Folk Art

Keeping a tradition alive

Print edition : October 30, 2015

A Kaniyan Koothu performance. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

Muthu Perumal, the annavi or main singer. He is one of only about 15 annavis in Tirunelveli district. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

Chitravel (right) and Muthu Manikandan getting ready for a performance. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

Muthu Manikandan getting ready for a performance. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

Kaniyan Koothu is a ritual art form practised during temple festivals. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

Kaniyan Koothu is performed only by men. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

The magudam, or frame drum, is played by striking it with the hand. Traditionally, fire is used to heat the skin and sharpen the sound. Photo: M. Roy Benadict Naveen

A small but dedicated community of performers continues to enthrall audiences by performing the centuries-old ritual art form of Kaniyan Koothu in southern Tamil Nadu.

Wearing sarees and red blouses, the two dancers look a lot like sisters. Only they are men, who were, until half an hour ago, sitting bare-chested, in dhotis, applying rouge and lipstick. They sway as elegantly as any female dancer, and then twirl and spin dizzyingly fast.

They are performers of Kaniyan Koothu, a ritual art form practised during temple festivals in Tamil Nadu, but only by men. Women are not, and have never been, performers. “Only members of our community [the Kaniyans, a Scheduled Tribe] practise this koothu (dance),” says V. Muthu Perumal, the annavi or main singer, who leads this troupe. “It has very deep religious significance. It is not about entertainment, you see. We never perform at weddings, deaths and functions at homes,” explain A. Manikandan and S. Sankaran, who play the magudam, or frame drum.

And then they begin drumming. Facing each other, they purse their lips, shake their heads and tap the drum skin, now with the palm, now with the fingers. When the drumbeats fade to a whisper, Muthu Perumal starts singing. His voice is high and clear and carries all around M.S. Mahal, an empty marriage hall in Cheranmahadevi, a town 19 kilometres west of Tirunelveli city. I was there to watch a short demonstration of Kaniyan Koothu. During interludes, the magudam players drum up speed. It sounds like a whole orchestra playing. The pace builds up quickly, and within moments, the koothu reaches a brisk and thrilling crescendo. When the dancers stop to catch their breath, I realise the drama of the last few minutes has taken mine away.

Precarious future

It was only a 40-minute drive from Tirunelveli to Cheranmahadevi earlier that morning. I remember wishing it were longer. There are green fields and blue hills and, right next to the road, pink and white lotuses in ponds. Muthu Perumal’s house is easy to find.

Inside, sipping sweet coffee, he shows us a portrait of his father, Annavi Nanguneri Vanamamalai. The walls are lined with awards Muthu Perumal received and photographs of him with celebrities, the kind you would expect to find in the house of a leading artist of a flourishing art form.

But then Muthu Perumal tells me that Kaniyan Koothu’s future is actually precarious. “There are probably only 175 families in our community; most live in Tirunelveli. Among the 150 men who can probably take this up, very few are willing.” There are, maybe, 15 annavis, including himself, in the entire district. His father was a top performer for 40 years and Muthu Perumal has been one for the last 25 years. But his son, Sivaramakrishnan, an engineer, is employed in Chennai. His brother, Adinarayanan, works in the Revenue Department. “Who, in my family, will do this after me?” Muthu Perumal asks.

It is indeed ironical that Kaniyan Koothu finds few people willing to take it up now, when the art is appreciated and the pay is decent. “In my father’s time there was a lot of discrimination. He could never bargain for payment. During temple festivals, Kaniyans were asked to eat last. When we went to receive money from the organisers, we had to remain standing and drape the shoulder towel on our hand and wait humbly for the cash,” Muthu Perumal says. But now, he says with pride, they are treated with respect because they perform at government functions and are seen on television.

Kodai vizhas (summer festivals) are usually very big and well-planned events. “Besides our koothu, there are other folk forms, like melam, villisai and karagattam. The organisers arrange for a place for everyone to stay and take care of our meals,” Muthu Perumal says.

