A leaf floats on the moisture-laden breeze, and birds call out from the trees in the sprawling compound, punctuating the silence with their shrill calls. A knot of pig-tailed girls, relatively new to the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, sit cross-legged with a volunteer, learning the nuances of arithmetic.
All of them flash bright yet shy smiles when they see me—a visitor to their school. This unique gurukulam (house of learning) is also the Centre of Performing Arts and the hub of the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, a grassroots union of professional Kattaikkuttu performers.
Eight kilometers from Kanchipuram, the city of silk-weavers and ancient temples, this gurukulam at Kuttu Kalai Kudam, right in the middle of the Punjarasantankal village, is home to 44 children. All of them come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and before being here, have either had little or no schooling at all.
Since they’ve stepped through the portals of this school, the children have not only been learning standard school subjects like English, Math and Geography, but also Kattaikkuttu, a culturally-rich performing art that is popular with the rural people of northern Tamil Nadu. Also known as Terukkuttu, Kattaikkuttu is a fusion of two words, kattai, the wooden ornaments that the heroic characters of this theatre art wear, and kuttu, which means “theatre” in Tamil.
I first came across the word “Kattaikkuttu” in the website of the Kuttu Kalai Kudam almost a year ago. As I surfed through the portal, I was drawn to the section about the kids who are training to be kuttu artists. The more I read about the performing art, the school, and the work that the founders P. Rajagopal, and his lovely wife, Dr. Hanne M.de Bruin have been doing, the more I wanted to visit them and experience a Kattaikkuttu play first hand. Rajagopal is a kuttu artist, playwright, and the director of Kuttu Kalai Kudam, and Hanne is the facilitator. Armed with an invitation from Hanne and the directions to the place, I set out on my journey to the Kuttu Kalai Kudam to meet the dynamic couple who started the place in 2002, and the budding theatre artists who live and learn there.
It’s just 11:30 a.m., and the children still have an hour and a half of classes to go before they can break for lunch and re-group for their Kattaikkuttu lessons. Hanne and I walk around the clean, airy verandahs wrapped around the rooms, dorms, library, and offices. There are bright, glossy photographs taken by the children on the wall, photos by them and of them; a canary-yellow auto rickshaw, a group of boys in bright red jumpers, a small boy playing cricket in the clearing of a forest. “These pictures were taken by the children as part of their assignment at a photography workshop that we organized here,” explains Hanne. She adds that along with school subjects and performance training, the children are taught a variety of skills to “open as many doors as possible for these young people.” They regularly have experts coming in to teach practical life skills like computing, art, and business.
“The days are very scheduled to ensure that everything can fit in!” Hanne explains. The day is divided into school education (first half) and artistic education (second half). The first class commences at 7:30 a.m., before breakfast. Pre-lunch classes consist of Math, Tamil, English, Social Studies, Science, Movement as well as History, Economics and Geography for the older students. After lunch, kuttu rehearsals and music practice commence under the direction of Rajagopal and the other kuttu teachers. There are also slots throughout the day for cleaning, computer skills, and tailoring. After 5 p.m., there is free time and homework before dinner at 7:30 p.m.
As we talk, lunch is announced, and the children scurry out of their classes, eager for the hot meal that awaits them in the spacious kitchen. I pick up a large steel plate, and a kitchen assistant ladles on generous portions of rice,sambhar, and a delicious curry. With the plate of hot food, I walk over to the mat, where everyone is seated cross-legged, and find a place to park myself. I eat with my fingers, relishing the simple food that nourishes the body and nurtures the soul.
After lunch, the children troop off to the auditorium for their theater practice, while I sit with Hanne, and implore her to tell me more about this traditional performing art. She has a Ph.D in Kattaikkuttu, and has lived in India for twenty years, spending her time with artists. She tells me that Kattaikuttu is a complex form of Tamil theater that combines songs, words, dance, music, make-up and elaborate costumes. The traditional repertory of stories consists of selected episodes from the Mahabharata, in addition to a few purana stories like “Hiranya Vilasam,” and “Daksha Yagam,” in addition to the play “Mayil Ravanan,” based on the Ramayana. The orchestra consists of four instruments: harmonium, mridangam, dholak and mukavinai (a high-pitched wind instrument), in addition to 2 sets of tala or hand cymbals. A regular Kattaikkuttu performance begins at ten at night and goes on till 6 in the morning, and every theater artist knows several eight-hour plays by heart.
Mulling over this information, I walk towards the auditorium where the children are now spreading out grass mats and arranging containers full of make-up. They dip their fingers into bottles of yellow, blue, green, orange, red, black and white paints and smear it expertly on their faces. Older students help the younger ones with their make-up, painting intricate patterns with the deftness of seasoned artists. Hanne sees my fascinated look and proceeds to explain— “This is the Perungattur style of Kattaikkuttu to which Rajagopal belongs. The make-up of this style is characterized by the subtle color shades which symbolize the emotions of the characters and the deepening thereof.” The color of a character’s face can give you a clue about the role that they are playing.
