Some consider Droṇāchārya as a casteist due to his pervert behavior towards Ekalavya, the son of a Nishadha chief, who came to him for instruction. Droṇāchārya refused to train Ekalavya along with the kshatriya princes because Ekalavya was not a kshatriya prince but hailed from a lower caste.
Holding Droṇāchārya in high esteem as his virtual guru, Ekalavya made a clay idol of Droṇāchārya, and began his study of archery by himself in front of the idol. Through his steadfast determination and practice Ekalavya became a warrior of exceptional prowess and proclaimed that he was a pupil of Droṇāchārya.
But Droṇāchārya had a strong bias in favor of Arjuna, his favourite pupil and.had promised him that he would train him as the world’s greatest archer. So, to prevent Ekalavya from excelling Arjun, the perverted Droṇāchārya demanded that Ekalavya cut off the thumb of his right hand and offer it as Guru Dakshina (fee) for proclaiming that he, Droṇāchārya, was his teacher. Immediately, Ekalavya severed his thumb and offered it to Droṇāchārya, his evered guru though he was aware that by doing so, he would lose his prowess as an archer.
Ironically, the Indian Government now presents the Dronacharya Award for excellence in “Sports Coaching” in the name of Droṇāchārya, the biased casteist guru.
I arrived at the end of June in flurry of auto-rickshaws, an epic train journey and an all night Kattaikkuttu performance, just as the month of storytelling was about to begin at Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam. It began with the arrival of professional storyteller Craig Jenkins on the 5th of July on his forth pilgrimage to the school. The excitement and exhilaration of everyone at the school (not just the children) told me this was indeed a special visitor and this month would indeed be one to write about.
I had to admit to Craig that I never realised Storytelling was a profession and not only that but an intricate and important art form, which like dance, acting, writing or painting must come from the heart and with a passion for the meanings and truths behind what is being told or addressed.
There is a vast oral and written tradition of storytelling here in India and many Middle Eastern countries, a lot of which will now have been translated for the western world and so, will be familiar to many. For example, I’m sure most people will know of the Middle Eastern epic – One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) famously popularised and americanised by Disney. Perhaps their knowledge of the roots of Aladin or Ali Baba The Forty Thieves is a little vague however. What Craig brings to Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam is by all means not a westernised version of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, neither is it simply the beautiful oral tradition passed down to him through his much loved Guru Vayu Naidu; it is an exciting, enticing and educational experience through which he applies his successful mantra of taking old, traditional stories and bringing them into the contemporary. This allows students of all ages to deconstruct the stories they have heard their whole lives, look at them from a different angle, redesign their meanings and use them to examine contemporary issues such as gender and prejudice. This is complimented by learning new stories through which students can learn for themselves how to create, construct and perform these stories.
As I write this I realise how much I have already learnt about this art and I am excited to learn more. Our storytelling workshop ‘Mun Oru Kalattil,’ taking place at the end of this month will provide me with the perfect opportunity. It will be a truly educational and eye opening experience for everyone involved, whatever their profession or reason for attending.
However, learning about this art has made me wonder why we have lost the presence of this tradition in our own culture. Undoubtedly it is still there but I think its importance and meaning within society has been lost, especially in an educational sense. Perhaps I am wrong however and it is simply my own ignorance to the art which has denied me to see it in its full light and capacity back in my corner of the world. And with that thought, the will in me to learn more about storytelling and the stories which have been kept alive in India through this oral and written tradition, has grown all the stronger!
The art of Theru Koothu is handed down from one generation to the next. The performers hail from poor down trodden families of the lower echelon of society. They know no other trade. Theru Koothu is now virtually a dying art – dying because of the popularity of cinema, dying for want of patronage.
In earlier times these artists were held in high esteem for their artistry and talent. They entertained the village folk on invitation by the respective village elders. But nowadays they are a forgotten lot and perform during temple festivals in villages of their own accord and live on hand-outs.
This Tamil short film “Karna Motcham” directed by S. Murali Manohar is a real life depiction of a day in the life of a rural Theru Koothu (Street Play) artist who comes to a school in Chennai City to dance for the children at a function to be held there.
The emotions of disappointment, pain and anguish of the artist are well brought out by the actors, the director and in the dialogues written by S. Ramakrishnan.
This film has won more than 60 awards including National award by Government of India, Best short film awarded by Tamilnadu Government , Best Director award at the Canadian International Tamil Film Festival.
Not only species of animals are vanishing from the face of our earth, forms of folk art too. Today, in most regions of this world, many forms of folk art are no more a part of the ethnic tradition of the people. The present generation is not even aware that those forms of folk art did exist. One such ethnic folk art indigenous to India is the Street Play. It is now virtually a dying art. It is dying because of the popularity of cinema. It is dying for want of patronage.
In Tamilnadu, we call this folk art “Theru Koothu” (Tamil: தெருக்கூத்து). It is a folk theatre performed in the open mostly during temple festivals in the villages of Tamilnadu.
The art of Theru Koothu is handed down from one generation to the next. The performers hail from poor down trodden families of the lower level of society. They know no other trade. They travel as a troupe that include the actors, dancers, musicians, make-up artists, stage-decorators, cooks and sometimes a few family members. They are always on the move travelling from one village to another.
In earlier times these artists were held in high esteem for their artistry and talent. They entertained the village folk on invitation by the village elders. But today they are a forgotten lot and perform during temple festivals in villages of their own accord and live on handouts.
The Koothu (Tamil: கூத்து) or performance is held in an area about 16 feet long and 14 feet wide called ‘sabai’ (Tamil: சபை) meaning assembly or court.
In those good old days when there was no technology such as microphones and loudspeakers, the artists trained to sing at a high pitch to reach the entire crowd. There were not much dialogues and the artists enacted whole plays via singing with the accompanying musicians seated in the background on stage. Now, most of the Theru Koothu troupes have their own sound equipment or rent them for their performances; even then, the actors still sing spilling their guts out.
The musical instruments used include Harmonium, Mirudangam, Mugaveena, Kanjara and Thaala vaadyam.
The dress of the artists are a complex lot – wide colorful skirts, sparkling shoulder plates and elaborate wide head-dress, and of course thick bright heavy makeup.
All actors are males – even female characters are performed by males except in few instances.
They enacted mostly mythological stories already familiar to the villagers.. The themes are usually drawn from Mahabharata. Some popular items on the Theru Koothu repertoires include Harichandiran (Story of King Harischandra who never told an untruth), Draupathy Vastraparanam (Disrobing of Draupathy, the wife of the Pandavas), Karna Motcham (Defeat of Karna, the half-brother of Pandavas), Praghalada Charithram (Story of Praghalda), Bagiratha Prayathanam (Bagiratha’s efforts to bring River Ganges to Earth), etc.
Nowadays, students and activists perform Theru Koothu based on themes that create social awareness.
Koothu is performed mostly late in the evenings, after 8 pm. There are no entrance fees. No chairs provided for the audience except for the dignitaries, if there be any present at the venue. The public are at liberty to stand, sit, recline or choose whatever stance or manner in which they wish to see the play.
All the photographs I have used to augment this article were taken by my friend Balaji Maheshwar, a talented photographer. Below are some photographs of the artists and the members of a troupe caught by Balaji in their relaxed moments …