BENGALURU: Bengalurean Sarita Sundar is documenting a performance art of north Kerala’s Valuvanad region. “Poothan Thira is traditionally performed by the Mannan community during ‘poorams’ – the temple festivals of north Trissur, Palakkad and southern Malapuram districts,” says the graphic artist and researcher, who has won a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts. “Poothan, is said to be the lieutenant of Shiva sent by him to assist Bhagwadi to fight Darika, and Thira, is the Goddess Kali (Bhagawathi) herself. They are said to cleanse the village of evil spirits during the festival season,” she says.
As part of the project, Sarita will delve into the objects associated with the art form. “Seemingly ordinary objects would also be looked into,” she says, “any that spark conversation... from the ubiquitous flower that is used in garlands, to the flag that goes up to mark the beginning of the festival.”
Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you choose Poothan Thira?
I am from Valuvanad and as child was never allowed to go see the performances during the festivals – they were noisy spaces where there was no barrier between audiences and performers. But I was always drawn to the almost pagan like rhythm in the music and dance of the rituals and the mysterious symbologies associated with the objects and motifs. Later, I became curious when I saw a shift in the agency that these performances had: from a means to maintain social differences in feudal societies, today these events use culture and art as tools to opposing ends as well – to break free of caste structures. My interest was also sparked because, while they are relatively unknown outside their rural milieu, they have considerable localised patronage.
How have changes in venues and audiences influenced the art form?
While traditionally these rituals were performed at the local temple grounds, today, they are performed through the year at cultural events and on stage. Earlier they got angeekaranam (acceptance) from the kshetram (temple), now they get it from janangal (people). As P Vasudevan, one of the performers says, “Earlier, we barely survived because of it, now we see that it can actually provide livelihood.” The Poothan has changed from a bhayanakam, or scary character to a hasyam, or comical one. The Thira performers in turn are now more acrobatic in their performances in order to attract audiences.
Is the Thira dying or seeing a revival?
I can definitely see a revival in pockets – not across all family groups, but some. Practitioners like P Vasudevan, the founder of a school in Palghat District trains young members of the community and has been successful in taking performances outside traditional milieus. There is a sense of achievement of crossing caste and class barriers, pride that audiences come to watch because of the virtuosity of the art form.
Vasudevan told me: “Post 1951, things have changed for us, people of all castes and religions come nowadays to watch the performances. When I was a child, the community was not allowed into the courtyards of higher caste houses and it was only on the days we received offerings of grain from patrons that our family ate well.” There may be some small support from governmental agencies – but I believe it is the success that the performers will have in evolving their anushtanam (tradition) as kala (art) within their local spaces, that will ensure their sustainability.