Kuravanjis in Contemporary Theatre: In Conversation with A. Mangai

Kuravanjis in Contemporary Theatre: In Conversation with A. Mangai

in Interview
Published on: 05 December 2018

Aprameya Manthena

Aprameya Manthena has completed an M. Phil from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi

Mangai discusses the adaptation of the kuratti from the earlier kuravanjis for contemporary contexts, in her library at her residence, in Chennai (Dec, 2017)


A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. Padma.  She taught English in Stella Maris College, Chennai. She has been actively engaged in Tamil theatre as an actor, director and playwright for almost three decades. She hopes that her academic, activist and artistic selves can find a vibrant intersection. Her fields of interest are theatre, gender and translation studies.  

Aprameya Manthena: What drew you as a scholar and practitioner to kuravanjis?

Mangai: I think, the image of a gypsy woman and the mobility, the skill, so more in terms of abstraction rather than the kuravanji literature or anything, and I think I also came from performances of koothu kuravanji to the literary kuravanji. But then, the gypsy woman was the first one we thought of, when we were planning to create alternate images on stage, if we could, way back in 1992.


1992 was the year when ‘Voicing Silence’ was started as a project with M.S. Swaminathan Foundation, and I took up the direction process, hoping to create a theatre that, ten to twenty years down the line, can kind of sow the seeds of theatre in Tamil especially. So when we decided that we would like to evolve a play through improvisations, the image that we had ready at hand, and we didn’t want the weepy stories—we have had enough in the late seventies and the eighties about images of dowry death, rape and everything; and, I am a product of the women’s movement of those times. So, at one point you just want to, kind of stop crying, you know and, say that you are a human being capable of various other emotions; and the gypsy was just dear to my heart.


So we approached Prof. Ramanujam, who is no more now, who was a professor of drama at Tamil University; he was also a NSD (National School of Drama) product. He was probably the only director I could think of, who would be open enough to explore questions of gender, identity, leadership and empowerment. So when we talked to him, he jumped at it. But, he distinguished the gypsy, whom we call as narikuravar, who are peddlers and a nomadic tribe, and we can’t really attribute their origins to Tamil Nadu; it must have been a Telugu speaking crowd; some of them speak Hindi and all that; but they are nomadic people. But he wanted to differentiate the kuratti, the gypsy woman from the narikuravar, to the hill tribe kuratti, who has been richly represented in Tamil literature. So that’s when we started exploring the kuravanjis.


So, on the one hand you have the koothu kuravanjis. I don’t know how familiar you are with therukoothu, which is a traditional form (of play) in Tamil Nadu. We have two major koothus where kuratti is the protagonist—one is called the Draupadi Kuram. Draupadi enters the palace in the garb of a kuratti. She walks in with any baby that she could find from the audience; she takes the baby in one hand and she has this rolling pot on her head and has a stick that she uses to read palms and she rolls it as she walks. As she does the step, rolls the pot over her head and taps the pot, it moves likes a prayer wheel, on the head though. It is a really very powerful kind of image.


The second is the koothu kuravanji where Krishna dons the role of a kuratti. These have an amazing range of raga and everything which we could find in Mouna Kuram, (the name of the play directed by Mangai) about which I am going to be talking about.


We kind of had the kuratti in hand. When I say ‘us’, it was me. I was in my early thirties at that time and learning direction in some ways. The other one who assisted me in the direction is Dr Palani, who is now teaching at the Madras University, Tamil Department. He was one of my actors. We had worked together for five to six years by then. He was doing his research on koothu. So what he said was to collect all the songs which the kuravanji sings, and he made me read through all the literary kuravanjis. So we came with the repertoire of literary as well as the traditionally performing kuratti songs in therukoothu. So we brought them together when we began the workshop with kuratti.


Then, of course, you must be knowing that in the performance history of India, especially to deal with gender and feminism, re-reading myths is one of the major areas. We already had different people trying it, either in Bengali, Hindi and other things. I have seen Anuradha Kapur’s Nayika Bhed taking Akka Mahadevi and all that. I already had those things in mind. What we did was then, when we did the workshop, we came up with the issues that were affecting women like eve-teasing, which is sexual harassment on the streets; so it was sexual harassment. It was about not having any values, you know, like you do not exist—you are just like an object. Also, the idea of jealousy and suspicion that people have in relationships, especially in intimacies. We were looking for mythological characters to suit these issues and came up with Draupadi who was disrobed in public, Chandramathi who was sold by Harishchandra because he wanted to honour honesty more than his wife and children; and we had Sita, who was asked to go through the fire ordeal. And we wanted to connect the myths and the kuravanjis. Finally, we ended up with a suitable format.


