Recording a visually spectacular Tamil theatre tradition

Hanne de Bruin’s Kattaikkuttu places the tradition within the context of larger Tamil theatre histories and influences, including Tamil cinema.

Published : Jan 11, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

A Kattaikkuttu artiste during a performance.

A Kattaikkuttu artiste during a performance. | Photo Credit: COURTESY: WWW.KATTAIKKUTTU.ORG

Kattaikkuttu: A Rural Theatre Tradition in South India by Hanne de Bruin is a petite volume that works at various levels: as a primer to the form also known as Terukkuttu or Kuttu, as a reference for comparative research, and as a possible lead or direction for further research in allied theatre forms. Detailed notes, references, and an exhaustive index add to its scholarly heft.

Kattaikkuttu: A Rural Theatre Tradition in South India 
By Hanne M. de Bruin (Series Editor: Simon Shepherd)
Metheun Drama/Bloomsbury Publishing
Pages: 216
Price: Rs.1,834.92

As part of the “Forms of Drama” series, its scope, as the series editor Simon Shepherd explains, is “scripted aesthetic activity that works by means of personation”. De Bruin introduces Kattaikkuttu through three interconnected sections: the form’s aesthetic characteristics, including its historic and socio-economic contexts; the various flexible components involved in the production of an all-night performance; and the ways in which its body of knowledge is transmitted, interpreted within the flexible framework, and the innovations generated both within the form and/or influenced by it.

A brief personal thread in the book covers de Bruin’s own journey as a student of Indology, her introduction to Kattaikkuttu through an all-night performance, her subsequent involvement with the form, meeting her husband, P. Rajagopal, a hereditary Kattaikuttu artiste, and their co-founding a school, called Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam. The book and its erudition, therefore, is as much Rajagopal’s as it is the author’s. After a decade of regular schooling combined with kuttu training for young boys and girls, the school closed down in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown due to a paucity of funds.

The conscious choice of the name “Kattaikkuttu” (referring to the wooden kattai ornamentation) used by performers of the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, instead of Terukkuttu or Kuttu, may be seen as a possible subversion of the “discourse of contempt” around the form.

Larger context

Drawing attention to classifications such as folk, classical, and modern, and binaries such as rural and urban within the formal and non-formal sectors of cultural economy, de Bruin places Kattaikkuttu within the context of larger Tamil theatre histories and wider theatre influences, including contemporary Tamil theatre and films.

She alludes to the ideological deployment of the term “classical”, rooted in anti-colonialism, which drew upon ancient Sanskrit sources, at the cost of other pasts, and the contestation and political construction of such power dynamics. With these categorisations further strengthened by the newly independent nation state, and its hangover from colonial Victorian prudery, the aesthetics of this rural Tamil performance was seen by the urban elite as vulgar and crass, leading to what de Bruin theorises as a “discourse of contempt”, unfortunately internalised by rural dominant caste communities and sometimes by the performers themselves.

However, as Kattaikkuttu gradually moved from caste obligations towards a pattern of remuneration and conditions that could be negotiated between the commissioning party and the performing group, people from dominant intermediate castes entered the arena as professional performers.

Performance and narration

Kattaikkuttu performances are generally based on episodes from the Mahabharata (Paratam in Tamil) and occasionally from the Puranas. Using songs, music, “articulated prose”, elaborate costumes, and facial drawings, Kattaikkuttu’s single all-night performance may be commissioned for individual deities or, in the event of the death of a family member, the single-night “Karna Moksham” episode may be commissioned by the family, where performative kinship ties real-life loss with the death of Karna on stage.

The 10-day-long Paratam festival, with consecutive all-night performances of episodes from the Mahabharata, culminates in the killing of Duryodhana, a giant prone mud effigy struck on the thigh at the end of the last night’s performance to signal the slaying of the eldest Kaurava king and the end of the battle.

During this period, the entire village is converted into an off-stage performance space. The story is narrated every afternoon over several days, and the all-night Kuttu is performed over 10 nights. The village is transformed, and everyday life occurs alongside epic time and space and larger-than-life kattai veshams at night. The book’s first section describes Kattaikkuttu and the various elements that are integral to it: veshams, characters, soundscapes, movement, performances, comedy, performance spaces, performers, audience ownership, and secular urban performances.

