Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Dark Knight

In the tradition of the Therukoothu, the story belongs to the listener, and it grows like a live creature, writes V R Devika attempting to re-live the many dark nights and dawns she has spent witnessing them in the villages of Tamilnadu

The story is a collective memory. Mahabharatha lives through narration, ritualization and enactment in the villages of North Arcot districts in Tamilnadu. It is a Koothu, generic term for play; some call it Therukoothu as the enactment spills out into the streets (Theru means street); some others prefer calling it Kattaikoothu (Kattai means wood) to give it some respectability and to distinguish it from the modern street theatre. The bottom line is, it is total theatre here…

Kattiakkaran is the one who binds the story and gives it to us as a package. In a traditional Therukoothu, it is the Kattiakkaran who helps the narrative gain speed if it is trudging along or slow it down if it is doubling up speed. He is the proverbial Sutradhara (narrator) who has no rules to behaviour or costume while all other characters are bound by what they must do.

Let me take you to an overnight Ramayana Koothu. It is perhaps 2am, dark all around. Some in the audience are fast asleep while others are soaking in the atmosphere. Rama and Lakshmana have just entered the play. The singing welcomes them as Gods. The Kattiakkaran prostrates with full body but with his legs to Rama and Lakshmana. The lead singer, who is also the Annavi or the teacher shouts, “What are you doing? You are doing Namaskaram on the opposite side with your legs to the Gods?” the Kattiakkaran replies nonchalantly, “Who said they are Gods? This is my friend Subbiah simply donning the role of Rama. Where is the story happening and where is really the divine Rama present? It is in the minds of the audience. So, my Namaskaram is in that direction.”

For starters, Therukoothu takes narration to an entirely different level. The story belongs to the listener, the one who celebrates it. In the Therukoothu tradition, it grows organically, like a live creature.  The ownership stays hidden somewhere between the lines of a narrative.  A village in North Arcot district of Tamilnadu in the vicinity of a Draupadi Amman temple is always awash with stories of the Mahabharatha.

Season after season, people listen to the stories of the Mahabharatha; first, by the story teller who narrates it in the Katha Kalakshepa mould with the icon of Draupadi as a witness to her story and then visualised by the professional Koothu group that enacts the story with dialogue, dance and music and fantastic costumes. Finally, the villagers become a part of the story by taking part in the rituals connected with the Mahabharatha.

Mahabharatha gets bound with people’s emotions, values and attitudes to life in a way that the story becomes an expression of a reality as felt and experienced by the people. The story becomes a medium through which people learn their history, settle their arguments and come to make sense of the phenomena of their world.

The narrative begins with the hoisting of a flag in the village. This means a ten-day Bharatha Koothu has to be conducted in the village. First, a narrator has to be fixed. His group and he will tell the story of the Mahabharatha during the day. Each day, a portion of the story is narrated - with the Draupadi icon in front - listening to it all. There is song, interpretation, explanation, and plenty of humour.

Nights are all given to the enactment of the story in the Koothu format with all its spectacular costuming and drama. The days are filled with rituals connected with the Mahabharatha. Five men in the village take a vow to atone for the sins of the Kauravas who caused the humiliation of Draupadi. They begin to observe austerities and wear clothes drenched in turmeric water. The cattle are decorated for the cattle show when the drama in the night is Virata Parva (a chapter from the Mahabhrata where the Pandavas are in disguise). A bullock cart gets cleaned up and gets ridden in the streets with an actor as Bhima in the guise of a Brahmin and Bakasura trying to fight him. Village people fill the cart with food prepared at home and this gets partaken later in a community feast.

The whole narrative is blended into people and their participation in its act. Each one present there becomes part of the myth. The whole scene becomes the story enchanting the participant and the spectator who is now part of the spectacle.

There is another spectator whose head is ritualistically placed as a witness to the Kurukshetra war. This is an interesting interpretation, courtesy the Tamil Mahabharatha, written by Villiputharar. Arjuna has a son with the Naga Princess, Ulupi. Aravan, as he was called, was convinced by the Pandavas to sacrifice himself before the war to appease Goddess Kali and ensure victory for the Pandavas. Aravan’s last wish was to be married even if it was for just one night. So Krishna became Mohini and united with Aravan.  In the village of Koovagam, this incidence, this incident is re-enacted in the form of a festival, by a ceremonial marriage of Aravan to Allis (third gender) and male villagers (who have taken vows to Aravan) and followed by their widowhood after a ritual re-enactment of Aravan's sacrifice. It is believed that Aravan also requested an opportunity to witness the Kurkshetra war. So Krishna allowed Aravan’s head to be alive as a witness.

For this, the village hosting a Bharatham (as the ten-day festival is called) goes looking out for special potters to procure a huge clay head of Aravan, and bring it into the battle field ritualistically. The head of Aravan is a common motif in Draupadi temples. Often, it is a portable wooden head; sometimes it even has its own shrine in the temple complex or is placed on the corners of temple roofs as a guardian against spirits. Aravan is worshipped in the form of his severed head and is believed to cure disease and induce pregnancy in childless women.

The Kattiakkaran makes sure no one misses the narrative. A stylistic form of question and answer - just as in the Upanishads - is adopted to explain the background of the character giving a complete cue to the point in the Mahabharatha where this narration begins. The dialogue is repeated as song and chorus by a group consisting of all the actors, musicians, the tea boy and the odds and ends person repeating it with full throated singing.

Tamil Koothu, like the Mahabharatha, is never a single story. It is always a tree with many branches. Unless you take into account all the possible events associated with it, you don’t really get the full picture. The narrative is ritual and drama completing the architecture of myth thereby establishing a connection with the story. To get a sense of the two essential words - consciousness and narrative - you must look at the Koothu’s holistic narration. You never find anything as enlightening.

Everything hinges on participation and faith. There is a sort of wondrous fever that can go on and that is a feeling of ardour that is deeply connected with the narration of the Mahabharatha in ritual, drama and spectacle. Story, in the context of the Koothu, is the durable text of life. Koothu itself becomes a monument to the power of the story. The story as it unfolds unravels a world view.

The writer is the founder of Chennai-based Aseema Trust and a cultural activist

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