I can talk a little more elaborately about the play. We ended up actually saying that a gypsy woman is far better than mythological goddesses and heroines. Today, I call it almost like a textbook play. Our first staging was in 1994. It had a good run for over three to four years actually; there were many people and then there were dropouts. Then others came in. It kind of really took off as a production. In fact, we opened one of the Nandikar festivals and that photograph of the Nandikar festival—of kuravan and kuratti sitting next to each other and looking into each other’s eyes. There in the Oxford Companion to Indian Drama, the first page, the first picture is from Mouna Kuram. I am extremely happy that we did that.


I revisited that much later in 2012 and it felt like a textbook play for me. Ramanujam Sir was still alive and...I teach English at Stella Maris College (Chennai) and I also offer a course called Basic Theatre Skills for them. It was like an oasis for me within the academia.


When one of my colleagues, who was the Dean at that time—Dr Mrs. Thilakavathy—formed, what she called as Namma Theatre just to help students who are probably not that proficient in English to attempt at something energetic—it could be Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil or Telugu—whatever they chose to. I thought that it was a brilliant way to include voices, that weren’t heard otherwise. I think, I was proven right when I did Mouna Kuram there. It was pedagogically an experiment. Of course, I had more English department students, who auditioned and who were part of my theatre course; in some senses, they still continue to do theatre— theatre did touch them in ways that, I think, we didn’t expect at that time.


In fact, the lead role— the male lead, was done by a Malayalam-speaking English department girl. She had to write down the dialogues in Devanagari or in Malayalam. But they (the student-actors) withstood. It was hard, training them, but it was heartwarming. For the first time in Stella Maris for the audition, we had like 40 plus students who registered, many of them not knowing Tamil. I was confident because the play has a lot of music in it. It is easy to learn a language which is set to music and I knew they could make it. We did find an amazing gypsy in Karen, who is now a school teacher, who was actually one of these quiet things in class, who I had never seen really participate very actively in the class, but I knew she was a dancer. When she came up and when I offered her that role. I don’t know what she felt, but she blossomed. It was a whole new Karen that we saw.


But I think the asset of that production was actually a Narikuravar girl, who did the kattiyakaran’s (clown) role, who also did the narrator’s bit—just absolutely comical and hilarious; everyone was in splits watching the play. That was Panchali. I didn’t know she was from this community when I picked her up. She was doing her third year Botany at that time. In fact, she didn’t audition with the regular people. Then there were some girls who pushed her on the second day and said to me, Mangai Ma’am, you should see her dance. Then, I told her, okay, dance; and, the next second, we were dancing together. Just to draw her out, I had to dance with her. I saw that she had immense potential. People were very surprised because, she was a hosteller and very irregular, with a lot of arrears. I kept getting warnings from some people that the play was going to distract her further and she might not finish (the course), etc. That’s the only thing I asked of her. I said to her ‘I want you to be a graduate’, which she eventually did after two years, I think. English was a nightmare for her; but she was brilliant. She chose a media job after that and worked later for Puthiya Thalaimurai until she got married and became a mother later.


The play opened up a lot of debates and because she was there, the rest of the cast could ask her a lot of questions. I still remember, one of our walk-throughs—what I call as walk-through—where you have invited people or sympathetic crowd, to come and watch; one of the girls’ parents had come and she introduced Panchali to them and said that she belonged to the gypsy community with pride. I don’t think that girl meant anything else by it, but then the next day when we met for rehearsal, Panchali said in the open, ‘I don’t want to be identified. I don’t think that’s the criteria for me to be here.’ Somewhere, it kind of touched a raw nerve. The play spoke to them. In fact, the best compliment, that I thought the play had was from one of my good friends and colleague from Ethiraj College. I think we opened in August and she asked me, ‘Can I book you for Valentines’ Day?’ Because, the play is really talking about relationships and love. It is talking about egalitarian relationships that you want to talk about, the kind of equity and equality that one expects in intimacies. That I still think, is brilliant. I never thought of it like that. It actually became a treatise on love. You don’t love somebody who is going to degrade you, sell you or suspect you. So, structure wise also, it plays around with kuravanji as a form.


