When we were children my paternal grandmother ‘Sellamma’ (Appamma) would love to take us to events in the close vicinity of ‘Puliyantheevu’ – the principal islet of the Batticaloa town, that amused and entertained us to say the least. She was a Universalist – nothing prevented her from attending any religious or cultural groups’ events – never compartmentalized nor restricted her views into narrow realms.
She lived up to the principles of Astronomer sage of the Sangam age, ‘Kanian Pungundranar’ – ‘To us, all towns are one, all men are our kin’. The verse, being inscribed in the UN Headquarters in New York, it’s a humble rejoinder on my grandmother’s simple philosophy of life. A woman of extreme warmth and accommodation with an ever-widened smile on a perfect round face.
Every other year, per my memory, at the very end of ‘Mudaliyar Street’ in Puliyantheevu, where it winds down before meeting the Batticaloa lagoon, elders from the area organize a folk-dance performance called ‘Naatukoothu’, that starts after dusk and continues throughout the night till the following early morning hours. Things were different 50 years ago – when there were no Wi-Fi, cell phones or satellite TV. Hence performances like these entertained the crowds who looked forward such annual extravaganzas with great anticipation.
My ‘Koothu’ memories are vivid like the luminous waters of the Batticaloa lagoon that contains phosphorus laced microorganisms, allowing it to glow in the night at a certain season. As kids, our carefree world was not only glowing over the waters; but glittering under the spell of the magical stars – both on the open sky, and at the elevated circular ‘Koothu’ stage surrounded by people. Among the crowd – straddling closer to our ‘Appamma’, lying comfortably on the bedsheets placed on the long-grass mats – we are in another world.
Ii would not be proper if I do not describe the background and the uniqueness of these folk-dance/theatre performances for the benefit of those outside the ‘Batticalonian’ world. ‘Naatukoothu’ performances, mostly drawing stories on the epics of ‘Ramayana’ & ‘Mahabharata’, are a staple in the temples and villages of Batticaloa, famous for their vast stretches of golden paddy fields. This highly coordinated dance drama is led and moderated by ‘Annaviyar’ the director, who also holds the rhythm with his ‘matthalam’ (drum) and at the same time sings and coordinates the tempo and spacing of the dance. All the actors are expected to sing and dance, moving in a circular motion, mostly through a three-word, half-sung introduction, that is repeated and extended in high pitch by a group of choristers called ‘Sabai’ standing next to the ‘Annaviyar’. ‘Annaviyar’ is also assisted by a person playing ‘Sallari’ (finger-cymbals) to smoothen timings, and the stage-prompter who has the written notebook of the play. The elevated circular stage (Vattak-kalari) on which the play is performed, is traditionally constructed for this sole purpose with a mixture of sea sand and the protective hull of rice. This allows the performers feet and legs, which are already bulged with pads of ankle bells, to move, dance and jump at ease for hours without friction that is standard on cement floors.
Sparklers were lit at the opening of the stage and event that was a star-highlight in our memories as children. Of course, that was not to amuse kids, but to appease the Gods for a rain free evening. I cannot imagine what would have happened to my uncle if it rained – who once performed the role of Krishna, the charioteer for Arjuna – heavily coated with blue dye to his entire body.
There we were, by the banks of Batticaloa lagoon, at its narrowest point separating the paddy fields of ‘Periya Kalam’ or Buffalo Island – the warm winds mixed with the gentle coolness of the lake skirting over our skin – the last golden rays of the setting sun quickly disappearing over the Western hinterland appropriately named ‘Padu Vaan Karai’(Sun setting side). The ‘Koothu’ depicting the story of ‘Ravanesan’ – the glorious king of Lanka is underway.
One of the feature that awestruck my little mind at that time was the circular stage that is without front screens or back-stage – more like the floor plan of a merry-go-round. The actors, mostly men, who also played the female characters, have to walk through the crowds to the stage, with their heavy costume, armory and jingling ankle bells, to the joyful hurrahs of friends and relatives. The spectators sat around the circular stage as they please, without the necessity of a preferred place, since the circular motion of the moving story provided an unobstructed equal view to all. This is something original to ‘Naatukoothu’ theatre that even the Roman amphitheaters nor the Shakespearean playhouses cannot vie.
