THE narrow lane leading to the burial ground in the Arunthathiyar colony in Pechanam, a remote hamlet in Salem district in Tamil Nadu, is choked with people. Under the starry sky, tiny groups of families and friends have gathered in front of the make-shift stage erected amid the cement structures marking the graves. It is believed that the village deity resides there. The venue remains eerily silent. At 11 p.m., the lights come on and the screen rolls up to the whistles of excited urchins, the front-liners in the audience comprising mostly agricultural labourers, many of them Dalits. Chanting mantras , a couple of puppet priests perform puja s to the god Ganesha. The string puppet show of ‘Periya Seeragapadi’ Kulandaivel Chennakrishnan begins with Ganesha “blessing” the village and its people for patronising the art and its performers.
String puppetry is one of the three prominent folk theatrical art forms of Tamil Nadu, the other two being “thol pavai koothu” (leather shadow puppetry) and “therukoothu” (street play).
By the time the performance is over, the first streaks of dawn start painting the far eastern sky crimson. The audience, as if opiated, leaves the venue with a wobbly gait, while a few are asleep on the ground. The show has drawn people from the nearby villages too—a surprising phenomenon for any folk art performance today.
But, for the 35-year-old performer Chennakrishnan, a third-generation string puppet artist, the future looks as gloomy as the night under which he has just performed. However, he does not look or sound disillusioned. He is, in fact, very proud to be one of the few live string puppeteers who keep the art going in the Kongu region, consisting parts of Erode, Coimbatore, Namakkal, Salem and Dharmapuri districts.
With deft finger movements, he makes the lifeless wooden puppets dance, sing, rage, weep and laugh. Whether it is a mournful dirge or a passionate paean of ecstasy, his masterly manipulations from behind the 10-foot-long and five-foot-high dark velvet spread infuse life into the richly dressed puppets. He inherited the puppets from his grandfather, ‘Mecheri’ Semmalai, and says he values them “more than his life”.
His grandfather, who had mastered all the three folk art forms, taught them to ‘Malaiyur’ Mambattiyan, a local Robin Hood. “If you miss a dialogue or skip a line or two of a song, grandfather would just throw a scornful stare which would make you squirm,” he recalls. With him on stage, mistakes would never occur, leave alone get repeated.
On that night in Pechanam village, he performed a seven-hour non-stop show on “Nallathangal”, a famous lore, with his sister Latha on the mridangam and niece Saroja and mother, Muthulakshmi, assisting him in other chores. His perfect voice modulations and full-throated singing, interspersed with the right rhetorical deliveries and background music, transported the audience into a fairy-tale world of kings and queens.
But this intricate and exquisite art, like therukoothu and thol pavai koothu, is on the decline today. The onslaught of television and cinema has almost decimated these “regal arts” of the past. The State government’s free distribution of colour television sets has hammered the proverbial last nail into the coffin of all traditional performing arts that have been part of life in Tamil Nadu and, which boast a rich history.
Loss of audience Television has usurped rural audience, which the traditional performing artists had carefully cultivated over the years. “Not in the too distant past, even after a day’s hard work, they came in droves to enjoy our shows. But today, almost every village in Tamil Nadu has a government-gifted colour TV. The villagers prefer to sit before these boxes for hours to watch family soaps of little creativity. We are waging a losing battle to retain our last bastion, the villages,” says Krishnan wryly.
Still, a core group of artists like him refuse to call it quits. The undiluted enthusiasm their tiny audience exhibits, they say, keeps them going. “They (viewers) weep when Abhimanyu falls and erupt in joy when Hanuman spots Sitha in Lanka,” says Krishnan. These art forms encourage interpersonal links between the viewer and the performer. “Besides, such theatrical arts come to you,” Krishnan points out.
Each art has a distinct disposition. While life has to be infused into puppetry shows, whether it is string or shadow, from behind the curtains, the performers in therukoothu appear before the audience in flesh and blood. The chemistry between the performer and the viewer in therukoothu is real and vibrant, forging a sort of bonding. The “lyrical dramatisation” and musical mysticism, no wonder, add lustre to this form, which is related to rituals.
Without any inhibition, people in the audience even allow the artists to poke fun at their habitual weaknesses, such as alcoholism, through satirical dialogues and anecdotes. Dialogues such as, “If you keep your mouth shut (for liquor), then the government will keep its TASMAC (liquor) shops shut,” draw peels of hearty laughter.
The folk forms have their roots in the classical Tamil art forms of “Isai” (music) and “Natakam” (drama). The crisis of confidence that has gripped them cannot be blamed only on the electronic media. The main complaint against their practitioners is that they retain archaic presentation styles and resist change.
