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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > Tamil Art > Drama > Theru-k-kuthu, Traditional Theatre of Tamilnadu and Elam: A Comparative Study -  T. Balasaravanan

Tamil Drama -  - நாடகத் தமிழ்

Theru-k-kuthu, Traditional Theatre
of Tamilnadu and Elam: A Comparative Study


 T. Balasaravanan

Tamil culture is more than 2000 years old with significant literature and living arts. To understand the performance culture of this ancient society, Theruk-k-kuthu gives various opportunities.  Apart from the comparison of two different geographical locations, Theruk-k-kuthu points to the richness of the performance tradition of Tamil people.

To appreciate the theatre tradition of Tamils, an analysis of Theruk-k-kuthu theatre will be of enormous help. Generally, the Tamil theatre in the older period is divided into two categories, namely, ‘Pothuviyar kuthu’, for the common people, and ‘Vethiyar kuthu’, for aristocrats and King. In Pallava kingdom period, Sanskrit plays like Matha vilasa prahasanam Theruk-k-kuthu are performed and they incorporated this theatre into the temple performance.

In Chola period, which was the golden period of art at that time, Theruk-k-kuthu become famous, and to perform in temple festivals they were given monetary support. Land was also distributed as a reward to sustain the art and the artist.  Singer (Kanapaati), Actor (Niruthaperuayan), Curtain Manager (Trai Chavagan), Musician (Vathiyakkran) and Principal (Natakamaiyan) were individually patronized by the rulers and landlords.

In the period of Nayakkar, Tamil Theruk-k-kuthu was adapted into Telegu language. In olden days, Theruk-k-kuthu was performed nearly in entire Tamil Nadu. But at present this art-form survives in northern parts of Tamil Nadu from Selam to Chennai and in Attapady tribal region of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Theruk-k-kuthu is performed in temple festival and family functions. Most of the Theruk-k-kuthu dramas are based on Mahabaratha and stories of the region. Sometimes Ramayana stories were also performed. The Theru-k-kuthu performers are basically from backward caste of agriculture people and workers, most of them dalits in Selam and Chengalpattu districts.

In Tamil Nadu and in Elam (Sri Lanka), Theru-k-kuthu is generally classified as northern (Vadakkthi kuthu), and Southern (Therkathi kuthu), based on region. Theruk-k-kuthu is performed with significant differences in performance practices, dance, movement, music, musical instruments, costume, makeup, and story.  In Tami Nadu, for example, Purisai Kannapa Thambiran is northern (Vadakkthi kuthu) style, and Cuddalur Velayuda Pillai is Southern (Therkathi kuthu) style Theru-k-kuthu. In northern (Vadakkthi kuthu) tradition, Mahabarata kuthu was mainly enacted, and in Southern (Therkathi kuthu) tradition, Ramayana kuthu and other stories are enacted.

The Theruk-k-kuthu plays are a combination of song, music, dance and drama like any other Theatre tradition of India. The actors wear colorful costumes and wooden exaggerated ornaments (bujai kattai). We can define Theru-k-kuthu as a form of theatrical entertainment, a ritual, and a medium of social institution.  Agriculture is the means of livelihood for most of the Theru-k-kuthu artists, running cost of the production will be manageable; they don’t worry much about the money from the performances, as most of the times it only covers the running cost.

Historically, Theruk-k-kuthu went to Sri Lanka during the Pallava and Chola period. Later, in the British period, plantation workers who migrated to hilly regions of Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu brought along with them Threk-k-kuthu.  During the course of time the form of kuthu has been adapted according to the land and culture of the people.  Some of the old elements still existing in the Elam kuthu, which has disappeared in Tamil Nadu kuthu at present, are an interesting point that needs further research. 

Place of Performance

The meaning of “Terukkuttu” in Tamil is Teru (Street) and Kuthu (Drama).  In the ancient period, kuthu means all kind of dance and movement. Later kuthu meant the story performed by actor.  Mostly, it is performed in streets adjacent to temple, though sometimes the temple ground, the agricultural field or any other convenient site may be the place of performance. Audience will be seat on the three sides of the rectangular arena. The musicians and the chorus of singers (Pinpattukarar) occupy the place on the rear side of the stage, and the actors use the front side when addressing the other characters.  Some of the places of the acting area are raised with sand and mud. They also construct thatched hut with four pillars.  Nowadays florescent lights and halogen lights are used, while in the olden days it was oil torches and then oil lamp. Patromax gas light lamps were used during the course of time.  In northern ‘Vadamodi’ kuthu of Elam uses a round stage with round roof with pillars, so that the audience can sit and watch the performance from all sides. This is a unique performance setup called ‘Vattakalari’.  


