This grant supports the making of a two-part film on the Draupadi Amman Mahabharata Koothu festival that is celebrated in around 200 villages in Tamil Nadu every year. The film will look at this festival through two groups of custodians of the festival: one, oral historians, theatre people and storytellers and two, the villagers themselves who sponsor and participate in the festival. The film will also trace how this festival has sustained the notion of civil society for over 800 years in the villages where it takes place and how the identities become fluid during the festival, when the entire village is transformed into a performance space and every villager becomes an actor.
Sashikanth was trained as a cinematographer at the Film and Television Institute in the early 1980s and has worked on more than 100 documentary films and seven feature films in Kolkata, before moving to his hometown Chennai. In Chennai he worked as a cinematographer and also started directing films. He has shot sevetal films on the agrarian theatre form of Therukoothu over the past ten years, but it was when he was the cinematographer for a documentary on Purisai Kannappa Thambiran, a senior guru of Therukoothu, that his obsession with the Draupadi Amman festival began. He says, “The film was shot during the Draupadi Amman Mahabharata Koothu festival in Purisai and that was my first encounter with this festival. The festival intrigued me and I started collecting material both on the tradition as well as the form itself.” This obsession also led him to Richard Frasca’s dissertation titled Therukoothu, Alf Hiltebeitel’s work on The Cult of Draupadi, Isabelle Nabakov’s Religion against Self and finally to Koothu-p- pattarai, a theatre group in Chennai, which he says inspired him to work with “elements from this theatre tradition”.
The first part of this documentary film will be called The Ballad of Draupadi, where the mythology of the cult and the history of the region will be explored as Draupadi sings the Mahabharata. As a dramatic device, Sashikanth will stage the Koothu play Draupadi Kuravanchi (Draupadi the Flower Seller) at the Senji fort. Sashikanth says, “I will be staging the play against the majestic landscape of the fort, traditionally understood as the origin of the cult of Draupadi... against this history I will juxtapose the local legends, traveller’s impressions and the recorded history of the region.”
For the second part of the diptych, called Kelai Draupadi, he will go back to the village for an elaborate documentation of the festival, where the villagers recite, perform and live the myth of the Mahabharata for the duration of the festival. The notion of identity and disguise is a major theme of the festival and in all the rituals performed in the village. The entire village’s identity is subsumed by the Mahabharata for 20 days and the village itself takes on various identities—as the lacquer palace, the Brahmin village where the Pandavas took refuge after the lacquer palace is burned down, Hastinapur and Indraprastha and, finally, Kurukshetra, the battlefield.
The interrogation of identity also occurs in Therukoothu as the characters from the Mahabharata are also seen in disguise: for example, Arjun is first seen as a Brahmin and later as the eunuch Brihannala. It is customary for each character entering the stage to announce himself by name and rank. When Duryodhan enters and announces who he is, the Kattiyakaran (Sutradhar) mockingly asks him if he is really Duryodhan or someone else pretending to be Duryodhan. f i
Muthukumaraswamy, the director of the National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC), Chennai, and a scholar who has worked on this cult, says about the festival and the theme of identity, “To fight for and to serve one’s identity as King, father, landlord or wife, one has to give up one’s values, and as one’s identities get more rigid, it leads immediately to conflict, leading to a further erosion of values. So the question the festival and the theatre pose is about what one really desires. Does one want a world of ethical values, fluid identities and peace or a world of rigid identities and war?”
The entire film will be held together by Draupadi’s singing of the Mahabharata. Sashikanth will document the festival at two distinct levels: at the macro level, he will document the myth of the cult of Draupadi; at the micro level, he will focus on the festival as an enabler for the villagers to come together, reinforcing their fluid yet collective identity. Sashikanth has already shot several hours of material on the festival from the perspective of its participants. Alongside the ritualistic practices that take place during the festival, he will also shoot the Therukoothu performances at night and interview the participants. The rushes of his film will be given to NFSC as this vital documentation might be useful to future scholars working on the subject.
This description is part of the institutional records created by IFA at the onset of the grant. The project may have changed in due course as reflected in the deliverables from the Grantee.
Grant No : 2008-0-012
Grantee Name : A Shashikanth
Programme : Arts Research & Documentation
Grant Status : Completed
Start Date : 01-12-2008
End Date : 31-08-2009
Duration : Nine months (Seven months extension)
Grant Amount : 498,500
Geographical Area of Work : Tamil Nadu
Disciplinary Field of Work : Performance Art, Performing Arts