CHENNAI:“I don’t mind dying while doing what I love the most — Kattai Koothu and performing,” says J Rajesh, founder of Angala Parameshwari Nadaga Sabha, a drama troupe from Veedur, Tindivanam. Despite being diagnosed with jaundice, the 33-year-old recently headed an 18-member ensemble to perform as part of Draupadi Amman Temple’s (Teynampet) 10-day festival. “Before I came here from our village, I had high fever. But, it’s very common for us (artists) to perform while we are sick. I thought I will become alright and headed to Chennai to enact the Mahabharatha at Draupadi Amman temple. We do this in different places across Tamil Nadu,” he says.
But things took a dramatic turn once Rajesh landed in Chennai and his health deteriorated. “I was extremely sick and got admitted in the Royapetta Government hospital. I had jaundice and a scare for a possible cardiac arrest. I was asked to get admitted for three days, with a note to take complete bed rest. But how could I? I had to play my part,” says Rajesh who enacted the role of Karna, one of the central characters in the epic. “There was no one else to play my part and I had to head my group. It would be a loss to my crew and a disappointment to the audience if we didn’t perform. So, I rested for an hour and headed to the venue,” he shares.
Though dehydration, the scorching heat and medication momentarily got the better of Rajesh, once he began getting dressed for the role, he says he felt a change. “I wasn’t allowed to get out of the hospital. But, I convinced them to let me go. This is our livelihood and I can’t afford to let anyone down. I rushed to the venue, relaxed for a bit and started getting ready. I even threw up a couple of times while getting ready and again once right before the screen went up. But, all I had to do was start performing the role and I knew everything would be alright. That’s exactly what I did,” he says. Rajesh performed for seven hours, through the night until dawn. “I managed to pull it off every day. My love for the art that kept me going,” he smiles.
It came as a surprise to us when he mentioned that he was the first generation Kattai Koothu artist in his family. “Looking at my love for the art, people think that it’s in my blood. But, that’s not so. Thirteen years ago a troupe enacted Mahabharatha in the koothu format in our village. That sparked my interest in the art and I learnt it from Veedur Selvaraj, another senior koothu artist,” he shares.
He travels across the state and performs close to 170 shows a year. “We perform in Draupadi Amman temples across the state, different temple festivals and even during death ceremonies. We perform specific parts like Karnan moksham from Mahabharatha or Vali moksham from Ramayana during such ceremonies,” he explains.
With traditional art forms like koothu enjoying a renaissance, we ask Rajesh if he feels the same way. “There is awareness, people enjoy watching it. But, there’s only one problem…people don’t want to put in the effort to learn the art. If they do, it will flourish. I am ready to teach people if they are willing to learn,” he adds.