Storytelling is an art form greatly revered by the Tamil people. The art of narrating tales has flourished in Tamil Nadu for many centuries in various forms such as Theru Koothu, Poikkal Kuthirai Aatam, Bommalattam, and Bharathanatiyam. One of the traditional storytelling forms is Villu Paatu, which is performed with a villu (bow) measuring about 7 to 8 feet in length.Villu Paatu intersperses music with storytelling art, narrating a range of stories from mythological to social. This art is mainly performed during Kodai festivals in the temples of Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Tuticorin, and Nagercoil.
Villu Paatu has its roots in the southern regions of Tamil Nadu between the 16th and 18th centuries CE, or perhaps even as early as the 9th century CE.
There are several theories pertaining to the origin of this storytelling art. Some people believe that Villu Paatu was developed by ancient man to overcome his fear and hallucinations by engaging himself in something more fearsome. A few researchers trace back the origins to the heroic age, when this art was performed to celebrate the victory of the hero or to offer worship to the deceased warriors.
Some believe that when early kings went hunting they were filled with remorse, and to make amends, they sang in praise of the Lord by transforming their bows into instruments.
References to Villu Paatu have been found in many of the oldest Tamil works of literature, such as the Silapathikaram, Thaivachilayar’s Virali Vidu Thoodhu, and Kavimani Desika Vinayagam Pillai’s Marumakkal Vazhi Manmium.
The name of the musical storytelling form was derived from the main instrument that is used – the “villu” or “bow,” having a single string with jingling bells attached. The bow foundation of the instrument accounts for several other variations of the name Villu Paatu, such as Vil, Villu, Villadi, Villadipaattu and Villadichanpaattu Villisai.
Villu Paatu is usually performed by five members:
The leading singer, called the pulavar or annavi
The second singer, who often is also an instrumentalist
The player of the kudam (a pot-like instrument)
The player of the jaalra
The player of the udukku (the instrument of Lord Shiva)
The main role is performed by the pulavar, who plays the main instrument – the villu. He is usually a poet as well as a singer who should have a good sense of timing. He should be able to vary the songs according to the occasion and narrate the stories with good humor.
The performance begins with a pooja (invocation) and thuvakkamelam or theermanam (signature rhythms). The artists do not require any make-up in Villu Paatu.
The bow-shaped villu has a long string under tension attached to each end. The center of the convex side of the bow rests on the earthenware pot-like instrument called the kudam. There are numerous bronze bells hanging upside down from the bow. The main player sits in middle with two wooden rods called veesukols or villadi kol in each of his hands. At the end of each rod, there are two cymbals with beads or metal balls inside. The artist raises and moves his hand gracefully according to the mood of the song.
The kudam can be compared with the ghatam of carnatic music. It provides a base tone of “ghum ghum” to the high pitch of jingling bells tied to the bow. The kudam player beats against the mouth of the kudam with a cardboard-like plate made for the purpose. The combination of bow music and kudam music sounds sweet, charming, and melodious.
The udukku is an instrument in the shape of a small drum that is broad at both ends with a narrow waist in the middle. Other names for the udukku are tudi, parai, or idai surungu parai. The player holds the instrument in the horizontal position to make sound. The harmonium or sruthi box is another instrument used these days, and cymbals are also used at times. The traditional instruments pambai, urumi, and thakkai were known to drown out the narration, and are now usually replaced with dolak, dolki, mridhangam, tabla, and kol.
The assisting artists sing the chorus with the main performer, repeating the last word of the phrase to draw the attention of the audience. The word that is pronounced often is “aama,” which means “yes”.
The art of Villu Paatu grew quickly and steadily in the 20th century, and it was supported by many experts.
Originally, Villu Paatu was most often rendered as mournful music. Later, the novelty of humor was introduced by N. S. Krishnan, the Tamil movie actor. N. S. Krishnan used this art to narrate the situation of his nation during the British rule in order to infuse nationalistic zeal among the public. To convey the message easily and quickly, he introduced humor into it. The highlights of Villu Paatu during these times were the stories of Mahatma Gandhi, such as “The March to Dandi.”
Some other artists who contributed to the growth of Villu Paatu are Sathur P. Pitchai Kutti, Kothamangalam Subbu, Thovalai Sundaram Pillai, Eolappa Pillai, Kuladeivam Rajagopal, Sevalkulam Thangaiya, Villathikulam Rajalakshmi, Sivagasi Gandhimathy, Kovilpatti Ghinnappa, Srinivasan, Chellappa, and Kanchi Muthuganesan. Contemporary artists include Kavignar Subbu Arumugam, S.S. Rajendran, Athur Gomati, and Kanchipuram Vajravelu.
Subbu Arumugam popularized the art of Villu Paatu with his great enthusiasm. Impressed by his talent, N. S. Krishnan, the comedy king of the Tamil film industry, invited him to Chennai and involved him in performing in his Villu Paatu programs. Subbu Arumugam also wrote many comedy movie scores for his mentor. He became an expert in Villu Paatu and performed a variety of themes.
Another performer contributing to the art of Villu Paatu is Ms. Gandhimadhi of Madurai. She has been a Villu Paatu artist for more than 30 years, beginning the study of singing and instruments as a child.
Villu Paatu is performed mainly during festivals. The festivals have gained worldwide popularity, as many organizations are involved in preserving ancient arts.
However, the art has undergone some evolutionary changes. During older days, the artists’ purpose was to keep audiences awake during long festivals. The stories that were performed were Neeli Kathai, Sudalai Maadan Kathai, the Khansaheb duel, Anju Rajakkal Kathai, Esakki Kathai, and many others. Though these stories are familiar to the public, they liked to hear them in the form of Villu Paatu. Later, the audiences wanted to hear contemporary stories or stories related to their life. Local government began using Villu Paatu to spread social awareness among the people. Recently added themes are science and health issues such as HIV/AIDS, the dangers of smoking, and nutrition.