“As Kattaikuttu moved from caste obligations towards remuneration, people from dominant intermediate castes entered the arena as professional performers.”

The next section addresses the point that Shepherd makes in his series preface: the tendency to term non-scripted—script in narrow terms as textual scripts with dialogue, the relationships between people at the event, and stage directions—performances as “cultural performances”, which relegate them to detailed descriptions of the form.

Challenging this narrow understanding of script, as is the intention of the series, de Bruin analyses the different and highly flexible components of Kuttu that go into producing an all-night performance. Older palm leaf manuscripts, modern personal notes and printed chapbooks; oral reservoirs stored in the bodymind of performers and rural audiences; multimediality encompassing costume, make-up, music, and voice; and the tripartite framework of the performance, together function as “significant and persistent” scripts of Kattaikkuttu.

Taking apart these flexible building blocks through examples and translations, de Bruin’s “close-up analyses of materials, structures and sequences—of scripted forms” illustrate whence and why Kattaikkuttu is integral to a broader notion and a fuller aesthetics of theatre. The final section examines the transmission of embodied Kattaikkuttu knowledge, of older forms of training, of “being” the vesham, and of interpretations that go into “being” the vesham. It further looks at innovations in transmission such as the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, which demonstrated the possibilities of formalisation and schooling much like the “classical” forms.

Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam

Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam’s pedagogy explored techniques of imparting and retaining embodied knowledge while including women performers for the first time. Interpretation and exploration of tradition also changed the way in which women characters were portrayed on stage. For instance, the author’s analysis of Dice and Disrobing elucidates the active attempt to reshape Draupadi’s role. The inherent flexibility and adaptability of the traditional form allowed for the creation of new work and the reinterpretation of older pieces from the Paratam repertoire to explore several ethical dilemmas in the epic.

De Bruin uses the idea of nesting Russian dolls, the matriyoshka, to describe what she calls “narrative windows”: tales in the Paratam that branch out to sub-narratives, creating narratives within narratives. In much the same vein, the book opens up to provide enticing glimpses of much larger themes.

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Kattaikkuttu outsources dangerous sacrality that is unleashed in “possession-like states” to service-rendering castes. While these states may occur at predictable moments of the performance, the belief is that professional knowledge and the lowered caste status of hereditary performers is required to manage and contain this ambivalent power and its dangerous and polluting effects and channel it into a beneficial force for the community.

Rajagopal’s observation of “art as labour” is tied to such expectations, evoking Brahma Prakash’s argument of “folk” performances as “cultural labour”. (Brahma Prakash is with the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU.)

Caste obligations

Kattaikkuttu straddles the world between heroic characters, much like Kathakali, and caste obligations of handling dangerous sacrality, much like Teyyam. Caste obligations are traced to the feudal mamul system of obligatory caste and ritual labour in return for a share of the paddy harvest. This system gave way to cash payments as the economy shifted from the rural agrarian to the market.

Other changes over time, including the advent of drama companies, the mass media, and the valorous Kattai veshams, were responsible for an influx of newcomers, including Vanniyars (a politically powerful, dominant, intermediary caste) entering the profession in and around the Kancheepuram region.; for them Kattaikkuttu was not mandated ritual obligation.

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Making a distinction between Terukuttu and Kattaikkuttu, Rajagopal explains that the mobile nature of Terukuttu with Kattai veshams walking through the neighbourhood streets was quite distinct from Kattaikkuttu, which required a designated performance space. Terukuttu, according to Rajagopal, was a pre-door-to-door event that helped secure an all-night Kattaikkuttu performance for the group.

Such reflections and the generous examples provide for nuanced analyses of the form. Considering that Kattaikkuttu is a visually spectacular form, the absence of colour photographs is a minor grumble. However, readers will be amply rewarded by visiting the several YouTube links provided in the references to watch the form come alive.

Gita Jayaraj is a freelance writer and editor with an interest in ritual, performance, and gender. She is currently a research scholar at the department of humanities and social sciences at IIT Madras and has an MPhil from the Centre of Linguistics and English, JNU, New Delhi.

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