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The Kattaikkuttu cool

Witness young, Tamil Nadu-based artistes bring alive a rural South Indian drama form after two-hours of painstaking costume and makeup

Replete with Carnatic music, dialogues, high-energy dance and drama, Kattaikkuttu is considered a ritual theatre performed during agrarian festivals in the northern parts of Tamil Nadu.

Artistes play Kauravas in a Kattaikkuttu performance
Artistes play Kauravas in a Kattaikkuttu performance

This Sunday, six artistes from Tamil Nadu-based theatre academy, Kattaikkuttu Young Professionals Company (or Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam) will showcase an hour-long performance, Draupadi Kuravanchi on the sprawling lawns of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), presented as one of the events along side the ongoing Tabiyat: Medicine and Healing in India exhibition. Directed by Perungattur P Rajagopal, the play showcases an episode in Mahabharata where Draupadi disguises herself as Kuratti (the Lady of the Kuravar clan) to tell fortune to the Kaurava Queens.

The Kaurava queens and Draupadi (right) disguised as Kuratti
The Kaurava queens and Draupadi (right) disguised as Kuratti

"Traditionally, the audience witnessed overnight, eight-hour long performances commissioned and sponsored by rural audiences, many being small or landless farmers," shares Dr Hanne M de Bruin-Rajagopal, facilitator of Kattaikkuttu Sangam (the academy is a part of it), an arts organisation that aims to contemporarise the age-old form of theatre to provide sustainable careers to the professional performers.

Kattaikkuttu artistes take close to two hours to put on their costume and makeup
Kattaikkuttu artistes take close to two hours to put on their costume and makeup

K for Kattaikkuttu
The theatre derives its name from ‘kattai’ meaning wooden ornaments inlaid with mirror work and ‘kuttu’, which means theatre. "The ornaments, including different types of crowns, shoulder and breast jewels, usually worn by royal characters. Here, the actor combines a complex array of skills of producing elaborate dialogues, acting, vigorous dance and the ability to apply mask-like makeup, in addition to singing," shares Bruin-Rajagopal, adding that the make-up and costume is a demanding two-hour process, done by the actors themselves. "It signals the beginning of the identification process of the actor with his/her role."

Women take stage
While previously considered males-only, the theatre now witnesses participation from female artistes too, thanks to the training imparted by the company, considered as the first co-ed school in the theatre’s history. In fact, the 22-year-old S Tamilarasi, who plays the lead, is the second woman to graduate from the Gurukulam. Often, artistes begin training as early as when six years old. "They start young to develop their voices, movements and acting skills as well as to learn/memorise the different roles within Kattaikkuttu’s elaborate repertoire. This process takes between eight and 10 years," informs the facilitator.
The ensemble will also include two music students — R Balaji on the harmonium, and A Dillibabu who will take over the mridangam and dholak. "Due to budget restrictions, we couldn’t bring over a mukavinai (a high-pitched double-reed wind instrument) player, who is part of the regular Kattaikkuttu musical ensemble," she adds. The performance will feature a few English lines, besides the mainstay Tamil dialogues, in order to appeal to non-Tamil speaking audiences too.

On: March 6, 6 pm to 7 pm (two-hour makeup demo prior to the performance)
At: Museum Lawns, CSMVS, Fort.
FREE Entry

The play subjects

While most of the Kattaikkuttu stories are based on episodes from the Mahabharata, director-actor and the principal theatre teacher at the academy, P Rajagopal has recently written new plays that include an adaptation of Deliverance (a play by Rabindranath Tagore), Magic Horse (a children’s play) and RamaRavana, a reworking of the Ramayana with his female students in principal roles.

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