“A research-space; a laboratory..” What Kattaikkuttu and the Kattaikkuttu Sangam means to Evelien Pullens:

13 Aug

Kattaikkuttu Sangam…… for me this is a research-space; a laboratory where a continuous exploration is happening in to the best way(s) of translating and adapting ancient knowledge to the requirements of our modern times. How can we ensure that authentic, religious, literary Kattaikkuttu plays are best understood and valued in a globalizing India? How do children from a marginalised, rural background get access to and complete a theoretical and artistic education that enables them to incorporate modern media and ancient spiritual knowledge? How can these child-ambassadors of this rural Tamil culture, translate the values of their descent into information that can be used in a non-Tamil context?
Well-grounded and well-guided cultural exchange is an important medium to achieve these goals. Mutual learning will inspire Indian and non-Indian people, as well as these young students of Kattaikkuttu.

Hanne and Rajagopal have spent their entire lives to investigate what is the essence of culture, (good) education and the arts. Their combined academic and practical knowledge and skills helps them to look at these issues from different points of view. All other people who work at the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam with passion and great involvement contribute to the overall aim. Even if it is not recorded – written down or filmed – the memories and energies of each and everyone are being preserved and handed down through collective memory to the next generation.


Epics in Indian Life: Concert Pianist Diana Ambache finds a new inspiration in Tamil Nadu

7 Aug

I knew I needed a change. Career-wise and in myself, I was at a cross roads. For nearly a quarter of a century I’d directed and played with my own orchestra, the Ambache Chamber Orchestra; playing Mozart collaboratively with no conductor, and reviving music by women composers. In some ways the personal stuff was more complicated. Over the last ten years I’ve had a series of meningiomas (benign brain tumours) which had left me in low spirits. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and the surgical skills and care of the NHS, the physical problems have been dealt with; coping with the emotional effect has not been so simple.

Both in my career and for pleasure, I’ve travelled a lot and always loved it, and Asia’s colourfulness is a big magnet for me. When I saw an advert for a volunteer to go and teach English in a performing arts school in Southern India, I found it an attractive idea. I spoke with some people who’d been there and saw that they thought well of it. Another bonus would be to miss the English winter – I’ve always hated the cold and the lack of light. But it was a shot in the dark.

So off I went in October 2010, to the heat, colours and smells of Tamil Nadu, to find I was part of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, in Punjarasantangal village, near Kanchipuram, about 50 miles from Chennai. Not only was the School in a fine new building out in the peaceful countryside, away from the noise and pollution of Kanchipuram, but I felt immediately welcomed by the friendly atmosphere and openness of the people. Curiosity abounded: “wot your nem?” (and many further questions) was asked of me wherever I went. Right from the start I enjoyed the delightful contrast to our English reserve.

There were 44 children, aged from 7 to 17. They came from very poor families, some farmers, some working as Kattaikkuttu actors; both are low caste and low paid activities. Most of the children arrived at the school malnourished, but keen to learn. I’ve never before met such a bright, lively, expressive, and open bunch of children as these. They were instantly inclusive, and sharing their wonderful energy and exuberance, I felt buoyed up by them.

One of the many delights this school gave me was discovering a whole new (old) art form, I’d never previously heard of. Kattaikkuttu (kuttu for short) is a singing/dancing/acting drama, depicting stories from the Mahabharata, normally presented in all-night village celebrations. This is usually from 10pm to 6am, avoiding the heat of the day, and then at sunrise the villagers go off to work in the fields. Not only was I being enriched by these stories, but also by a unique, local, artistic way of telling them.

That apart, the school was an extraordinary community in itself. It was run by a couple with many skills and a light touch. Rajagopal came from the kuttu tradition; his father and grandfather had lead their own kuttu companies. He created the school to pass on his knowledge, and to include girls in a form previously exclusively for men. His Dutch wife Hanne looked after the business side of the school, and had a talent for attracting interesting people to work there. It was a close-knit community; I seemed to acquire a whole new family in one fell swoop.

Watching their kuttu rehearsals I was immediately struck by the performing and communicative strengths of the children. No teenage inhibition here; they were committed to direct and full expression, whatever they were doing. One young boy was so full of joy he used to go round the school skipping and cart-wheeling; his real name meant Sun God and I privately nicknamed him Mr Excitement. We did (English) Reading together, and he noticed that I got the giggles when he read the word “shop!” in a high pitched voice; so he would say it whenever he saw me. Talk about Pavlov’s dog.