Muthu Perumal’s troupe of seven, comprising the main singer, a junior singer, two drummers, two dancers and an assistant, gets up to eight programmes a month between April and October. From November to March there are no temple festivals and therefore no programmes. Given the small number of practitioners, each troupe commands Rs.25,000 to Rs.30,000 for an event. “It is divided by 7.5. The annavi gets an extra half share.”

The koothu usually goes on for two nights and a day. It begins at 9 p.m. on the first night and ends at 3 a.m. next morning, when the gods have been circled with lamps and camphor. The performers have just a few hours to rest. “We begin again at 9 a.m. and continue until around 2:30 p.m. And then again, at 9 p.m. and finally finish at about 5 a.m.”

When word goes out about a Kaniyan Koothu performance, men, women and children assemble in large numbers. “Even an orchestra will not bring these kinds of crowds,” says Muthu Perumal. “People stay till the last song, the last story.” The performers draw energy from their enthusiastic and interested audience.

Stories and their narration are central to this art form. It is a unique form, says Prasanna Ramaswamy, theatre director and documentary film-maker. “In the South Asian performing traditions, which are more into the realm of ritual, you find only narration and no transformation. If both exist, they are located separately. Here you find only narration, but the pure dance is placed like a relief.”

Oral tradition

The performers receive no formal training; the singers pick up the songs and stories by listening to their fathers. That was how Muthu Perumal learnt. “For four years I went along with my father and keenly followed what he sang for each occasion.”

He is also a big fan of Carnatic music. “Within every song that we sing there are so many ragams. I might not know the names, but when someone tells me, I pick it up.”

Kaniyan Koothu tells Puranic stories such as Markandeya Puranam and Harischandra Puranam and tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. “Besides, in the sirudeiva vazhipadu (worship of village deities), there is Mariamman, Muneeswarar and Sudalai Madan’s story. We sing songs specific to the deities in the temples we perform,” Muthu Perumal says. He adds that he knows all the stories and songs by heart, and all of them are in Tamil. “We don’t know other languages,” he says simply.

Long history

“Kaniyan Koothu is at least 300 years old and can be traced back to the 17th century… there is a passing reference to the art in Mukkoodarpallu (Tamil poem from the Nayak period),” says A.K. Perumal, who has researched, documented and written books on folk arts. “But the art form as it is now, similar to a stage performance, is probably 80 years old, and is influenced by Tamil drama.”

“But the trouble is, our own children don’t see this koothu as high art,” rues Muthu Perumal. “They have an inferiority complex. They think that, after being educated, dressing and dancing as a woman is beneath them.” And that is why other communities are coming forward to take up the art form. S. Chitravel and M. Muthu Manikandan, the dancers in this troupe, are from families of leather puppeteers. “When we were young, we didn’t study. We just travelled with our family. So, when we grew up, we didn’t know how to support our families, as our traditional occupation had collapsed. One option was coolie work. But then we saw this koothu and tried it out. Since then, I have performed with many ‘sets’ (troupes),” says Chitravel, 34.

Many of Chitravel’s relatives have taken up Kaniyan Koothu after him. In fact, the majority of Kaniyan Koothu dancers now are leather puppeteers from Kanyakumari district. “If they did not do this, we’d suffer. Without the dancing, people won’t appreciate the koothu. The organisers will then prefer villuppattu or karagattam,” says Muthu Perumal.

The dancing demands a lot of stamina and creativity. It is not easy to keep the attention of a big audience, especially a modern one with so much access to entertainment. But Chitravel and Muthu Manikandanclearly can. Not only are they graceful, they rotate like tops; they hold hands and spin very fast, their saris flaring, the sinews on their forearms popping, five rows of ankle-bells on each feet ringing, sweat beading the forehead and face. But when they stop, they smile. All of us smile. It is electrifying.

Playing the magudam is different from the thappu, which it resembles, in that the magudam is played by striking it with the hand. Traditionally, fire is used to heat the skin and sharpen the sound. “But sometimes we even use an iron box,” says Manikandan.