A.M.: How does the kuravanji straddle the personal and the social, and engage with themes such as love, intimacy and jealousy?


M: I think the issues of love and intimacy—I am using the contemporary terms, because it was all based on mythological stories. So it asked questions like, can a man sell his wife for the sake of honesty?


Reciting a Tamil verse from the play.


So do you want to brag that you are an honest person, and then go and sell your wife? Or, ask the Pandavas. How dare they pawn their wife?


In fact, finally when the gypsy asks that question, her partner - the kuravan, is answering her question, saying,How could I use you as a pawn? Even when I use my bow and arrow or the kavan (used for stone pelting) and I am good at using them, why would I use you as a pawn? As a kind of akai, playing on the term pagadakai— that is Draupadi. And, Sita, who had to go through the fire ordeal. In the play, we never brought the male voices in, justifying any of this. It was only the female voice experiencing whatever she had to go through. That was also happening in the mind of the gypsy that could read the palm, these women whose palms she is reading, are not going through that now, hopefully, touchwood! In the present, she is only seeing the future vision of what’s going to happen to these women.


So, the moment you kind of, shift it to the future, we know, we are not in the mythical past. You are actually connecting it to things that are happening in our contemporary society. She is actually not voicing them out now. I think ‘word’ is very important. Vaakku (word)! I am probably an old-fashioned, old-generation person. You don’t say the things that you shouldn’t say, even utter them. The gypsy woman doesn’t even utter the words. It is only in her mental vision, she imagines this woman to be somebody who will be disgraced in some form or the other. It’s only happening in the imagination, not in reality. But, only when her partner asks, ‘What is all this? How come you are all decked up?’, does she says: ‘I went there. She gave me that, she gave me this’. For each one, she has a story and she throws them out. She says, ‘Wait! I don’t want all these things which are weighing down heavily on me’.


When she goes back with him, she is literally going, you know, travelling light. There is no baggage of the mythological past. All her own suffering about what these women or the so-called urban, well-settled, wealthy women—we showed them all as very wealthy, by the way! Our person who is going to lead the life like Chandramathi is coming down the steps, from the balcony, calling out to her and, the other one, Draupadi, is on a swing, another one is playing some games with her friends. Then she hears the gypsy and calls her. We showed them as women from affluent backgrounds. I don’t know whether the audience would get it, as they watch it. But, we were not showing the lives of people whose lives were rough, who were already probably on their own and labouring for their livelihood and all that. So, the woman who labours in the play is a gypsy; she is coming down from the hills, trying to read palms, get some money probably, and go back; and, when she goes back, he (the kuravan) just says, I need not be back, I know that I have earned you. Don’t think that I am like these foolish people, asking you to prove whatever you can prove or can’t prove.


In the play, it is very light-hearted. They call each other vaa da and vaa di (Come da or di. Da or di are used to address someone younger or equal or lower in social hierarchy, da in the case of male and di, in the case of female)!


In Tamil, and in many other south Indian languages, this is not how you address your respectable husband. Husband has an honorific suffix—avanga, varaanga, poraanga etc. and you don’t say va, po etc. which are both marks of intimacy—either equal or sometimes less than equal, like you would call your younger brother—vaa da! Most of the husbands call their wives vaa di, especially, in the upper class families, they call them vaa di! Po di! But, we twisted the whole thing. We made them call each other equally like vaa di! vaa da! po da! po di, which for the young audience, I think, meant a whole new discourse.


We were not saying, look for love like that or beware of breakups! We didn’t really get into all those kinds of discourses. We were just saying— can you set your bars up, a little higher? Can you actually ask a little more of life, than be the doormat? I am happy it worked not just in Stella. I actually revived it this year January 2017. We opened the play at MGR Janaki College, which had a different tenor altogether, and the class of people were also different; But, I could see the play resonated with them. So as a contemporary play, it worked, and as a literary play, also, what we had done to the kuravanji.


