The day has ended for some but is only beginning for others in a village near Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. It’s time for a Koothu performance.

The clowns are the first to arrive, each one spinning like a top and circling the stage. “We the clowns welcome you all,” says one of them. “Students of Punjarasanthangal Kattaikuttu Gurukulam will now perform the play Kuravanci. Here is king Duryodhana’s court.”

Artists dressed as kings, gods and sages recreate stories from the Hindu epics, mostly from the Mahabharata, in Koothu, the performance tradition that is immensely popular in rural Tamil Nadu. The music is live and is conducted backstage. Sandhya Kumar’s documentary Koothu, which will be screened at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame festival (September 13-19) in New Delhi, examines this living tradition by recording performances and conducting extensive interviews with practitioners of the art.

Koothu, also known as Therukoothu (theatre of the street) or Kattaikuttu (theatre of wooden ornaments), is thought to be fading out, but that is not the case, Kumar said. “A lot of people in urban circles think of it as a dying folk art, but this is an art form that is very alive in the villages,” she told Scroll.in. “That’s why a lot of parents like to send their children to these schools, because you’re actually getting a lot of money during festivals, close to 100-150 performances because every other night you are performing.”

Koothu was traditionally required to be practised by marginalised castes to appease the local village goddess, Kumar explains in the film. Interviews with two Koothu masters help unearth the art form’s evolution. The first is Kattaikuttu artist and teacher P Rajagopal who, along with his wife and scholar Hanne M De Bruin, runs the Kataikuttu Gurukulam in Kanchipuram. The gurukulam represents among the first attempts to institutionalise the art form and offer academic studies on its antecedents and present.

The other Koothu master is Sambandan Thambiran, the son of veteran Therukoothu artist Kannappa Thambiran. Sambandan Thambiran heads the Kannappa Thambiran Parambarai Therukoothu Manram in Purisai.

Kumar talks to each of these practitioners and their students and closely watches their rehearsals and performances. She pieces together the story of Koothu, its aesthetics and the politics of caste and gender surrounding the tradition.

A Film and Communications graduate from the San Francisco Art Institute and Jamia Millia University, Kumar first heard about Koothu from Hanne M De Bruin at a workshop in New Delhi in 2010. “She told us fascinating stories about her school at this arts management workshop we were attending,” Kumar said. “She also spoke about the difficulties they faced with regard to fund-raising and sustainability. Hanne and I became friends, and it was she who suggested that it would be nice to make a film about Koothu, to spread the word about it outside Tamil Nadu.”

Kumar did not take up Bruin’s suggestion immediately, but in 2015, she found herself drawn to the idea again when she attended a performance by children from Bruin’s school in Bengaluru. “Their performance really blew my mind,” Kumar said. “It was in Tamil, which I don’t follow too well and most people in the audience were like me, but the performance was so entertaining and captivating.”

The other aspect that drew her towards the performance was the background of the performers. “My eyes kept going towards a lady in the audience who wouldn’t stop laughing during the performance,” Kumar said. “She was thoroughly enjoying it. Later, when I went to meet Hanne and Rajagopal after the performance, she was also there to thank them. That’s when I learnt that she is the mother of one of children in the troupe. She is originally from Kanchipuram and works as a domestic help in Bengaluru. Caste – and we’ve tried to tackle this in the film as well – is very entrenched into this art.”

Koothu (2018). Courtesy PSBT.
Koothu (2018). Courtesy PSBT.

Kumar’s associate director Justin McCarthy, a professor at Ashoka University, gave the final push. Kumar and McCarthy collaborated on the film O Friend This Waiting which won the National Award for Best Arts/Cultural Film in 2012. “He said we should make a film about Koothu because there is very little information about regional folk arts in India,” Kumar said. “He spoke about how even in classrooms, the classical arts take over the representation of arts in India.”

Once Kumar got a grant from PSBT, she first spent a couple of months reading Bruin’s book Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Theatre Tradition. Bruin came to India to study Kattaikuttu as a PhD student from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. She met Rajagopal during the research for her thesis and married him a year after she got her doctorate. Together, they set up the gurukulam.

It was in Bruin’s book that Kumar first came across Kannappa Thambiran’s troupe. As she continued with her research, she realised that here was a group that was well-travelled and well-known. “I figured that they were clearly this other star group,” Kumar said. “And when I met them, I realised how terrific they are as performers. Thambiran is also someone, as you see in the film, who has adapted a wide variety of texts for Koothu, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Old Man with Enormous Wings to plays by Bertolt Brecht.”

Kumar follows the stories of both troupes in her documentary. Koothu, we realise, is perceived in a variety of ways – as art, entertainment, education and street entertainment.

Kumar’s main effort was to create an archive of the art form, but “not with an exoticised lens”. One of her challenges was in getting her interviewees to open up to her. “The children at the Kattaikuttu gurukulam have a lot of exposure,” Kumar said. “When we were there, there were three European countries working with them. In the other school, especially with students of Sambandan Thambiran, it was difficult to get them to talk.”

Another goal was to get her subjects to reflect on the caste and gender politics of Koothu. Rajagopal’s school is the only institution that encourages women to perform Koothu. In the film, Kumar gets Bruin to step in with a few insights.

Koothu (2018). Courtesy PSBT.
Koothu (2018). Courtesy PSBT.

The plays are not only a source of entertainment for the community, but are also performed as an offering to the deity Amman. “Every show that Rajagopal and Hanne do, they get Rs 30,000, which is collected from the village,” Kumar said. “Villagers willingly contribute because they want to please the goddess. The marginalised castes are considered people par excellence to handle the dangerous side of Amman. Things can get quite out of hand with the deity, it is believed. That’s how these castes get the sanctity to perform.”

Caste plays a role in other ways too. Rajagopal belongs to the Vanniyars, a Kshatriya sub-caste. “Since the characters in the Mahabharata are of the valiant kind, the Vanniyars feel it is their responsibility to perform those roles,” Kumar pointed out.

Koothu suffers from another human-made hierarchy, one that positions it below the classical arts. Kumar tackles this in the film by filming a collaborative performance between Carnatic singer TM Krishna and Rajagopal’s group. What is art, Krishna asks Rajagopal. “Art is labour,” Rajagopal beautifully sings.