In Tamil Nadu southern style, tempo is raised gradually, whereas in northern style they start with high tempo. Starting of the play god Genesa (Vinayaga) character enters then the guru do pooja in southern style, this is mostly absent in northern style. Guru will come to the stage and narrates that days performance story briefly to the audience in southern style, in northern style Kattiyakaran (Sudradari) enters the stage and narrates that days performance story briefly to the audience. Then before the entrance of characters they will start music and opening songs as prelude. First they narrate the story via song then through dialogue then song with dance in lower rhythm to higher rhythm like that they repeat the same message four or five times to register the story aesthetically.

In Elam Theruk-k-kuthu Thenmodi style followed southern part of Tamilnadu style; Vadamodi style has followed northern part of Tamilnadu which is influence by Yaksagana of Karnataka, Burakatha of Andrapradesh in some extent.  Even though Elam Theruk-k-kuthu is based on Tamilnadu Theruk-k-kuthu it has its own significant form and structure according to the land and culture.


The text of a Terukkuttu play is a series of songs related by a theme. Each song is rendered in a raga, structured in form of a classical or folk song. It is preceded by viruttam, chanting of four-line verses in the same raga as the song. After the song, an actor delivers a speech based on the content.  The major text is Maha Bharataham epic comes under classical text, rarely Ramayana also a classical text performed and the native stories like Valli Thirumanam (Marriage of Valli and Muruga) story, and other folk stories also enacted. 

Theruk-k-kuthu plays of Tamil Nadu

  • Draupadi Kalyanam (The Marriage of Draupadi)

  • Supattirai Kalyanam (The Marriage of Subhadra)

  • Alli Arjunan (The Marriage of Arjuna with Alli)

  • Pancali Capatam (The Vow of Draupadi)

  • Arjunan Tapam (Arjuna’s Penance)

  • Krishnan Titu (The Mission of Krishna)

  • Abhimanyu Cantai (The Defeat of Abhimanyu)

  • Karna Mokshayam (The Defeat of Karna)

  • Patinettam Por (The Battle of the Eighteenth Day)


Elam Texts

Vadamodi (Northern) :

  • Daruma Puthiran Natagam

  • Virada Natagam

  • Krukkendiran Natagam

Thenmodi (Southern) :

  • Vala Beeman Natagam

  • Kumara Natagam

  • Arjunan Tapasu (Arjuna’s Penance)

  • Sadaakaran Vathai


Particular backward castes like Tampiran, Pillai, Gounders are performing this form but nowadays other cast people also participating.  Since it is a ritual oriented performance any one from any cast can participate except Daliths in village temple festivals, Nowadays Daliths also participating in these performances mostly along with professional troupes.


Wooden sword, bow and arrow are the typical properties.


The narration of the performance utilizes songs dialogs in a repetitive manner to express and communicate the story line. Main plot (kathai) with various sub plots (upa kathai) is performed in series of Mahabaratha eighteen day kuthu.


Most of the Indian theatre tradition incorporates Songs, Dialogue, Dance and Movements in Drama presentation like Greek theatre, so we should not classify it as Dance drama or dialogue oriented drama.  Usually Theruk-k-kuthu is classified as a folk theatre by scholars, because it has been performed by the folk people to folk audience (‘Pothuviyar kuthu’ for common audience).


Makeup, costume, headgear (Keridom) and accessories are elaborate with vibrant colors in northern style compare to southern style. In southern style on the top of the headgear bird feather fixed. Bottom dress in northern style utilizes rice straw to elevate the dress like umbrella.  All the costume and makeup uses vibrant colors red, green, yellow, block and white with glittering material to attract the audience attention with minimal lighting condition.  In the beginning they used oil torches and oil lamps to light the performance; this may be one of the reasons why the vibrant colors, lines and glittering material are used.

