Kattaikuttu: A Performing Rural Folk Theatre
Posted on: April 17, 2015.

Author: Prabhu Krishna, Chennai

The 25th Kattaikuttu performing arts festival was witnessed and enjoyed by a 1,000-strong audience on Friday night in Punjarasantankal village in Kancheepuram. Kattaikkuttu is a complex, ritual, Tamil language folk theatre involving voice, body and mind. It requires the performer—traditionally, only men—to build a character through songs, dialogue, movement, body and facial expression and to maintain this character throughout an 8-hour, all-night performance. Musicians accompany the performers on the harmonium, the mridangam and the mukavinai.

The festival began with a Carnatic musical rendition from exponent T. M. Krishna which set the atmosphere that featured episodes from the literary war epic Mahabharata. Krishna, who sang with typical conviction, demonstrated with his varali and ragamalika (literally, a garland of ragas) that Carnatic music—true to its art but stripped of brahmanical setting—could appeal to anyone with an ear for it. Even as his thani avarthanam—literally, a solo percussion where avarthanam refers to a rhythmic cycle—was in progress, more were the people coming in than leaving.

Krishna’s singing was followed by an episode of Duryodhana’s Humbling. Draupadi’s swayamvaram and the Archery Contest were performed by artists from the Mandaveli Amman Kattaikuttu Mandram of Melpettai in Villupuram. In one of the scenes in the episode of the Archery Contest, the character of Dhrishtadhyumnan takes a dig at the character of Arjuna who is dressed as a Brahmin. He tries to humiliate Arjuna who wears a Vaishnavaite mark on his forehead and speaks the Tamil Brahmin lingo, saying that the contest was not for a Brahmin and he must only stick to chanting mantras at temples. Arjuna defends his honour, valour and skill by proving Dhristadhyumnan’s arrogance wrong.

As with any form of live-performing folk theatre, ad-libbing is common in Kattaikuttu. Ad-libbing is the enthralling on-the-spot improvisation of dialogue or performance without previously preparing one’s words. Performances would also be bagged on contract during the eight-month season starting with the Tamil calendar month of Thai. Such performances were called “Bharatams” and a single bharatam these days stretches over 11 nights. Typically, a single full-fledged bharatam performs the entire Mahabharata over 24 nights.

The folk theatre of Kattaikuttu is a deeply woven thread in the fabric of the cultural folk art of 10 districts in Tamil Nadu, including Chidambaram, Cuddalore, Tiruvannamalai and Erode. Currently, around 7,000 Koothu artists are registered with the government’s welfare board—this suggests a gross population of about 15,000 artists.

Though folk theatre is legitimate and art-rich, on the flipside, all-night performing arts like Kattaikuttu are being restricted by strict timings that ban performances beyond 10 pm. Police fear bad name from such song-dance-dialogue forms in public and the resulting caste clashes that tend to break out during festivals such as these.

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