Pondicherry beyond French India
“ Did you see those trees madam ? “ asked my driver as I looked out to see a road lined with a handful of trees with stunted and bare branches. “ It was such a beautiful stretch, now the trees have all gone after the cyclone,” he added,” First it was the tsunami, now it’s thane .”
I was on the road , on the outskirts of Pondicherry town, driving past a huddle of villages and fishing hamlets. It was my millionth visit to the erstwhile French territory and my first after the cyclone Thane had ravaged the town, destroying homes, resorts, streets, trees, livelihoods and plans at one go. The villagers were yet to come to terms with the cyclone that had raged more than five months ago. We drove towards the sea, away from the main road and arrived at a secluded beach , except that there were mounds and mounds of sands everywhere. We drove past the dunes and saw the last mile of land jutting out into the sea.
The Bay of Bengal presented itself – a canvas of blue surrounding us, as the sea gulls chased imaginary boats. A lone biker stopped at the edge of land’s end as we walked along and looked out into the sea . A handful of locals were swimming . I was told that adventure and water sports was planned on the sea shore, but had been shelved after the cyclone. As I drove past the French quarters, I hoped to see a different perspective of Pondicherry beyond French India besides Aurobindo ashram and Auroville. “Maybe Arikamedu ?” suggested the driver, but I told him that I had already been to the excavated site where trade relations with Romans was discovered ,way back in the first century. We nevertheless drove towards the ruins and saw some brick walls, remnant of an old monument , surrounded by wilderness and overgrown roots, lending an eerie air to the atmosphere. Cyclone Thane had left its mark here as well.
My journey resumed and then I met fifty two year old Muthulingam, who showed me another facet to this town. A therookoothu artist, he was engrossed in an intense performance at the Big Beach resort, where I chanced upon him. A group of men and some men dressed as women, wearing bold make up danced around, throwing dialogues in the air. Fascinated, I watched as the performers lost themselves in a world of epics, filled with demons and demi gods.
Muthulingam told me that there were performing a play based on the Ramayana and the story veered around Bharata’s son and a demon who came from Ravana’s lineage . He narrated with gusto, breaking into a dialogue , while the other artists danced around in tacky costumes. The performances however were power packed.
Muthulingam later told me that today there were less than 50 therookoothu artists in Pondicherry. He handed his card to me and proudly proclaimed that he had been performing since he was seven . “ They put some powder on my face and said , go act..That was the first time I had ever played a role. I was Sahadeva from Mahabharatha, “ he added, getting nostalgic about how his cousin got him interested in the world of plays and performances. Muthulingam and his troupe’s diary was blocked for the next six months. They had selected their plays based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Siva Purana. “Temples, resorts, villages – we will now go from village to village performing,” he said adding that the shows will be usually in the night and could go on for eight hours. “ We are paid Rs 9000 a show and we would do about ten shows in a month . Sometimes a show would have even 20 players, but we share all the money ” he shrugged .
Muthulingam was a self taught artist but he lamented that there were not many takers for street theatre, even from his own family today. “ We are too cultured for our own good . No body wants to dance, yell, perform on streets, people do not even consider it art anymore,” he complained as the lights went off on the show.
The sea called .I walked along the shore, letting the waves wash away patterns on the sands . The cyclone might have affected the life of the city, but here were folk artistes trying hard not to let their art go into oblivion. “ Well tourism helps to some extent, today it’s the Big Beach Resort , tomorrow, we may be in another place , but six months later, when the season ends, we will have to find jobs as security guards or something else,” Muthulingam’s words echoed as the waves flowed and ebbed.
I was on invitation by Club Mahindra for the relaunch of their Big Beach Resort post Cyclone Thane that had ravaged Pondicherry on new years eve last year. This story was published in my column, Inside Story in The Hindu Metro Plus