A.M.: How did you work with the literary aspects of the kuravanjis and other literary genres for your stage adaptations?


M: On the one hand, we used the text. Not only did we use the Kutraala Kuravanji but we also used, the Kanesan Kuravanji; when we published it, we had marked where we had taken those lines from. For example, in Kanesan Kuravanji, he keeps calling her ‘Ammamma...amma singamma’ in a petting tone; then she says, ‘Yenna da Amma...Amma yenge? Ammakkalla’. .Amma in Ammakkalla just means mother. Kalla means thief. Ammakalla probably would mean, thieving the mother or thief of the mother. That word came from Kumbesar Kuravanji, a lesser known in Kuravanjis. Kuravanji as a literary genre is one of the prabandhas, and is one of the minor literary genres in Sanskrit and probably, taken over by Tamil. So you have a lot of these prabhandhas which are actually voices of the marginalised coming to the fore. You have nontinatakam (drama of the lame or handicapped), you have pallu—the genre of Tamil satirical poetry dealing with the life of a Pallar farmer, his two wives and his landlord, kuravanji—songs of the kuratti etc. These are the genres which are talking about people who are on the fringes of society and they are brought on stage. That’s how the genre itself is.


But in literature as in all literatures, I should say as a student of literature, the moment you bring them to literature, there is elitism which is one of the reasons why performance holds more than literature for me, even though I have been a literature student and a teacher all my life. Performance somehow supersedes literature for me. In Tamil, they become protagonists of that genre, even though they are talking about a lifestyle which is not the norm. They are still protagonists, they are still heroes and heroines of those genres. There is nothing wrong in it. They can be heroes. They are probably mainstreamed and all that.


I am not talking about pallu or nontinatakam. In kuravanji, the real hero is Lord Shiva, and Parvati is pining for him. The kuratti is also doing the liaison. The kuratti is invited into the family of this woman, who is in love with somebody. She is not sharing it with anybody and looks pale. It is an image you have right from Sangam literature. She is invited to read the palm of that girl. She finally connects it to Kuttrala Nadar. How does she connect? She sees the girl watching Shiva going on the street parade. It gives room for the minor literature authors to describe the male body and vice versa, to a large extent. The gaze works both ways, in that sense. The kuratti has a very marginal role to play.


Finally, she tells them that this is the god the girl is after. The family is happy that it is Shiva. It’s part of the mainstream Saivite cult. Even though you have the kuratti as the protagonist, we don’t have her as somebody falling in love, or simply talking about love or relationships. She is just buying into the system of relationships that are already existing—a woman pines for a man. But what we did was to make her the protagonist in the real sense of the word. She is a woman who is coming down the hills, probably looking for a job. Everything is in flashback. She comes down the hills first; he follows her, looking for her. When he comes to the city, he doesn’t know where to look for her, so, we have urban scenes. He looks for her in the ration shop, railway station, cinema hall etc.


A.M.: How was the experience of staging kuravanjis (having specific cultural and historical content) with/in contemporary references and contexts?


M: The way the play brought in the contemporary thing, I think, was through the experience of the male gypsy, the man, the kuravan who walked in. He really looks and moves through the urban landscape. He is completely blown away. He can’t really make head or tail of that time. He searches for her in places where people assemble like in ration shops, cinema halls, railway station and other places. We gave it a comic tinge. Nobody is really bothered; people are indifferent and they really don’t want to see anything of that. He almost goes back; because he is a gypsy, he talks to the plants, the rocks and the rivers. That’s when he hears her. She is also on the border of the woods.


It almost comes exactly at a halfway mark in the play. They meet again at the borderland, between the forest and the urban landscape. Also the houses of these women whom she has met, in some way represents as I already said, slightly upper class, or at least, the middle class elite section of the women; then again, there is a certain reference that you can actually bring it in, but, I think the costumes and the rest still keep it within the realm of the gypsy land where the gypsies are ruling. That’s how we have picturized or visualized it on the stage.


Overall, the contemporary relevance to me comes with the conceptual questions that one is raising, about, how long will a woman be dishonoured or how long will she be treated as a product; or how long will she bear the brunt of suspicion in the name of love. One had to say, not in the name of love. Don’t call it love. Call it by any other name. It’s not going to be love. You can’t impose all these things. This is something when I say contemporary, it is also universal at some point. But I don’t like that word. It is something that we are saying for all times to come. At least in intimacies we should say no to sexual violence. Finally, that is what the play is trying to really talk about. That is where the contemporariness comes.