For me one of the pleasures of travel has been encountering other people’s ideas. So many things in India caused me to pause in my thinking. Time and again I realised that I didn’t understand the culture, and so I couldn’t make a judgement. What a release that was! It meant I spent more time observing the different cultural ways, and less time forming opinions.

I sometimes worry about the blandification of the world. However the human imagination is alive and well in South India; it’s such a colourful place, there are many expressions there of different ways to live life, which is so stimulating and invigorating – I was soon out of my rut.

Although I had music teaching experience, the task of teaching English was new to me. What I learnt straight away was how different their needs were. Firstly, the wish to learn was so strong that there were almost none of the UK schools’ problems over discipline. The children I taught daily ranged from Reading with the younger ones (“I fust, I fust!“), to a group of five delightful 11-year old girls, to a conscientious 15-year old studying for the government Standard 10 exams, to a couple of older kids, not doing an exam.

These last two were very normal teenagers who, for reasons I never fully understood, were not talking to each other and had very different interests. Whatever I suggested, the girl’s instinctive reaction was “noh, noh, noh!”. However, when I started doing something with the boy, her competitive instincts took over, and she joined in, to show how good she was. Alongside all this, she was an excellent dancer, and frequently took the lead in the kuttu dramas. Actually she epitomised the Indian girl’s problems: she was avoiding taking her Standard 12 exam as she thought her parents would marry her off at that point, professional performing not being thought a suitable job for a woman.

The class of the five girls was called Vaiduriam (cat’s eyes – all classes were named after gemstones). As girls, they were considered to be a few years behind, educationally. But they were charming, beautiful, sharing and affectionate. Who could, or would, resist such warmth? In class, we talked, and read, and did a bit of writing, though that was more difficult for them. What they most enjoyed were games – specifically, The Memory Game – turning over and remembering pairs of cards. I know it’s related to the way they learn by rote, but they were brilliant at this game, while I was completely hopeless. They also expressed tremendous excitement when they realised they knew where a pair was.

A touching aspect of this game was when one of them saw I wasn’t doing well, she would slip me some of her pairs. Also, when I left the School, another young girl gave me a satin pink rose for my hair. Such giving from people who have almost nothing was nearly heart-breaking. Curiosity was evident here too: some of them liked to sit next to me in class and gently pinch my skin, as if finding out whether I was the same as them. Yes, personal space is not the same in India; I had thought my body was my own, but I had to adjust that thinking too.

They all loved games, and they played together whenever not in classes. The boys were, naturally, mad about cricket. They also enjoyed playing Scrabble, endlessly thinking up new English words and asking me what they meant! They were so sharing about everything that they would ask for my help with their turn; indeed ‘helping’ was another charming aspect of this group (and has become an almost technical term in my London home). And as they held all the hands of tiles open for everyone to see, very occasionally it seemed like I had put down most of the words on the board.

Humour was another attractive trait, and laughter was heard all round the school. It was also brilliantly used in the kuttu. Although the stories were about deities, in the drama the link between these characters and us mere mortals was a clown or buffoon (pronounced pupoon). This school had a pair of clowns, playing together and off each other wonderfully, delighting in the absurd, and doing slapstick stunts that made me grin from ear to ear, along with all the audience.

As universal reference points, the Indian epic stories were part of their daily lives, perhaps even more than the Bible stories are for westerners. The Mahabharata characters were not just familiar, but real to them. Also, they didn’t just like the goodie-goodies; for example, they thought Rama, hero of the Ramayana, a bit boring (whiter than white), whereas the 10-headed demon king Ravana (who’d kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita) was more popular. The 10 heads were another delightful example of different ideas. In the film Amadeus, Mozart wishes for three heads to wear all the different wigs he liked – he didn’t know the half of it!

Their respect for these characters was similar to their respect for their elders. Rajagopal’s classes always received complete attention, as the children were so absorbed in what he was telling them. When I occasionally had trouble with a student playing up in class, I sometimes said “shall we go and talk with Rajagopal?” There would be no further problems with them that day.

As well as the exuberance of the children doing the kuttu, both the dancing and the clothes were quite wonderful. Because originally done by fire-torch light (no electricity), the costumes were mostly bright red, and the deities wore huge ornamental head-dresses. Amazingly, under these cumbersome crowns, they did the most fabulous pirouettes – like whirling dervishes. With the sense of commitment I’ve spoken of, I was always impressed with their performances. They coped with problems that I, as a western performer, would have got upset about. One performance was interrupted by speeches from a pompous politician (the sponsor). The kids were real pros, completely unfazed, and simply continued when he’d finished.

