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



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