Another accusation is that they promote vulgarity on the sly to stay alive. In fact, at a therukoothu recently at Neruppur village in Dharmapuri district staged by the troupe of the master puppeteer ‘Ammapet’ Ganesan, some villagers left the performance venue, called “kalari” (any common place in a village where the audience forms a circle around the performers), in a huff saying that the artists had indulged in obscene movements.
The 57-year-old Ganesan, a master in all the three forms, regretted the incident. The fifth generation artist says that roping in actors for performances such as therukoothu during peak festival season was extremely difficult. “On that day, we had to employ amateurs and they broke the barriers of decency,” he clarified.
A strong player of the mridangam, he dons lead roles, designs costumes and even makes the puppets. His leather puppet shows are huge draws in the districts of the Kongu region besides North Arcot and South Arcot, Chengleput and Tiruvallur, while his fellow artists in Madurai and down south, such as Lakshman Rao and Jayaram Rao, find the going tough.
Mu. Harikrishnan, who has been documenting these folk theatrical forms in the Kongu region besides running a school, “Kalari Koothupalli”, in Salem district to promote traditional art forms, says such isolated incidents should not be given credence. “These sublime art forms with their inherent values and traditions transcend time. At a time when they are gasping for survival, such accusations will cause serious injury to them,” points out Harikrishnan, a performing artist himself.
He endorses the views of Ganesan that it is difficult for the troupe managers to get professional artists during the festival season of Thai (month of harvest), Masi (month for folk deities such as Mariamman) and Panguni (month of festivities). He says traditional performances are facing a quality-deficit because of the paucity of professional artists. “However, we have been asking the performers not to indulge in or encourage any act of indecency,” he claims.
Folk artists in general, he says, languish in abject poverty. “Kannadia” Vathiyar, who was once a hero in his prime days in therukoothu, lives alone in a village manthai (common place). “Kombadipatti” Raju of Periya Seeragapadi village near Salem, who dons female characters with aplomb, has been nursing an injured hand for long without any support from anyone. Almost all artists have similar tales of poverty to tell. Many have fallen prey to alcoholism. “Since their income is irregular, many have migrated to other vocations to keep hunger at bay. The State must help them,” Harikrishnan says.
Can these traditional arts be responsive to changing times? “They must as they can no longer remain immune to change,” says R. Prabhakar of the Department of Tamil, American College, Madurai. The academician, who has been studying folk arts of different regions, insists that they need refinement since the talents of the traditional artists have not been properly channelised. “No need for any manipulation or tinkering, but the art has to be updated with its moorings in tradition. As in Karnataka and Kerala, the Tamil Nadu government should initiate measures to preserve the art forms, involving artists, policymakers and academicians,” he urges.
Resisting change But performers like Krishnan, who eke out a living from these art forms, resist any such move stubbornly. “Can Rama with a bow and arrow wear jeans and sport goggles?” Krishnan asks. These arts, he says, showcase the intricacies of life, its transcendental connection to the Cosmos and God, which the two great epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—convey.
Any attempt to tamper with them under the ruse of modernisation will result in a travesty of their pristine glory. “The humblest rural folks whom we serve will understand what we convey through our performances based on these two epics, which contain important ethical values,” he says. The artists are confident that these arts will survive as long as the Hindu tradition lives on. “The art has endured and survived for centuries since its soul has never been desecrated,” they say.
T.S. Murugan, son of “Kalaimamani” T.N. Sankaranathan, a leading performer of string puppetry in Kumbakonam, is not averse to the idea of “compromising occasionally”. “If you want to keep the art alive, you have to accept minor changes that do not violate the core principles. We have to cater to different audiences. We sometimes introduce a comedy track and even Tamil cinema numbers to our regular audiences, while for an elite one such as in mutts and sabhas, we include Sri Thiagaraya Swamigal’s ‘keerthanas’,” he says.
I. Muthiah, former Head of the Department of Folk Art in Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, accepts that these folk theatrical forms are living on a borrowed time. “String puppetry, a folk art mentioned in ancient Tamil literature, and leather puppetry, an import from Maharashtra, have few takers now. The survival chances for ‘therukoothu’ precariously hinges on village festivals, since it is a ritual-related theatrical art associated with Draupathi Amman worship,” he says.
Traditional artists, says K.A. Gunasekaran, Dean and Head of the School of Performing Arts, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, should be encouraged to convey social messages on issues such as women’s rights, the ills of drinking, the environment, untouchability, globalisation and domestic violence, since they strike a chord with villagers. “As in Kerala, the performing arts should be included in the educational syllabus. The Tamil Nadu government should revive the practice of staging a folk performance prior to any government function,” he says.
While researchers and academicians are burning midnight oil over the traditional art forms for their scholarly research pursuits, the art and its performers tread a treacherous path.
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