dharmapuri, Namakkal and Erode.
The slow decline of state patronage meant that the art faded into oblivion, eventually forcing practitioners to take up menial jobs.
Filmmaker Sankagiri Rajkumar has retained the essence of this tradition but also reinvented it by drastically reducing the performance time and introducing stories that weren’t originally a part of the Theru Koothu repertoire.
The green room is abuzz with a flurry of activity, and the strong smell of hairspray and powder. A group of men are huddled in front of the spotlit mirrors, pinning up their wigs or their garish, sparkly frocks. Some are even struggling with their sarees.
Before the antiquated charms of the endangered Tamil street theatre tradition Theru Koothu could be declared extinct, filmmaker Sankagiri Rajkumar (Onion, 2011) resuscitated it in Chennai. On 28 April, the young artiste seamlessly transitioned from screen to stage in an attempt to revive the ancient folk art for a young audience in Chennai’s Sir Pitty Theyagaraja Arangam hall.
Much like hundreds of other indigenous art forms from the interiors of India, Theru Koothu has remained confined within its districts of origin — in Tamil Nadu’s Salem, Dharmapuri, Namakkal and Erode. The slow decline of state patronage catalysed its gradual fading into oblivion, eventually forcing practitioners to take up menial jobs for a living.
Belonging to a family of traditional Theru Koothu artists from Salem, Rajkumar says he felt “passionately compelled” to bring it to a mainstream, urban, and newer audience, in order to keep it alive. “I have grown up seeing my people dress up for Theru Koothu, performing for hours together. It is the original form of cinema. It pains my heart, like it does for many others, to see the art dying. This is my way of giving it life,” he says.
Rajkumar’s maiden stage venture, Nandhi Kalambagam, tells the little-known story of the Pallava king Nandhivarman in a 90-minute long performance. The play is not only directed by Rajkumar but also sees him playing the protagonist.
The play recreates the valour and compassion of the ruler who stood his ground against his own brother and the Pandya dynasty of ancient Tamil Nadu. It ends with his brother composing a set of hundred songs on Nandhivarman in Aram Paaduthal style, or prophetic poetry seeking vengeance. Despite knowing that listening to the hundredth song would prove fatal to him, legend has it that Nandhivarman sat through the entire performance out of his love for art and poetry. As the performance concluded, Nandhivarman’s body caught fire and he burnt to death.
To be able to revive or keep traditions alive, reinventing forms to meet contemporary needs becomes inevitable. Besides relocating the art from the streets to the proscenium and drastically shortening the length of the performance that conventionally ran from night till daybreak, the director has introduced stories that weren’t originally a part of the Theru Koothu repertoire. “Traditionally, only stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana were told in Theru Koothu form in villages. I thought it was important to change that, to tell new, little-known stories. How many of us know of this king who was willing to die for the love of a language?” Rajkumar asks.
However, in order to retain the essence of Tamil folk theatre, the character of a clown was seen narrating the story, as is traditionally done. Additionally, the performers stitched their own costumes as a part of the age-old craft. The professional Theru Koothu practitioners, who performed in the play, are all natives of Rajkumar’s village, Sankagiri.
Nandhi Kalambagam was first staged in Cambodia last year, followed by its second outing in Chennai this April. “I’ve been getting invites to stage it in countries which have a Tamil population. We are working out things,” Rajkumar says.
Besides such plays, Rajkumar has also taken on the Herculean task of adapting and staging the classic Thirukkural, a collection of 1,330 couplets by Tamil poet-philosopher Valluvar into Theru Koothu performances. The project will primarily be shot as one-minute-long videos and released on YouTube, in order to capture a young audience with a shorter attention span. “We call it Kural Koothu. The idea is to release it online, so as to help students understand kural (couplets) through Theru Koothu,” Rajkumar explains, stating that 10 couplets have already been adapted, while the remaining 1,320 are in progress. “We are struggling to put together funds for that, but we will soon work on it,” the actor-director says.
With Nandhi Kalambagam, he found a staunch admirer in fellow Tamil filmmaker Cheran, who called the effort “noble”. “Theru Koothu is mother of all art forms. We now have a generation that has no idea what it is… Rajkumar’s effort to popularise Theru Koothu among such audiences is not just commendable, it is also important,” he says.
Despite his co-existing career in cinema, Rajkumar continues to draw major inspiration from street theatre as an artiste. “Theru Koothu will remain my passion and my inspiration. And I will continue to stage it whenever, wherever possible,” he assures, promising a better tomorrow for the art and its artists, who may now retire from their mundane day jobs.
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