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.
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.