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Keeping Therukoothu Alive

In this issue of NeoNarthaki, we interview P. Thilakavathi, a proponent of the traditional form of street theatre in Tamil Nadu known as ‘Therukoothu’. Thilakavathi talks about her journey with Therukoothu, the challenges she deals with and the future of the art form.

What inspired you to pursue Therukoothu and what is unique about it?

My entire family follows Thennattu Naariyur Koothu, which is a different paramparai compared to Therukoothu or Kattaikoothu. My guru is P. Rajagopal, with whom my uncle Munnusami Aiyya directed a play, in which there was an episode called ‘Pagadai Thookkil’ based on the Mahabharata. I was involved in this episode for the first time, which gave me the opportunity to present this in front of my guru.

At this point, my guru mentioned that they were going to start a Kattaikoothu residency programme (gurukulam) and that those interested could join. I enrolled myself with no particular interest in the art form. However, after I graduated I realized that I was a natural at it. There were many instances when I was asked to replace my guru to teach the students, and I found the art form to be interesting. Many of the other girls who learned with me discontinued. And then it struck me: why couldn’t I be the first female Kattaikoothu artiste? That prompted me to take this up more seriously. I worked harder and today I am the first female Kattaikoothu artiste. Kattaikoothu has been a male-dominated space, however, today many women have taken it up which makes it unique.

What are the two top challenges you face as a Therukoothu practitioner?

My main challenge was the social mindset, including family and relatives. It also took time for good teachers to accept me as their student, since they believed that a girl couldn’t learn Kattaikoothu. Having said this, I’ve never found it difficult to perform onstage or face an audience. Even if I am sick, the moment I enter the green room, I feel energized. I am as energetic as ever and am working hard for my art form. However, it continues to be mentally strenuous even today.

Can you talk about any collaborations you’ve done with another art form? What kind of collaborations were they?

I have explored many collaborations with Bharatanatyam as a dance form. My mentor, teacher and well- wisher Ms Sangeetha Eswaran encouraged me to try and bring together Kattaikoothu and Bharatanatyam. I have been working with her in this regard for the past 12 years. I have also tied up with some contemporary dancers and have performed with an artiste troupe called ‘Marappachi’. I have done as much as I can to explore the art form in different ways.

Are there any efforts from the government or private entities to preserve the art form?

At present, there is none from either but I am hopeful and confident that the generations to come will be more educated and more interested in taking this art form forward.

What do you think is the future of Therukoothu? Is the younger generation taking it on?

I am hopeful that the future generations will take Therukoothu forward. We are training many students with this in mind. However, I feel that the art will stay on, but not the artistes. With social media, the art form can easily be documented. There is a tendency to watch these over and over again, and as a result, new artistes may not emerge. This is a fear that I have .

How do you think the arts industry can collectively support or promote the work of Therukoothu artists?

The arts industry so far has been more involved with the classical art forms prevalent in urban areas. Koothu and other naattupura kalaigal (folk art forms) are restricted to rural areas. However, the scene is slowly changing now with more urban and rural art forms coming together for performances. Keeping this in mind, I feel even Koothu will find its place very soon.


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