The two-room anganwadi near Kattankulathur, on the outskirts of Chennai, is brimming with excitement. Young boys and girls wait for the characters of the Mahabharata to come alive before them. Soon, P. Thilagavathi, a young woman playing the character of Draupadi, appears on stage. Her eyes display a range of emotions—valour, hatred, love, grief and despair—as Draupadi disguises herself as a tribal woman and walks into Duryodhana’s palace to stop him from conducting the funeral rites of the Pandavas. If he succeeds, they can never capture power. Her voice and expressions cursing Duryodhana make the audience feel as if the real Draupadi had come down to their village. As Thilagavathi leaves the stage, the audience stays captivated.
She reappears a few minutes later, speaking to the children about the dangers of sexual harassment and how to differentiate between a good touch and a bad touch. The children listen in rapt attention as she tells them how to handle a stranger or even a close relative who misbehaves.
A dark, thin woman of 25, Thilagavathi, or Thilaga as she is popularly known, is a kattai koothu dancer and social worker. A class 10 dropout, she belongs to a backward village called Seemalam in Kanchipuram, and her compositions are inspired by women and children and the difficulties they face. In the last six years, she has visited more than 100 schools and slums to meet the poor and disadvantaged children and has taught them about cleanliness and hygiene. Her primary concern, however, has been preventing sexual abuse of children.
Thilaga learned kattai koothu from her father, Palani Pandu. Every night, Palani and his four brothers would set out with big bags of makeup sets and colourful costumes to narrate the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in nearby villages. As the cast for kattai koothu was entirely male, Thilaga was not allowed to learn the art and perform it. However, when Palani learnt about her dream of mastering kattai koothu, he took her wherever he went to perform. But her joy was short-lived as she had to stop performing once she hit puberty. She was forced to stay back because of social pressure.
It was a period of agony for her. She would cry seeing her father and uncles go out to perform every night. Once they returned, she would touch and feel the kattaisamaan (wooden ornaments for kattai koothu). After a while, Thilaga managed to persuade Palani and her mother, Parimala, to let her perform again. “My relatives and neighbours had always bad mouthed my parents for letting me perform koothu. But my parents had confidence in me. They believed that I would bring them respect.”
Thilaga later joined the kattai koothu gurukulam run by P. Rajagopal, a renowned koothu actor, director, teacher and scriptwriter. She spent eight years learning the nuances of kattai koothu from him. Thilaga now works for WindDancer Trust, an organisation launched by classical dancer Sangeeta Iswaran, which specialises in teaching children through folk arts. She is also part of an all-woman troupe called Sri Krishna Kattai Koothu Kuzhu.
Apart from regular students, Thilaga works with differently-abled children, too. “It is not easy to get along with them. The autistic children are always a challenge,” she says. Once at a special school in Chennai, one child hit her and another came limping to kiss her. But now, the 40 children at that school know what happiness is and what sorrow means. “They now know when to laugh and when to cry. They have learnt facial expressions through koothu,” says Thilaga. “I feel very satisfied that koothu has helped transform the lives of these children.”
Along with her colleagues at WindDancer, Thilaga has created several compositions and has choreographed street plays to give voice to the underprivileged, especially street children and sex workers. In August, during the 365th Madras Day celebrations, which commemorate the founding of the city, she spent three days dancing in an open lorry, recreating the history of old Madras.
With WindDancer, Thilaga has taken kattai koothu to France, Malaysia, the UAE and the United States. Once at Paris airport, customs officers mistook her makeup powder for drugs. “They did not understand what I said. I opened the makeup kit, mixed it with water and applied it on my face,” she says.
Although Thilaga is famous for playing the role of Draupadi, the character she loves the most is Duryodhana. “This character has all the energy,” says Thilaga, who is now the sole breadwinner of the family. She has married off one of her younger sisters and supports the schooling of two others. Money, however, remains a problem. “Earning is less, yearning is more,” she says. She spends her salary on her aged parents, who live in the village, and meets her own expenses in Chennai with Rs.2,000 that she earns every week from performances in the villages. But her earnings fluctuate, especially in the lean months from November to January, which makes it difficult for her.
Thilaga feels that urban audience looks down upon kattai koothu, as they feel it is a street play, which is more suited to villages. To change this perception, she plans to take it to stages across the country, hoping to surpass what her guru Rajagopal has achieved over the years.
Kattai koothu is a traditional folk art of Tamil Nadu, like Kerala’s kathakali. However, unlike in kathakali, kattai koothu artists sing as well. Kattai koothu is believed to have originated in northern Tamil Nadu, several centuries ago. Performed like a street play during Hindu festivals or at the time of a death or a birth in a family, kattai koothu is usually sponsored by an entire village or a particular family in the village. Performances usually start by 10pm and will go on till morning. There is no elevated stage or dais, and the artists usually perform on the mud floor in front of the temple or an open space in the village. Kattai koothu is all about facial expressions, as much as it is about the songs, the drumbeats, the makeup and the costumes. The name kattai koothu comes from the wooden ornaments worn by major male characters, such as kings, gods and demons. These ornaments represent the heroic qualities, power and royal status of the characters. Head, shoulder and breast ornaments are made of wood and inlaid with mirrors or decorated with coloured paper. These ornaments and the elaborate makeup that goes with them distinguish kattai koothu from other theatre genres popular in Tamil Nadu.