A koothu enthusiast

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Mu. Harikrishnan. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

FOR the Salem-based performing artist Mu. Harikrishnan, “koothu” (folk theatrical art) is his alter ego. An electrician by profession, Hari, 40, is the vital link between artists in the western districts of the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu and the outside world. The self-taught performer has immense practical experience and vast academic knowledge of traditional art forms.

He says it is a “sacred” responsibility for him. “Koothu is a remarkable art and stands as a symbol of our unique tradition. Despite the crass commercialisation of entertainment, traditional performing arts such as string puppetry, leather shadow puppetry and therukoothu survive mainly because of the people living in villages,” he says.

His diehard interest makes him a performer able to hold his own with artists of exceptional proficiency. He has staged performances in Chennai, Guwahati and Delhi. His production “Aravaan Kalappali”, from the epic Mahabharata, staged at a function organised in Chennai, received widespread accolades.

A multifaceted personality, Harikrishnan is a writer too. He writes extensively on “koothu” and its artists and relentlessly tracks them to their houses and huts in the remotest villages to record their travails and tribulations. “Kongu region koothu has special traits. It has women artists too. Elsewhere, men play women’s roles too since women are considered not ‘pure’ enough to don celestial characters,” he says.

He runs a trust named “Kalari Heritage and Charitable Trust” through which he is striving to preserve these ancient art forms in the Kongu region and to end the economic uncertainty the performers face today.

He attempts to take the ancient arts to the next generation through proper training for freshers. His trust runs a school, “Kalari koothupalli”, in Erwadi village in Salem district to teach koothu. A few poor students have joined it. “The nuances of the art and its values are being taught here during weekends, without affecting their regular studies,” he says. He has plans to start yet another one in Dharmapuri district where the art enjoys relatively good patronage.

Harikrishnan has published a few books, including Arungoothu, in which he has documented the artists’ life and has also produced and directed a documentary, Vidhaithavasam, on the shadow puppetry master ‘Ammapet’ Ganesan. He runs Manal Veedu, a bi-monthly magazine devoted to folk arts. “We are struggling to get it published uninterrupted,” he says.

The trust helps the traditional artists get benefits from government and organises shows in educational institutions. “This will not only ensure a steady income for them but also make the younger generation aware of these art forms,” he points out. The trust’s details are available at www.kalarie.in.

The Kalari Trust has many more such ventures in the pipeline. Hari’s dreams sound utopian and as colourful as the art itself. An electrician cannot shoulder the entire responsibility of a venture of this nature, he says. “The State and its Department of Art and Culture should activate the Folk Artists Welfare Board.”. Hari urges the government to enhance the monthly pension for artists in distress from the present Rs 1,000 to at least Rs 2,000. “All performers must be given house site pattas, medical aid and stipend for education for their wards. These demands can be met only when the welfare board is activated,” he points out.

Many artists do not even know that the government has a slew of welfare schemes meant exclusively for them. “They need awareness,” he says. However Hari, well supported by his friend R. Dhanapal, an art enthusiast, continues optimistically to pursue his ambitious objective of keeping the art and artists going.

R. Ilangovan

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