Down south, the raw drama that unfolds on Pongal, year after year, in the rustic setting of Thanjavur is all too familiar. As the swell of drumbeats captures the excitement in the air, a motley group of dancers in traditional attire break into a rhythmic dance symbolising their culture. As the performance hits a high note, the spectators are totally absorbed in the wild revelry, after all the Thappattam is a celebration of their identity.
Cut to the urban setting, awareness of the traditional folk art form is almost non-existent. This is where Jaya Rao steps in. Reviving lost art forms, including the Thudumbattam or the aesthetically appealing Devarattam, is all in a day’s work for the founder of Theatre Lab. The former teacher of the critically-acclaimed theatre group Koothu-p-pattarai has to his credit 150 stage performances and 300 street play productions.
Following his passion
Born in Thimmareddypalle in Andhra Pradesh, Rao always dreamt of using art to create a change in the lives of school dropouts. The starry eyed youngster took a detour to Chennai after completing BA in Music. Soon, he discovered the magical world of folk arts.
Tracing the origins
Rao’s interest in reviving traditional art forms won him many accolades, including the Junior Fellowship Award for folk percussions of South India from the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2001 and 2002.
As part of the fellowship, he travelled across the country to unravel the folk art forms of tribal groups. He reminisces about the captivating performance he witnessed in the hilly region near Sathyamangalam, Mysore.
“The tribals assembled at the camp fire and danced around it. They used instruments like the and jalra to add to the aesthetics. It was pure magic.”
Folk arts as therapy
Rao realised the possibilities of using folk arts to heal ailments and conceptualised ‘rhythm therapy’.
Every form of performing art is unique. While the poikal thurai, where the performer balances himself on a dummy horse, boosts confidence levels, the Thappattam helps the entertainer let go of inhibitions and live for the moment, he explains. Tapping into this concept of creative stress busting, Rao has worked with children with learning disabilities and hypertension to help them reduce their stress through dance movements.
Creating a forum to promote theatre
Theatre Lab was set up in 2005 and the group has been committed to the special children of Sankalp, Alpha to Omega Learning Centre and Maduram Narayanan Centre. “We believe in bringing out the real actor in the youngsters, we teach them to be original,” says Rao, who trains aspiring actors in martial arts and a host of acting techniques to prepare them for the reel world.
Rao says directing a film has been a lifelong ambition. So it comes as no surprise when the casting director of Om Obama, a film by ace director Janaki Vishwanathan, confides that he is setting the stage for a stage adaptation of Macbeth in May that will witness film artists don the enduring characters’ roles for the venture.