Music and Instruments

Mugavina is prevalent in southern style, music and songs are elongated in this style compare to Nothern style. The actors will sing the lead then the musicians and accompanist will repeat the song in northern style, but in southern style actor and all the musicians sing at the same time.

Harmonium (after Parsi theatre influence), various drums like tabla, mridangam, dolag with cymbal (thalam) are used.


Kattiyakkaran (jester and sutradhara i.e. the narrator) appears on the stage; he relates the story of the play to be performed and introduces the characters one by one according to their entry. Sometimes, the characters introduce themselves; Kattiyakkaran links the scenes, provides context and subtext to the happenings on the stage and also do some jocks to entertain the audience in between the scenes. Kattiyakaran is one how always adapts ideas and sorties from the present time to explain the plot and characters of the Theruk-k-kuthu.  This is one of the most important elements which contemporize Theruk-k-kuthu to the present time.

The actors sing themselves, supported by the chorus, they start dance when the chorus sings the song.

Hero (e.g Karnan in Karna Mokshayam {The Defeat of Karna}) – Intelligent, courageous, strong minded lovable character with maleness.

Heroine (e.g Damayanthi in Nala Sarithiram kuthu) – Intelligent, courageous, strong minded lovable character with femaleness.

Supporting Characters (e.g Saguni in Baratha kuthu) – Intelligent, adaptable to the situation with their own story as a sub plot which inter link to the main story. 

Comparison of Theruk-k-kuthu of Tamil Nadu and Elam


Tamil Nadu South

(Terkathi kutu)

Tamil Nadu North(Vadakathi kuthu)

Elam South

Thenmodi kuthu

Elam North

Vadamodi Kuthu


Mahabaratha & other native stories

Mahabaratha and rarely Ramayana

Mahabaratha and Tamil story based

Mahabaratha & Ramayana stories

Character Intro

Two persons hold a screen behind. Characters enter with song, then kattiyakaran introduces the character

Two persons hold a screen behind. Characters enter with song, then kattiyakaran introduces the character

Two persons hold a screen behind. Characters are introduced by the chorus

Two persons hold a screen behind. Characters enter with song, then kattiyakaran introduces the charector


Rich in colour, top and bottom dress allows the actor to move freely

Rich in colour, top and bottom dress restricts the actor’s movement

Rich in colour, top and bottom dress covers most of the body, design elements differ from region to region

Rich in colour, top and bottom dress covers most of the body, design elements differ from region to region


Each character has its own colour, the lines are minimum

Each character has its own colour, the lines are very elaborate

Each character has its own colour, the lines are minimum

Each character has its own colour, the lines are very elaborate

Music and instruments

Ragas are a few in number / chorous (pinpattu) repeat the last line of the actor.

Character based ragas /chorous (pinpattu) sing entire song followed by the actor

Ragas are in few number with chorous singers follow the actor’s last line

Character based ragas / chorous sing entire song followed be the actor


Open ground or street/ Open place or four pillared thatched roof with three side audience with round acting area

Open ground or street/ Open place or four pillared thatched roof with three side audience with round acting area

Open ground or street/ round acting area with four side audience

Open ground or street/ round acting area with one side audience


Few adavu in practice now/ at present adavu

Men and women characters use particular adavu more than twenty types of adavu/ adavu are complicated

When finising the adavu they come forward one movement/ adavu are complicated

Maintain thir position in the same place/ adavu is in fast pace

Theruk-k-kuthu : Current Status

During the course of time according to the time change now one hour performances are also performed to cater the urban audience. In academic institutions as a part of syllabus one to two hour kuthu are produced along with traditional artists. Until now no women is allowed to perform in the kuthu, exceptionally in theatre department like School of Performing Arts, Pondicherry University women students are participating, in 2006 all women kuthu was produced in the department. Adaptation of western stories and dramas started in the 90’s onward; one good example is Brecht’s Caucasian chalk circle was adapted and performed by Kannapa Theambiran Theruk-k-kuthu group with the support of Maxmuller Bhavan, Chennai. Nowadays open Air to Proscenium and various types of stage Theruk-k-kuthu performances are happening to cater the need of different kind of audience and also they are started to traveling all over the world to do performances. In a way to preserve and enhance the performance tradition of Tamils some little progress is happening positively.


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