Batticaloanians could easily be traced as farmers in their anthropological make up – paddy touching their lives one way or other. My father, like many others in the town, had a full-time job – but a part time farmer, employing a caretaker to look after the paddy fields in the hinterland. I could remember the sons of the caretaker coming in search of my mother’s heavily lined silk sarees they could borrow, to be worn for their dynastical roles in the ‘Naatukoothu’ theatre. Our house being barely a few hundred yards from the lagoon – in the night time while halfway asleep – I could hear the half-sung lyrics to the beat of the ‘Matthalam’ drum, carried over by the winds from the surrounding villages, as part of the months long practice sessions. The time between the harvest season and the following sowing season, is the spare time farmers have, to indulge in music and dance by celebrating ‘koothu’ theatre.
The ‘Matthalam’ drums in many respects are unique and central to the Tamil ‘Koothu’ theatre, differing in many ways from the music traditions of South India – but interestingly with many similarities to the traditional Sinhala drumming of both the Kandyan and low country genre. The Indian ‘Miruthangam’ though similar in its raised middle and tapered ends, it differs from the Batticaloa ‘Matthalam’ and Sinhala ‘Gata bera’ and ‘Yak bera’ by its rim placed at the top as opposed to lower for the others. The Batticaloa and Sinhala drums are struck with the palm, hitting hard with outstretched arms, as opposed to fingers in Carnatic ‘Mirithangam’ drumming. Beat cycles are avoided for the Batticaloa and Sinhala drums, and the space between drum strokes are not determined by South Indian ‘Talam’, rather by two-way language flow, through timely repeat of sentences.
Few hundred yards South East to the winding down of ‘Mudaliyar’ street, there are two Amman (Goddess) temples by the lagoon, well known for their annual ‘fire walking’ ceremonies. Not to miss the grandeur feat, our grandmother took us to the annual event, making sure that we are not anywhere closer, but to be amidst the spectacle of a festive spirit. Central to the occasion and to the weekly ceremonies at the temples, are the beats originated from drums called ‘Parai Melam’, which is also used in funerals. They are cylindrical with two drum heads (Jaffna one slightly larger), one side played with a stick while the other with the hand. The Tamil Nadu ‘Parai Melam’ differs entirely as it is circular and thin. Interestingly the ‘Parai Melam’ used in Batticaloa and Jaffna is almost the same as the ‘Davula’ drum used in Buddhist ceremonies all over the Island.
The pattern we observe here is an exchange of cultural ethos between the two communities of the Island, which is not necessarily resembling the versions and governing principles of South Indian genre. The influence and power that we imagine on the extension of South Indian cultural diffusion across the Palk straits, could not overcome this natural cross-pollination. The distinctiveness of the Island drumming that is different from the standards of South Indian ‘Mirithangam’ or ‘Thavil’ (played in Sankritic temples) is not a position of quandary – rather natural and organic.
Both, the Portuguese and the Dutch trekked to the Capital of the Kandyan kingdom through the jungle routes from Batticaloa, whose chieftains were reporting to the Kandyan King at that time. One of the most revered pilgrimage sites in the Island is the ‘Kataragama Skanda’ temple complex – which is situated between the Southern tip of greater Batticaloa region and the Sinhala Down-South. Such geographical overlays and interactions would have enhanced the exchange of cultural tools, thereby creating distinctive Island identity.
There are those who play tango with the unmixed ancestry driven cultural supremacy theories, in order to procure political endowment through nationalistic segregation. Ironically, greater cultures are always open, robust and active – not static and uniform. The survival and enrichment comes from mixing, borrowing and incubating cultural franchises. The interaction and exchange of cultural tools between two different, but neighboring administrative regions admit this streamlining – despite the opportunistic arguments of chicken and egg – and the powerful amalgamation overtures by Indian Carnatic and Hindustani raga blizzard.
My grandmother must be laughing from somewhere at all this – she is the one who introduced the 3rd course of our sit-down Saturday gastronomy on the folded lunch mat (Panthip-Pai) in her verandah – rice mixed with buffalo curd, sugar, salt and ripened bananas. I am sure she would have regretted the absence of ‘down-South’ kithul syrup to the dessert melee.