Published: 25th October 2018
When the Pattarai lost its Patriarch: Why Na Muthuswamy's passing was met with silence and parai-attam
The theatre artist breathed his last after suffering from age-related illnesses, he was a pioneer in Tamil theatre
A pall of gloom had descended on the 41-year-old theatre group Koothu-P-Pattarai's building in Virugambakkam on Wednesday. It housed the body of the theatre group's founder, Na Muthuswamy who passed away earlier that day due to age related illnesses. He was 82.
Muthuswamy was a pioneer in Tamil theatre, born in Punjai in Tanjore, he was apparently completely blown over when he watched a theru-koothu performance one day. After that he spent years learning many forms of traditional folk art, eventually setting up a theatre company to teach the same to other aspiring artists and actors. The doors of his company was thrown open to artists from all sorts of backgrounds at a time when certain artforms were only accessible to people from certain castes and classes.
His theatre groups is ranked one of the top five in the world by UNESCO. It is from this same building that a number of the Tamil film industry's biggest names emerged. From Vijay Sethupathi to Vimal to Pasupathi to Vidharth to Vinodhini to Guru Somasundaram, many of whom had gathered at Muthuswamy's home.
The Pioneer: Na Muthuswamy witnesses a theru-koothu performance and then chose to devote his life to theatre and traditional folkart
A lot of members of the film industry flocked in and out of the doors of the building, some went in tearfully, some came back in tears and some just sat in utter silence, others hugged each other and wept. Muthuswamy was the reason why a lot of young aspiring actors with no Godfathers in the industry managed to make it big. His students say that it did not matter where they came from, how much money they had or how well they knew how to act - he accepted them all and treated them all equally.
Actor Vemal said he joined the theatre group in 2005, "When I joined I planned to learn acting in three months. It was only later that I realised you can't really learn something like acting that quickly. Acting was about living characters, you can't just learn something like that, it can only happen when you're fully able to experience the character, to live it," the actor said.
However, it wasn't just acting that Vemal did at Koothu-Pattarai, "I did everything he needed me to do, I've driven the car for him when the driver didn't show up, I swept the floors, I've done lighting for his shows...I've even cooked for him. He told us that there was dignity in all sorts of labour, he made us embrace the work we did, no matter what it was. He said even getting bored is an important part of life. Everything was a learning experience."
Success Stories: Actor Vimal and Vijay Sethupathi both became really popular faces in Tamil cinema
Vemal says the best part about working under Muthuswamy was that he never compared one person to another, he recognised talent and passion in everybody. "He was always a very confident man, a strong man and always said that no matter what happens the show must always go on. His death came as a huge shock to me, we thought he would live a few more years. He was that sort of a person, he had so much will power, he could fight anything. I heard that till the very end he was active, even this morning he was going about his daily routine," he said.
In older interviews of his, Muthuswamy had said that he feared theatre was dying a slow death and that lesser and lesser people were walking into theatre halls. Vemal said that till the very end Muthuswamy was trying his very best to protect and nurture the art he so loved.
Maybe that is why his students who had maintained pin-drop silence suddenly got up from their seats as they saw the parai's being brought it. Men and women both hurried to grab one each - for sticks they broke the branches of the tree that sheltered the old building. And they started to play and suddenly there was music all over. For a stranger it would have been hard to tell if the occasion was a grim or a happy one but all that mattered to the drum beaters was their mentor. In his memory they played and soon there were people who started to dance.
There was no hesitation, no embarrassment, none of the popular actors felt it was inappropriate to dance in the middle of the streets, some smiled, some wept and some looked on. They tried to fill the void they all felt so deeply with the music and dance their mentor loved. It's probably how he would have liked it.