Tamilnadu is one of the economic heavyweight states of India. A state composed basically of a fusion of different Tamil speaking tribes and civilisations, Tamilnadu possesses cultural and historical value that is both undeniably rich, and gloriously ancient. While newer, more violent traditions have crept into its culture over the centuries, it behoves us to bear in mind that the Tamils were historically a highly cultured and civilised people, with the arts playing a major role in society and education.
Dr. Nanditha Krishna takes us on a wondrous 4-part study of the various forms of folk theatre – or koothu – that have graced the land over the past millennia.
The folk theatre of Tamilnadu is of ancient origin, and references to it are found in the ancient Tamil classic Silappadhikaram, which contains vivid descriptions of the stage, decor, costumes, jewellery, and actors. All rural festivals had dance as their dominant feature, especially the sokkakoothu type. This This was equal to the suddha nritta, which is devoid of music, song, and mime, and is always performed to the beat of percussion instruments. According to Bharatha’s Naatya Shastra, the bhutas loved the sokkakuthu, consisting of wild shrieks, cries of anguish, ecstasy, and joy, which made up a primeval type of dance.
This koothu exists either in its original form or in slightly modified versions in most of the states of South India.
Karnakoothu is another type of dance performed with bent body and contracted limbs. The ariyakkothu of the Tamils is similar to the dommarata of Andhra Pradesh. There are references to chakkaikoothu in Tamil texts. The Chakkiyar community performs koothus by narrating stories laced with wit and humour.
There are two types of koothus: the prabandham and the purushaartham. Epics are narrated in the former type and are performed at koothambalam (literally, the theatre for dance), which forms part of the temple complex. It explains the leelas of Chokkar or Shiva. Kaniyan koothu is a one-act play performed by male and female clowns and consists of descriptive folk songs. It is played during temple festivals.
In the next part of the series, we take an in-depth look at the most ancient form of folk theatre known to man, the therukoothu.