The children slip into plastic tutus, and wear their elaborate and vibrant costumes over it. The kattai or the ornaments come next. These are made with wood and inlaid with mirror work to define the principal characters of the theatre and symbolize the heroic nature of their wearers.
Dressed in their magnificent costumes with colors and patterns on their faces, the children are totally transformed and are ready to take on the mantle of their characters in “Arjunan Tapas,” the short play that they are performing this afternoon. A child named Devan plays the role of Arjun and looks royal in his bluish-green make-up and a Kohl-black costume with three colors of the rainbow. Rajesh, with his black make-up and tousled hair is the evil rakshasi(female demon) who lusts for Arjun. Three other girls, dressed as princes, participate in the play. This hour-long performance, directed and taught by Rajagopal, has the children in splits. It’s the rakshasi who seems to elicit the loudest guffaws from the kids. I furiously click pictures, trying to capture this afternoon filled with music, dance, theatre and color. Each and every person here, from the performers to the musicians to Rajagopal, pour their hearts and souls into the play, making this episode from Mahabharata come alive.
Some of these actors, I learn, are part of the Kattaikkuttu Young Professional Company, while the girls with a few years of experience under their belt have their own “All-Girls Company.” Hanne and Rajagopal are the only ones in this field to have introduced girls to this performing art —not an easy task in a theater form that has been traditionally dominated by males. They now have 17 girl students. It’s been a rough ride and the couple has had to constantly try new methods to see what works and what does not. With minimal family support, and the negative connotation attached to women in theater in traditional societies, Hanne and Rajagopal have had to go that extra mile and more to give the girls a chance at their dream. “The girls have to be very strong and stick to their desire to be actresses—this is not easy when your loyalty is divided all the time between your family, school and your own ambition,” says Hanne, adding that recognition by the urban arts establishment, and greater exposure of the girls to different audiences would certainly help the parents to take pride in what their daughters are doing.
Bright eyes twinkle around us as we talk. Rajagopal tells me that he has been performing Kattaikkuttu since the age of ten, and took over his father’s theater company at the age of 19, after the latter’s death. Over the years, he has perfected his craft and is passing it on to the children. In those bright eyes that look at us, there is a passion for the art and a deep love for the school and the couple.
Saraswathi, a confident 16-year-old, who loves to dance and is the first girl to play the mukhavinai, chips in, with her ebullient “I want to teach others this wonderful art of Kattaikkuttu, and want to spread the word.”
Mahalakshmi, another smiling 13-year-old, loves the song and dance aspect of this theatre form. “I don’t just want to go to school, but like the fact that I’m learning an art form along with it,” she quips, adding that in her free time, she practices playing the drums.
The Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam is about dreams and dynamism, theater and tradition. It is also about tenacity and oodles of perseverance. It isn’t easy, the performance training or the teaching. The running of the school, getting Kattaikkuttu more recognition, and persuading the parents of the children to let them go for their dream, can be even more challenging. Hanne and Rajagopal mention that fighting urban prejudices regarding this art and the performers, improving cooperation and loyalty between Kattaikkuttu performers, keeping the tradition in the hands of rural people, and opening the theater for girls and women, are some of their biggest challenges.
Passion and a strong will keeps this optimistic and talented duo on their toes, looking for methods to improve the art form and getting it the recognition it truly deserves. Now the gurukulam hosts several all-night theatre sessions in their premises, and the children have performed in various parts of India and even been abroad.
Slowly and steadily, one step at a time, Hanne, and Rajagopal are taking Kattaikkuttu forward, introducing it to more audiences. Through the school, they are preserving, enhancing, and passing on an art form that is so much part of South Indian heritage and culture.
Chandana Banerjee is an independent journalist and content writer based in India. She writes for various websites, newspapers, magazines, e-books, e-learning and corporate communications. She also runs her own writing company called Pink Elephant Writing Studio.
Getting there: The Centre for Performing Arts and gurukulam is eight kilometers from Kanchipuram. You will need to reach the temple town first and then drive out to the Punjarasantankal village.
By air: Take a flight to Chennai, and then hire a cab to take you to Kanchipuram, which is 75 km from the city.
By rail: Trains for Kanchipuram are available from Chennai, Chengalpattu, Tirupati, and Bangalore. Get off at Kanchi, and then take an auto rickshaw or cab to the school.
By road: Kanchipuram is well connected by a good network of roads. Several buses ply between Chennai and Kanchipuram. If you’d rather travel by car, hire a cab and drive all the way to the Kuttu Kalai Kudam.