Kattaikuttu: Rural theatre at its Finest

They serve up stories of many-headed Gods and vile demons, lionhearted warriors and selfless queens; mythological legends will never lose their allure because they are so unapologetically grandiose and fantastical.  The stories are so complex, the characters so layered, that both can be interpreted and reinterpreted in a million different ways. That is why, performers love enacting mythological legends. Some choose to merely re-enact scenes from different stories while some add their own spin to the story to make it relevant to a contemporary audience. The theatre form we are analyzing today does the very same thing. The name of this form is Kattaikuttu and it is a rural theatre form practiced mainly in Tamil Nadu. The name comes from the word ‘Kattai’ which refers to the heavily embellished ornaments worn by performers and ‘Kuttu’ which means theatre. Although a theatre form, the performance has a lot of dance. Fast-paced footwork, pirouettes and high jumps are intrinsic to these dance routines.

afid org uk

Image courtesy: afid org uk

Kattaikuttu performers, in the olden days, were mostly men. The performers, accompanied by musicians, would put up overnight performances in religious settings. Even today, these elaborate performances start at 10 pm in the night and go on till about 6 in the morning. Traditional performances centre around stories from the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Draupadi’s marriage and disrobing, Arjuna’s Penance, Subhadra’s marriage and such other landmark events from these legends form the plot lines of the play. The ‘Kattai’ which is the name given to the performers who wear the ‘Kattai’ represent superhuman warriors and are the most important characters in mythological battles. Apart from the Kattai there is the clown or Kattiyyakaran who entertains, explains the epics and even guides the actions of the principle characters in the play. The harmonium, mridangam and mukavinai are the main instruments used in these performances.

While learning about this theatre form, it’s important to familiarize oneself with an organization called Tamil Nadu Kattaikkuttu Kalai Valarcci Munnerra Sangam or simply referred to as the Kattaikuttu Sangam. Started by a group of 17 rural actors and musicians, this registered society works towards protecting and furthering the interests of professional Kattaikuttu performers. Today it has developed into an umbrella organization, with many of its sister organizations undertaking various activities like educating and training young Kattaikuttu performers, opening up theatre to girls and women and organizing annual theatre festivals.

Well, written information can surely help you get acquainted with theatre form, but nothing like actually watching a performance right? So, to help you understand what a Kattaikuttu performance is like, here’s a video!