We are looking at the gypsy woman and the man as role models for that kind of an egalitarian and equal relationship. Poet Bharathiyar says: .....kangalodu pemba sarinigarsamanam.....


He uses three words: sari - similar, nigar - equal and samanam - something close to equity.


He was the voice of the modern era in Tamil, but couldn’t find a (single) word to talk about egalitarian relationships. He had to use three different terms in Tamil, sari-nigama-samanam, to emphatically say that men and women can be equal; and, it’s primarily that, I think, what makes it contemporary.


A.M.: What were the most striking lessons learnt from the adaptation of songs, dance sequences and folk elements?


M: These are basically performance techniques and modes of direction. The first question about the use of song and dance sequences which we are borrowing from these forms and using. Kuravanji is now an established form even in classical Bharatanatyam. Even if all the other songs are in Telugu or Kannada or Purandaradasa kriti or something, they will certainly have a gypsy dance episode, especially after the interval, even in any Bharatanatyam arangetram. It is a done thing, done to death. So we have a good repertoire of kuratti, which is already passed on to the classical forms. We had Palani who is an expert in koothu and he himself was a performer, so we used a lot of koothu songs. If you remember the tunes, they are very, very catchy. When the kuratti comes to read the palm, she sings:




We also had many classical tunes. We juxtaposed them. When kuratti enters, we used the koothu thing. The mountain became the screen. Kuratti is coming from behind the curtain. She announces and comes……Vanjee vandaale……


The moment she crosses the curtain of mountain, she says ‘Vanjee vandene….’ (Here I come).


For her entry, we actually used Kutraala Kuravanji. It wasn’t pure singing.




It is a very commonly known kind of a line that we are talking about. It is also very ecological in the sense, that it talked about trees, mountains, bees and whatever animals that are there and so on.


When she talks about her own work that she does, we picked up lines from different kind of things/sources and we modified the song.




In that, we talk about what are the things that she does.




‘I can actually weave baskets, read palms, do tattoos and lists many other things, she can really do’. We took a lot of liberties. Theatre permits us to do that. In theatre, nobody is really going to ask us about all that. Anyway, our theatre is copyleft. We also had support from koothu artists who could come and work on that. We begged, borrowed and also stole. That was fun.


A.M.: During the preparatory/workshop phase, how did the cast members respond to questions of gender and experience?


M: In almost all my productions, I have only used versions of the playwright’s written texts. I did Avvai written by Inquilab and later feminist plays by V. Geetha—I have done five plays of Inquilab and six or seven of Geetha’s (plays). But I am not a text-bound person, and I think, they willingly worked with me knowing that I am not a text-bound person. So, for us it is a performance. Even before we actually gave them the text for them to read, we had improvisations about, what is it that bothers you about your existence as a woman, if you are a woman; and, if you are a man, how do you really see your own masculinity, if you think you are masculine enough. How does your masculine self respond? What do you think is being masculine? So, we have basic gender workshops, before we really introduce them to the text. All they knew is that there will be a gypsy and there’ll be lot of singing...and, that’s it. That’s how they do. We gave the text to them, much later.


For me the actors, I think, they should come from the contemporary to kuravanji, unlike us, who put the text together, and come from kuravanji or koothu to the text. We wanted the actors to go from where they are right now, to whichever past they can relate to; and then, when they started reading the text, Draupadi’s disrobing was not just Draupadi’s. It was about your bus travels, somebody opening up the fly for you, any kind of unwanted touches that you get, whenever you travel by train or bus, in the nights, especially, all forms of intimate touches. All the questions and looks that you face, whenever you come, may be, a wee bit late, or you wear a particular kind of dress.


It was not just Rama who was being suspicious of Sita. Even though in the story, that is what happens. It is your father, your brother and probably your own mother who tells you, ‘Don’t wear revealing clothes’, that is supposed to be the cause for some suspicion that is going to come up. These are the small, little everyday aspects of being gendered, which were, at least, at the back of mind of the actors which is why somewhere, I like to have their responses; one of the exercises that I do towards the end of production, to give me a map of their character.


