Koothu Padukalam: theatre alive

Padukalam is a ‘battlefield’ and is associated with the tradi-tional Mahabharata Koothu. It is theatre alive – played out in the streets of the village. What is remarkable about Padukalam is how the story of the Mahabharata moves beyond the epic and becomes a ritual and a social event in the villages of North Arcot in Tamil Nadu.

“It is a synthesis of space, time and ritual, and is relevant to all times. It aspires to remain alive and exciting.” “It glows with a spirit of antiquity, yet it is modern,” is what some of the participants of Padukalam have to say. They have grown up with it season after season. Nagarajan and Ramesh who work in Chennai say, “We somehow manage to get leave to come home during the Padukalam.” This ritualistic village Koothu is in their bloodstream.

The massiveness and the complexity of it all is really daunting as Alf Hiltebeitel says in his book The Cult of Draupadi. Terukoothu, according to him, is the Sanskrit text of Mahabharata interpreted through the centrality of goddess Draupadi, taken from the village goddess cults and recast in the Tamil epic tradition, thus bringing Kurukshetra into the open fields of Tondaimandalam area of Tamil country.

The copper plates of king Parameswaramavarman I (670 - 700 AD) record that one share of the donation to a local village assembly hall or mandapam was meant for the reading of the Bharatam. During the reign of Nandivarman Pallava III (846 - 69) a Tamil rendition of the Bharatam was composed by Peruntevarnar. Villiputturar’s Makaparatam is said to be composed in the late 14th century.

Every night, different episodes of the Mahabharata are staged, while several rituals connected to the story are performed by the villagers during the day. Every evening, there is a recitation of the story in kathakalakshepam style with interpretations. At the break of dawn after the tenth night, at the junction where Bheema and Duryodhana stand face to face for the final battle, Krishna enters to announce that the battle ought to be shifted to a sanctified space. Padukalam is performed on the final day of the ten-day Bharata koothu.

A statue of Aravan (son of Arjuna and the Naga princess Ulupi) is installed ritualistically at the Padukalam to witness the various episodes of the Mahabharata and the final act of the Bheema-Duryodhana fight. In the Sanskrit Mahabharata, Aravan is killed in battle. In the Tamil Bharatam, however, Aravan’s sacrifice is a major event. According to the story, it is decided that Aravan would be sacrificed before the Kurukshetra war to pray for success. Fearless Aravan prepares himself for the sacrifice and asks for three boons. He wishes to be married before being sacrificed, to be slain by a great hero, and wants to witness the Kurukshetra war. As none would come forward to offer his daughter in marriage to a man about to die, the story goes that Krishna becomes Mohini and marries Aravan for one night. Aravan watches the war with a detached head. Aravankadabali is a major drama in the Bharatam.

The final act takes place on the eleventh morning of the Bharata-koothu-vizha simply called “Bharatham”. At a time fixed by the village elders, Koothu actors selected by them begin to dance to the rhythm of the parai drum. The ritual of Padukalam begins. Bheema and Duryodhana put up a fight through the streets – and the entire village becomes the battlefield of Kurukshetra. A thick rope is held between the opponents to prevent any untoward incidents when the actors get immersed in their assumed characters and get caught in the fury of battle. It is interesting to watch how the actors convert the dividing rope into a theatrical device. The rope facilitates the intensity of anger of the two actors who enter the Padukalam area. A giant statue of Duryodhana made of mud by the villagers lies in the open in front of the Draupadi Amman temple for decades. The figure is decorated for the occasion and an earthen pot with blood red water is embedded in its right thigh. The two actors chase each other around it and as a final act, Bheema strikes his mace on the earthen pot. The actor depicting Duryodhana writhes in pain and the battle is over. The blood red water is taken to smear the hair of the idol of Draupadi in the temple. The hair of the actor playing the role of Draupadi is knotted at the same time.

A woman dressed in a black saree enters the arena to mourn the death of Duryodhana. She laments not only his death but also his misdeeds which had caused this devastation, as a warning to the people. The women of the village who are watching the act, make a comedy of her wailing and beat their chests. The rejoicing and the mourning at the death of Duryodhana are depicted simultaneously through this theatricality that involves the actor and the onlookers.

Some villagers who had been observing the austerities perform the death rituals for Duryodhana as they would for a member of their own family. They wear clothes soaked in turmeric water and sit in small trenches dug around the Duryodhana statue. Turmeric water is splashed on them gently with neem leaves. Fire-walking and other rituals connected with it are also part of many a Padukalam.

The theatre of Mahabharata thus becomes a source of radical spectator energy. It is the faith and exuberance of the spectator – who is also a participant – that makes Padukalam a “theatre alive”.

(The author is a cultural activist, critic, and Founder - Managing Trustee, Aseema Trust)