As you can imagine, I was quite inspired by all these qualities. I’ve not volunteered like this before and I discovered the value of giving in a new way. It’s completely reciprocal: you both give and receive; everybody benefits. After six months there, the effect on me was to come home full of their enthusiasm. I haven’t felt so positive about the world in years. They’ve even given me new directions in life: I’ve done a proper training in teaching English to foreigners, so I could teach immigrants here. I’m starting a new fund for women composers; and maybe I’ll go off on another amazing Asian adventure.

Kattaikkuttu: Through a Stranger’s Gaze

1 Aug

I began writing this blog “What does Kattaikkuttu mean to me?” a couple of weeks ago.  Following the visit of two funding ambassadors, who are neither artists nor familiar with Kuttu or Tamil culture, I found my standpoint and perception of Kuttu has shifted over the past 3 months.  Having lived at the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam and experienced many full night performances, I find I am no longer a complete outsider.  In answering some of their questions I realized my own knowledge and fully appreciated what Kattaikkuttu means to me.

What hits me most about Kuttu is the strong role it plays in people’s lives.  It is rooted in the heart of the village community.  Where do you find theatre in London where a community shares so much – religion, ritual and art? The entire village collects the funds to pay for a performance.  They share every spare inch of available floor space that cannot, in any where compare to the segregated, comfortable seats of a London auditorium.  And, most magical of all, they share the night.  This is something you cannot fully understand until the sun rises, day breaks, the stage has vanished and the crowd dispersed.  The colour, passion, music and trance of the night seems then like a strange disorientated dream.  You feel you have witnessed the special power of a Kattaikkuttu performance, and now day is here, you must return to your life, enriched and nourished.

Kattaikkuttu in its village, rural context, in its home, is very much alive, in demand and of high value and education to the community.  It is hard to appreciate all that makes Kuttu so powerful as an outsider.  I am still discovering this art form, but was able to answer, in some way, the questions of the visitors – who did manage to stay awake for the full night.  For this I feel I owe them (and the inventor of Red Bull) full and deserved respect, for 8 hours of a foreign art form, whilst seated on the floor is not easy.

They asked why it wasn’t made shorter – surely 3 hours would be more palatable to a Western audience?

I’m sure this question is correct.  3 hours would be closer in length to our performance arts.  But we were not in a European setting – we were the only Europeans in the audience.  Indeed, visitors of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam may be the only non-Indians that encounter Kuttu.  The fact that Kuttu lasts the night is part of its power.  Children gather and giggle, women fear and follow the action, men watch attentively and enjoy devoutly.  Sleep deprivation is one way of inducing an altered state.  Kattaikkuttu performers do not act, but transform into the deities, the characters from the epic Mahabharata. It is entirely connected with the rituals and traditions of the people from rural Tamil Nadu.  It isn’t for the Western audience that Kattaikkuttu is created, rehearsed or practiced.

But surely if you want to preserve it, it needs to modernize; otherwise it will just die out? Isn’t the point to keep it alive?

A Kattaikkuttu performance of Triporakkali in July 2012- as you can see, still very much alive!

Kattaikkuttu is very much alive. It is integral to the cultural and spiritual lives of the rural villagers.  It is not an art form that aims to target middle class Europeans.  There are venues where a more “Western” palate is catered for.  The Adashakti Festival ,for example, commissioned a 3 hour performance of RamaRavana.  This perhaps is more to the tastes of Urban, or “Western” audiences.  In this context I also struggle with the term modern.  In keeping with its audiences, and often ahead of its time, Rajagopal and Hanne are making revolutionary changes to Kattaikkuttu.  Art needs to push the social boundaries that are already in place – it does not need to impose another culture’s idea of art onto its own traditions.  Certain performances are chosen by the village for certain days.  The actors instinctively alter their delivery and improvise to cater for any audience – sleepy, loud or distracted.  The empowerment of female performers with the launch of the All Women’s Company is a huge change in the traditions of this art.  It is pushing the boundaries of “acceptable behavior” for women and girls in rural Tamil Nadu as in no other company will you find female actors. Women were denied access to the stage.  And the impact of this decision may in time reach further than the performing context.  If given the chance to act, the girls may also find the courage to pursue and instigate other dreams that were previously socially “unacceptable” or forbidden.  They have also made enquiries into voice and singing training to support the struggles some of the actors face.  Such a heavy schedule of performing and singing in open spaces against outside noises can sometimes leave the actors with pain or difficulties.  I ask is this not modernization?   Keeping the art form in time and in some cases ahead of its audiences is a transforming and revolutionary theatre.

