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Traditional art form of Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is home to different forms of storytelling. Therukoothu, literally translated as ‘street theatre’, is an ancient form of storytelling that has been performed for many generations. The artists are adorned with heavy costumes and make-up and they render dialogues, sing, and dance during a therukoothu performance. The origin and antiquity of therukoothu are unknown. The word therukoothu consists of two words – theru meaning ‘street’ and koothu meaning ‘theatre/performance’. The Tamil epic Silappadikaram mentions 11 types of koothu. However, therukoothu is the only play in which the actor has to sing, dance, speak, and perform rituals. More popular in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, therukoothu is organised in villages during temple festivals, known as thiruvizha in Tamil. Generally held in the months of Panguni (March-April) and Aadi (July-August), it is held as a prayer for a good harvest, rain, or as a part of temple rituals. The major themes on which therukoothu is performed are the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Periya Puranam, and other Tamil literary works from the Sangam period. It is organised during summer when there is little work in the agricultural fields. These art forms through their songs, elaborate interpretations, and humour present local history and culture to the spectators.

A typical performance takes place in an open area at junctions where more than two streets meet, commencing late in the evening and concluding in the early hours of the morning. The artists in a therukoothu performance engage in storytelling, deliver dialogues, sing, and dance for the audience. Importance is given more to the music and songs rather than to the dialogues. Hence, artists take formal training to sing in a high-pitched voice to reach the audience that is spread out. Traditionally, only male artists performed and hence, they also enacted the role of female characters. However, recent performances also have female participation. The costume for a therukoothu performance includes a high towering dress, sparkling shoulder plates, wide colourful skirts, and heavy make-up. The artists introduce themselves during a performance by engaging in a conversation with the Kattiakkaran (stage manager or sutradhar) who, when a character enters the story, questions him/her as to who they are and what brings them into the story. Another artist who plays a pivotal role in the performance is the Komali (clown), who entertains the audience with his buffoonery. The orchestra, seated on a bench on the side, consists of a lead singer and other artists with instruments such as mukhaveena, harmonium, mirudhangam, and kanjira.

Therukoothu performances are also held in Draupadi Amman temples in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. The temple festival starts immediately after the Tamil New Year which falls in April and lasts till the end of June. The harvest season in the region is during the month of January when tributes are paid to the Sun God, which is also the time when Pongal, the harvest festival, is celebrated. The post-harvest season, which is also the time for rest and introspection is reserved for therukoothu . The stories and incidents from the Mahabharata, when enacted, are believed to bring safety and prosperity to the land and people. They are also said to provide blessings and good fortune to the people. The cost of the performance is met by the village panchayat, through donations made by the villagers. The audience also makes offerings during the performance for specific enactments. Other small vendors of local snacks, tea, balloons, and tobacco benefit economically from the therukoothu performances. The stories and incidents from the Mahabharata and other epics connect with people and their belief systems. More than being a street play, therukoothu is a whole festival that works on the collective memory of the audience.

Traditional Therukoothu performance

An artist getting ready for a Therukoothu performance

A Therukoothu performance on Draupathi Thugil