Ramayana in Therukoothu
A scene from Sita Kalyanam... a big hit.
FOR THE first time in the history of the centuries old traditional theatre of Tamil Nadu, Therukoothu, a Ramayana series was staged as part of the temple festivities for the Kumbabhishekam of the Rama temple at Nedungunam in Tiruvannamalai district from July 27- August 1. The Purisai Duraiswamy Kannappa Tambiran Therukoothu group has the distinction of being the only group performing Ramayana Koothu. ``Subhojayam" ... Suddenly Rama became Munuswamy and received the honour of getting five rupees from an impoverished weaver as a reward for his acting. ``Subhojayam," he announced, ``May the donor live a long healthy life" and smoothly returning to the role of Rama, resumed dialogue with the demoness Tataka he was about to kill. This is the beauty of Therukoothu. That actors can turn into their own characters now and then and yet retain the seriousness of the role they are playing. Munuswamy is past sixty, while Sambandam, who played Viswamitra, is much younger than him.
The charm of Koothu lies in its ability to transcend the problems of time, space and age to sustain itself. A Ramayana Koothu was being performed in Nedungunam, a village of about 4,000 people in Tiruvannamalai district, 140 km from Chennai. Nestling in the foot of the small hill known as Sugarmalai, the village is said to have played host to Rama on his way back from Lanka to Ayodhya. The ancient Rama temple has been expanded and added to by many dynasties with the imposing and majestic entrance gopuram built by the nayaks. In the temple, Sri Rama is found seated without his bow and arrow. Hanuman is seated in front of the trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana reading from a palm leaf. He is said to be reciting the Vedas for his master. The temple Gopuram was painted recently for Kumbhabhishekam. The temple trustees decided to have a five-day Ramayana koothu to mark the end of the 48-day festivities. When we reached Nedungunam from Chennai, there were hardly any spectators. The light thrown by two tube lights and two bulbs secured to poles and protected by two umbrellas tied above was the only indication that something was going on. The small room of the Panchayat office was the green room for the actors who were sitting and doing their own make up in the awesome Koothu style. This is the first time a Ramayana series has been staged in the Koothu series. Generally it is traditional theatre staged as a ritual in front of Draupadi amman temples of the villages and it is always the Mahabharatha. But Purisai Duraiswamy Kannappa Tambiran group decided to look at Ramayana as a challenge too. ``This alternative was suggested to us 25 years ago by Na. Muthuswamy of Koothuppattarai to enhance our income," says Kalaimamani Sambandam. ``Today it has culminated in the five-day Ramayana Koothu festival. This became possible thanks to the encouragement given by Koothuppattarai and a small production grant from the Human resources Ministry of the Central Government."
In 1985, the group produced Ravana Vadhai as a three-hour play which got a lukewarm response from the villages. Then they produced ``Vali Vadhai," an all-night koothu in 1987. This play was a huge success and saw 100 performances in the first six months. ``We did not expect the villages to include the play in their rituals. We renamed it Vali Moksham. (Generally Karna Moksham from the Mahabharatha is preferred by homes that are in mourning) and got many commissions at funeral rituals. In 1989, ``Indrajit" was produced and in 1990 ``Hanuman Thoodhu." The two plays became big hits with 100 performances in the initial months. In 1997, ``Sita Kalyanam" was produced but saw less than 50 performances in a season. ``Surpanaka Sapatham" produced in 2000 had more than 100 performances. So a new trend began of the hitherto unheard of Ramayana Koothu. ``We learnt many lessons from this experience," says Sambandham. ``We looked at traditions like Koodiyattam and Kathakali of Kerala and the way they depict the characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. We developed the character of Hanuman in Hanuman Thoodhu from this exposure." ``The sentiments of Veeram (heroism), Thuyaram (suffering) and Sogam (grief) forever attract people. The Koothu on the opening night was ``Seeta Kalyanam." The star of the group Sambham donned the role of Viswamitra. The subtle and versatile Munuswamy donned the role of Rama and Veeraraghavan was Seetha. Rain disrupted the performance for a short while and resumed shortly after midnight and the crowd that had dispersed made its way back.
The break gave this writer an opportunity to look at the looms in the village and talk to the weavers. They had an exclusive market in Indonesia but the forest fires and the riots that raged there a few years ago affected the entire village. Many migrated to Chennai in search of casual work. Some changed their looms and now casual work from Kanchipuram for weaving silk saris. They get the design and the raw materials from the big silk merchants. The loans they get keep them perpetually in debt. This situation did not, however, deter the villagers from expressing their hearty appreciation to the Koothu. What is more they also give small amounts of money as reward for a particularly moving scene or brilliant dialogue. They appeared when the play resumed after midnight after the short rain spell. They sat on the wet ground with the temple Gopuram and the hill looming large over them. They were particularly appreciative of the witty dialogue between Viswamitra and a stupid student of his and the way Viswamitra tells the stories of the many rivers as hills to Rama and Lakshmana as he guides them through the forests to kill Tataka. This is visual education at its best.
V. R. DEVIKA
Send this article to Friends by