The magudam is expensive to make and maintain. The frame alone costs Rs.1,500, the leather (buffalo calf hide) another Rs.400. The players fix the new hide on the frame with a paste made from the tamarind seed.

“The leather is soaked for several hours. We then grind and heat the tamarind seed paste and fix the hide to the frame and tighten it,” Sankaran says. “But it may break in a single night, or last two or three performances. There are no guarantees,” says Manikandan. Like the singers and dancers, the drummers too have no formal training. But they learnt by watching thavil players, says Muthu Perumal, and that has added to and improved their range of beats. “Now, they play all the five nadais [beat subdivisions],” he explains. “They can easily do a thani aavarthanam (solo percussion) for an hour.”

Succession is problematic in the drummers’ families, too, says Sankaran, 50. He lives in Kariyandi village in Nanguneri and uses bus fares to explain the distance to his village. “From Cheranmahadevi to Tirunelveli is Rs.20. From there, I pay Rs.15 and take another bus that goes to my village.”

Sankaran, whose wife rolls and sells bidis, was initiated into drumming early. “When my father went to play the magudam at festivals he took me along, and I just came into this line.”

His children, though, are keen on studying. “My son is in class 10. My daughter has got admission in a college.” He doesn’t understand her course nor can he recall its name, but is very happy that she is studying.

Muthu Perumal says, “I studied only till class eight. My father tried to get me interested in studying, but I preferred the koothu. But I cannot hold back others, especially those who want to move on, with a degree and a steady job.”

Beautiful and energetic

Kaniyan Koothu is also at a disadvantage as it cannot be practised part-time.

On Thursdays and Fridays, when festivals happen, Muthu Perumal speaks of staying awake for 28 hours at a stretch.

“When I get home I’m exhausted. It will be extremely difficult to do another job, with so little chance of rest or sleep.” And it is not remunerative enough to pursue as a full-time occupation. There are the five lean months with no programmes. Even when there are eight in a month, what looks like a generous pay only amounts to an hourly rate of (approximately) Rs.175 a performer. Certainly not a huge sum, considering the formidable skills, the years of practice, and the proficiencies.

“The koothu is beautiful and energetic, and given the number of hours for a single performance, I think sustaining power from all the performers is the most difficult part,” says Prasanna Ramaswamy. “One person cannot learn the whole form. Either you are the singer or the drummer or the dancer, as each aspect demands so much.”

One way to keep the art going, Muthu Perumal says, is to recognise practitioners with awards and make the form accessible and inclusive. “The government runs music schools. It will be good if they teach Kaniyan Koothu there to people from other communities too.”

Having worked with this form in two major productions, Prasanna Ramaswamy finds that Kaniyan Koothu has great performance value in terms of music, drums and dancing. “It also has great potential to be part of theatre learning.”


But Kaniyan Koothu also faces an unexpected obstacle: the Sanskritisation of worship. “Kaniyan Koothu is a ritual art form. But it is no longer central to the way of worship as it once was because the deities and temples in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi [districts] are rapidly getting Sanskritised,” says A.K. Perumal.

“Brahmin priests in the sanctum sanctorum, Sanskrit prayers and vegetarian offerings are encouraged over the forms of worship and sacrifices that existed previously. A single culture is replacing the multi-culture. Kaniyan Koothu and other ritual art forms will get affected because they have no place in a Sanskritised form of worship.”

But Kaniyan Koothu will never die, Muthu Perumal promises. The art form is closely linked with the worship of Sudalai Madan (a form of Siva, Sudalai Madan is the deity of the graveyard). “Without him, our art is nothing. So, as long as there are Sudalaimadasamy temples, even if Kaniyan Koothu does not flourish, it will not die.”

Aparna Karthikeyan is a freelance writer and volunteer with the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). This article is part of a series titled Vanishing Livelihoods of Rural Tamil Nadu and is supported under the National Foundation of India National Media Awards 2015.