How old are you? What kind of clothes do you wear? What is your emotion, when say, you may be out? You may be Harishchandra, or you may be the fire? These are characters for me on the stage. What scorched you? What is it that burnt you? I would like them to have their own connections.


I remember that session lasted for four hours for this play at Stella. These were, for want of another word—almost therapeutic sessions. I don’t think, these are things that can go on record. I might not want to reveal them, but, we went through that. For those who have gone through that, I think, it is very important.


Now, I have a student at JNU. She said: ‘For me, the practical lesson I learnt in gender, was to be part of that play’. She was one of the articulate ones in Stella.  I knew, she was the Bharathi Manram Secretary. When she actually did it, I thought, she was closed. She was in my Foundation Class also and that’s how I knew. she was good in Tamil when she came for the audition. Much later, two years later, when she was sitting for JNU, I had a call from her, and she said, ‘I have to tell you this’. I think those are really memorable moments where the texts speak to you.


Unfortunately, we have lost the sense of the classic and contemporary drama. Very few of us really search for them; very few actors and directors actually read scripts in other languages. I can count the number of people—actors—who can actually do that—zero! Very few actors actually read other plays and stuff. It is nice to know that the play can resonate like that.


A.M.: In your play Avvai, about the ancient eponymous female bard, how did you and the writer Inquilab explore continuities with respect to the kuravanji?


M: I want to talk about Avvai. The first production of the play was in 1998 and the next in 1999. I reproduced and revived it in 2006. I had to do it again, it had to come alive with a completely new cast. We had to redo the sets, props and the cast for the first memorial of Inquilab. It is a promise I had given, and I kept to that.


Avvai is our equivalent of Sappho (the ancient Greek poet) in Tamil. You have so many of her poems which are retained in the Sangam poetry, which is a catalogue poetry. People have classified it into agam and puram, (the two genres of classical Tamil poetry; akam deals with the theme of love and puram deals with the topic of war), five different landscapes and everything. She manages to survive, unlike Sappho’s poems, half of which are burnt and we don’t have enough of them.


We have more than 50 songs of Avvai which are prominent. One of the songs which we used as Avvai’s song in the play was her song about the gyspy in Sangam poetry. While you are connecting kuravanji to the 8th century prabandhas, kuratti is not new to Tamil. It has existed even before.


That is why I wanted to connect. Her name is Aggavan. Aggavudul is the calling of the screaming sound peacock makes—aoonh. She, the gypsy woman, calls her Agavan magale.


.....Singing.....It goes like this: ‘Agavan magale…’


(Oh! The gypsy woman who has this long hair which smells so good.)


(Sing of that mountain, you sang now.)


It is in the voice of Thallaivi, the heroine, who is asking the gypsy woman to sing. It is amazing how Inquilab picturised it or visualized it for us. They are discussing a new play in the bardic system. They talk about a regular story which has the Thallaivan (hero)...Thallaivi tada da tada da. The gypsy woman comes and reels off all her things. When she mentions the name of Thallaivan’s mountain, there is a shine on her face. That is the story and this is the song that she gives.


We rewrote it in today’s understandable Tamil in the kuravanji form.


So we sang the classical Sangam poem, and then she makes it into a contemporary song, which they are rehearsing.




I am a very bad singer. I hope you will get a better clip. That’s how we visualized; so, we brought in the bardic community, rehearsing for this song. We did not get into the kuratti in detail, but the song I’m sure, will resonate as kuratti songs; so then, they move on, travel, and meet Athiyaman.


The story of Avvai’s life as a bard and her friendships and everything unravels. Somewhere, there is a connection between the gypsy and the bard, but to me, it’s the mobility that I spoke about in the beginning. The job you have, the vocation that you have, so you are not dependent. Avvai is also considered to be a single woman. Within four to five years we looked at Manimekalai, who is a nun. For me, the thread of alternate images goes like the gypsy, the bard and the nun, probably. I don’t know whether I’ll ever reach that stage, but she is one of my favourite figures. In Manimekalai, the heroine Manimekalai is not just the nun; she feeds the hungry; she is the amuda surabhi, the akshaya patra; she feeds everyone.


Somewhere, there is that moment of self-realization and self-hood of a woman that comes up.