Exploring Kattaikkuttu and an All-Night Performance

As I prepared to interview with Dr. Hanne De Bruin during the matching phase of the American India Foundation Clinton Fellowship this summer, I had no clue what Kattaikkuttu was. I had never heard of or had any experience with the rural art form of Tamil Nadu. I had participated in local art and theatre in the United States for much of my childhood. I have been in many plays and seen many more, and I could not imagine watching an eight-hour performance let alone performing one. The students and professional players at the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam and Sangam do just that! Fast-forward to a few months later, now here as an AIF Clinton Fellow after all, it was an honor to have the opportunity to watch one of these all-night performances. I am excited to share the experience.

On one Saturday during my first month at my Fellowship host organization, the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, two buses filled with the performers, their costumes, and musical instruments, left for the production. We arrived in a village, about twenty kilometers away, well after the sun had set and darkness had fully encompassed the land. The people there warmly greeted us. There was nothing set up, no stage or backstage area that I could recognize. Rather a clear piece of road in the middle of the village was illuminated with bright LED lights and a curtain was quickly hung to create a barrier. Once the backstage was set up with straw and a tarp covering the damp ground, all the actors, musicians, and helpers gathered around P. Rajagopal, the co-founder of the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, lifelong Kuttu performer, and teacher. They were getting ready for a puja, a ritual ceremony in Hinduism, which proceeds every Kattaikkuttu performance. It is done in honor of Ganesa, the elephant-headed god, because of the belief that he will remove all obstacles (de Bruin 192). After the ringing of hand cymbals and silent prayers to one’s chosen god, comes a flurry of preparations (de Bruin 193). The students gather under a single light and apply traditional makeup transforming themselves from kids and teenagers to kings, clowns, princes, and gods.

 

I sat amongst the audience to watch and felt as if I was surrounded by the whole community. Encircling me was a throng of children, all wiggling in excitement. Soon the musicians came on stage and sat behind a bench, the only piece of scenery on stage. Without further warning, the Melakkuttu or musical introduction begins with traditional musical instruments, harmonium, drums, mukhavinai (an instrument like an oboe), and cymbals blending harmoniously. Simply put, it is loud and attention grabbing – you can’t look away as the musicians perform. It is even more enchanting when the actors come on stage, at first hidden behind a curtain and then springing forward to interact with the crowd. Their costumes are bright and full of detail, made by a former student and current performer. They dance and sing, each step placed with precision, even as the hours of performance wear on. My favorite characters are the clowns who are in almost every scene and are funny even if you don’t understand Tamil. They interact with the other characters as well as with the audience, using improv as their main tool, while also keeping the story on track. No small feat for eight hours.

As hard as it is to explain a Kattaikkuttu performance, I think it is even harder to explain its importance. For those who consume or perform Kuttu, it is not just a representation of the characters and stories, but it is completely real. The actors don’t just portray the characters but rather act as a vessel for the gods and goddesses to use. This is reminiscent of possession and affects the audience as well. People hardly look away for hours. The kids who sat around me, never slept and stayed awake for the whole production, even when I and other people would briefly lay down where we sat and sleep. Performances take place for many reasons, such as during agricultural festivals or as a celebration of life at funerals. Kattaikkuttu is deeply integrated with the land and the people. It is a traditional form of art that has seen a decline as a whole. Yet in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu, it is very much alive and vibrant.

Kattaikkuttu Stage in the only road in the middle of a small village in Tamil Nadu
The Kattaikkuttu Stage – Set on the only road in the middle of the village

References: 

De Bruin, Hanne M. “Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Theatre Tradition.” Gonda Indological Studies, Vol. 7. Groningen (The Netherlands): Egbert Forsten, 1999.

“Our Story.” Kattaikkuttu Sangam, 2019. https://www.kattaikkuttu.org/new-page-4.

Loren is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. For her Fellowship project, she is training youth on the use of vegetable gardens to learn about organic food production, healthy nutrition, and environmental sustainability. Loren graduated in 2019 with a dual degree in agriculture and natural resources, and peace and social justice studies. Loren discovered her passion for sustainable agriculture and food equity during her gap year between her secondary and undergraduate studies. During that year, she traveled to Japan and Hawaii. While in Hawaii, she volunteered at Mala’ai garden, a culinary and school garden associated with Waimea Middle School. She found that she loved working outside with the students and growing and cooking food in community with others. When she began her undergraduate career, she knew her focus would be on food, agriculture, and food systems. She found Berea College to be unique with a no-tuition-guarantee and work-study program that provides low-income students with a wonderful education as well as work, internships, and research opportunities. Loren’s work experience at the college included time on the college farms as well as cooking, baking, and processing foods from the farm to sell to the community at the Berea College Farm Store, where she was head student baker and student supervisor. She won a summer research scholarship to the University of Minnesota to work on studying the impact of cover crops on the soil in organic agriculture and spent time working at Berea Urban Farm creating production space and a food forest plan. Loren is pursuing her passion for sustainable agriculture through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, where she looks forward to working with students in the organic gardens and demonstrating cooking those products in the community kitchen. Although she has never traveled to India, she has great respect for the county and its people and is very excited for this adventure.

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