Holding two wooden rods known as the veesu kol, Subbu Arumugam, the main storyteller, touched the string of the villu (bow) attached to an earthen pot. Bronze bells hang from the bow, producing music that added to the story — Seetha Kalyanam. Accompanying him on the udukku, kudam, kattai, thala, pattu, tabla and harmonium, his six-member ensemble created magic during the Varnakalanjiyam (Ramayana Festival) presented by Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Subbu Arumugam, whose name is synonymous with the art of Villupattu, grabbed the attention of patrons with his body language. “I’m going to narrate the story of Ram who held the bow, with this bow song,” he said, and began the show.
“Growing up in Tirunelveli, a place where Villupattu was our bread and butter, I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” he shared.
From welcoming the audience to describing the scenes of the pre-historic Ramayana and appearance of the characters, he had the audience in splits, and also made them think with his subtle sense of humour. After completing a line of the song, the person on the Udukku, S Gandhi repeats the last phrase and acknowledges it with an aama (yes) to what the chief storyteller says.
Through lectures, demonstrations and workshops, the folk music form is popularised around the world. T Kalaimagan, grandson of Subbu Arumugam, said, “I have been performing with him from the age of eight and have performed at over 2,500 concerts. Carrying the family lineage forward is a huge responsibility. A Villupattu artist needs to multitask, and that’s what he has taught us.”
Writing his own script, composing music and creating an impactful message that reaches out to the audience is what he focuses on. “It is not about writing and reading it on stage. Doing research on the topic, rehearsing and creativity is important. I do extensive research about all topics I present on stage,” said Subbu.
Bharathi Thirumagan, daughter of the 87-year-old artist, said they were the first to use the harmonium in Villupattu. “We wanted to keep the original form intact but add new features. That’s when I started playing the harmonium for shruthi,” shared the self-taught harmonium artist.
The fascinating mixture of music, storytelling, drama and poetry is interweaved with daily activities. “The language Tamil in its three aspects — eyal (prose), isai (music) and natakam (drama) is inbuilt in my art and it is the mother of all storytelling arts,” added Subbu, who has over 10,000 shows to his credit. A hardcore Gandhian, he ended his act with a ‘Jai Hind’ and concluded the Seetha Kalyanam villupattu performance to a thunderous applause.