Rajagopalachari, the old minister of Tamil Nadu said in the forward to his highly celebrated Mahabharata that to understand this epic is to understand the Indian people.  “The Mahabharata has moulded the character and civilization of one of the most numerous of the world’s people…its gospel of dharma, its lesson that hatred breeds hatred, and that the only real conquest is in the battle against one’s lower nature.”[1] 

To understand the values and traditions of the village community is to understand the vital need and powerful impact of the Kattaikkuttu theatre.  To me, Kattaikkuttu means proof that theatre is essential to our spirit as individual human beings and as members of the global community.

By Hebe Reilly (volunteered at KKG between July 2011 and January 2012)

[1] C. Rajagopalachari; Mahabharata; Bhavan’s Book University 2009; Preface to the Second Edition


The Art of Storytelling

19 Jul

I arrived at the end of June in flurry of auto-rickshaws, an epic train journey and an all night Kattaikkuttu performance, just as the month of storytelling was about to begin at Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam. It began with the arrival of professional storyteller Craig Jenkins on the 5th of July on his forth pilgrimage to the school. The excitement and exhilaration of everyone at the school (not just the children) told me this was indeed a special visitor and this month would indeed be one to write about.Image

I had to admit to Craig that I never realised Storytelling was a profession and not only that but an intricate and important art form, which like dance, acting, writing or painting must come from the heart and with a passion for the meanings and truths behind what is being told or addressed.

There is a vast oral and written tradition of storytelling here in India and many Middle Eastern countries, a lot of which will now have been translated for the western world and so, will be familiar to many. For example, I’m sure most people will know of the Middle Eastern epic – One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) famously popularised and americanised by Disney. Perhaps their knowledge of the roots of Aladin or Ali Baba The Forty Thieves is a little vague however. What Craig brings to Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam is by all means not a westernised version of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, neither is it simply the beautiful oral tradition passed down to him through his much loved Guru Vayu Naidu; it is an exciting, enticing and educational experience through which he applies his successful mantra of taking old, traditional stories and bringing them into the contemporary. This allows students of all ages to deconstruct the stories they have heard their whole lives, look at them from a different angle, redesign their meanings and use them to examine contemporary issues such as gender and prejudice. This is complimented by learning new stories through which students can learn for themselves how to create, construct and perform these stories.

As I write this I realise how much I have already learnt about this art and I am excited to learn more. Our storytelling workshop ‘Mun Oru Kalattil,’ taking place at the end of this month will provide me with the perfect opportunity. It will be a truly educationaImagel and eye opening experience for everyone involved, whatever their profession or reason for attending.

However, learning about this art has made me wonder why we have lost the presence of this tradition in our own culture. Undoubtedly it is still there but I think its importance and meaning within society has been lost, especially in an educational sense. Perhaps I am wrong however and it is simply my own ignorance to the art which has denied me to see it in its full light and capacity back in my corner of the world. And with that thought, the will in me to learn more about storytelling and the stories which have been kept alive in India through this oral and written tradition, has grown all the stronger!

Enid Still

Kattaikkuttu Sangam….

16 Aug

Kattaikkuttu is the University of the People, who cannot write and read (too well). It is our theatre and our culture.


The Kattaikkuttu Sangam is a social mission-driven, grassroots performing arts organization that uses the integration of academic education and performing arts training to promote, contemporize and make sustainable the unique folk theatre form of Northern Tamil Nadu—Kattaikkuttu. The Sangam was established in 1990 by seventeen performers including the Sangam‘s current Executive Director and Artistic Leader, P. Rajagopal, and his Dutch wife, Hanne M. de Bruin.
Our principal stakeholders are marginalized young, rural people between 5 and 20 years, in addition to professional Kattaikkuttu performers and their audiences, representing the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of the rural society.

To nurture and transform Kattaikkuttu into a contemporary theatre that is alive and kicking, a carrier of traditional artistic knowledge and skills as well as a theatre open to innovation and change.
The effects of this transformation will benefit the social and economic status of professional Kattaikkuttu performers, the art form itself and the local community.

We believe that—


      • Quality artistic training and education are compelling instruments to break the vicious circle of chronic poverty and social and cultural disempowerment;
      • Professional Kattaikkuttu training and performances should be equally accessible to men and women, irrespective of their caste and religious backgrounds;
      • Traditional, all-night Kattaikkuttu performances for rural audiences should be nurtured and developed parallel to innovative Kattaikkuttu plays and ensembles catering to the tastes and needs of urban and international audiences. Both will inspire each other and help build traditional and new audiences.