“I come from a family of Koothadis, my grandfather was a Koothadi and so was my father. But my father had to give up Koothu. My maternal grandfather refused to give his daughter's hand in marriage to a Koothadi. Street theatre artists don't make much money,” says Harikrishnan.
Traditional street artists cannot sustain themselvesEven as he grew up he had a lot of exposure to performers of different traditions. The sounds, colours and the story touched a chord in him - making it impossible for him to get a 'real-job'. He would walk up to 15-20 kms just to watch Koothu performances. Today, it pains him to see the once celebrated artists struggling in poverty.
"These arts are a unique symbol of our ancient history. The artistes left are the sole treasurers of a traditional arts like string puppetry, leather shadow puppetry, leather shadow puppetry. Saving these forms is essential in fostering empathy towards fellow creatures. It give us the courage to raise voices against injustice. For an illiterate person, the joy of getting unconsciously involved in these stories can never be derived from the more literary arts," says Harikishnan.
He is determined to revive old-art forms and improve the artistes' lifeFor sustaining traditional arts like koothu, the every day obstacles that stand in artists' way must be cleared off. Realizing this, he started the Kalari Heritage and Charitable trust in January 2007, to provide financial aid for the betterment of performing artist’s life. The trust also works to record and restore these traditional arts in their pristine form, without changing their originality and to be handed over to the next generation.
Few achievements of the Trust from the past years
- During the first phase, Native Kongu region art forms were performed in various places like Chennai, Delhi, Guwahati for recognition among the cultural arts.
- Through Salem region’s cultural center, forty performing artists belonging to Erode region were distributed with housing plots.
- In an attempt to document an artist’s life, a volume of book named Arungoothu and a documentary movie ‘’Vidhaithavasam’’ were released.
- Elder artists were enabled to receive government subsidies in addition to making 80 artists the members of the folk arts welfare association, through which their medical and educational needs are funded.
- To encourage the artists in their work, they conduct annual celebrations to felicitate the performing artists with awards and prize money.
- Other similar programs under construction are Documentary movie about female paavaikoothu artists Periya Seeragapaadi Saroja-Muthulakshmi
This is the only region to have women and transgender artists Kongu region has special traits, it has women and transgender artists too. Elsewhere, men play women’s roles too since women are not considered ‘pure’ enough to don celestial characters. He recollects his childhood days where they used to have a number of troupes that comprised of only women, but now the numbers have dwindled.
" I made sure women and transgender artists are also a part of this school. A few poor students have joined it.The nuances of the art and its values are being taught here during weekends, without affecting their regular studies.”