Kattaikkuttu and the World

The production carried excerpts of two famous Kuttu plays, Draupadi Tukil (Disrobing of Draupadi) and Karna Moksham (Karna’s Death). Except for a few selected Kuttu songs which could be heard throughout the production sung by other than “real” Kuttu performers to comment on the wider dramatic action, the Kuttu personae never spoke to any of the other dramatic personae outside their own Kuttu scenes. To these non-Kuttu personae they were perhaps hallucinations — Kuttu reality unhinged from its own self, from its own rural reality where other things are at stake. In the dramatic crying scene that takes place in the second part after the interval, Ponnuruvi (Karna’s wife) laments — or questions — having to lose the signs of her married stage after Karna has left to fight and die, as he has predicted himself, on the battlefield.

Even when there is scope for much more debate on how Kuttu does or does not reinforce normative behaviour for women, I did feel uncomfortable seeing this scene acted out on a French stage. Ponnuruvi’s song (“Shall I lose my vermillion? Shall I have my hair dishevelled? Shall I forget my saffron paste? Shall I lose my marriage badge? Why on earth have I been born a woman? Born a woman, shall I be damned to wander around like a ghost?”), is open to multiple interpretations. Karna’s Death in rural Tamil Nadu may be performed on the occasion of a real death incorporating the moment where a woman might become widowed in reality. I think it was the dissociation of the song from its original context (about which the audience is unaware), in combination with the fact that it was now being used (co-opted) to reflect on the position of women in India in general, that caused my unease.

In addition to its representation as being authentic Kuttu, the fixation of what is in reality a flexible Tamil “text-in-performance” is problematic, too. Clearly Théâtre du Soleil’s superbly talented actors could not go outside or beyond the Tamil text they had memorized. Even if they would have wanted to, it would have been impossible for them to react to stirrings in the audience without falling out of their (Tamil) roles. In actual all-night performances such give and take is essential and re-establishes the fact that Kuttu is owned by rural people, who commission and pay for the performances. It is their theatre. The comical and ironical intermezzos of the Kattiyakkaran, whose task it is to bring arrogant royalty (read: those in power) down to the level of ordinary people and everyday life, seems not to have been a source of inspiration for the creation of comedy — something which the production, as already stated, certainly did not lack.

Kuttu’s Mahabharata text can be easily interpreted or translated to the contemporary. Yet, in this case I could not really grasp how the two scenes of Draupadi’s Disrobing and Karna’s Death, and their male and female antagonists, connected to the rest of the production other than providing examples of how violence is meted out to Indian women (Draupadi) and love (?) transcends contempt (Karna and Ponnuruvi). This is one layer of interpretation. As I have experienced Kuttu’s interpretation of the Mahabharata, its main focus is on the production of violence leading to its characters committing acts of unbelievable viciousness and terror, physically and psychologically. They act outside any normative frame of behaviour in a haze of possession, carried away by greed, ego, power and the inability to share material wealth, often with women characters being strong pivots, as well as stakes, in the narratives. Such an interpretation addresses in its own way issues alike to terrorism and the contemporary state of the world, trying to provide some answers to inexplicable human behaviour, too.


The use of Terukkuttu in another cultural context needs to be historicized against the backdrop of other productions which have done so including, of course, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. In addition to the academic debate about the propriety of such appropriation(s), I am intrigued by the question what Terukkuttu, as an “orientalist” idiom, signals in the particular instance of Une chambre en Inde. Does the production carry a message that Terukkuttu is more alive, more powerful than Europe’s own sponsored theatres? That is probably true, at least for Tamil villages in the North of Tamil Nadu, but this does not make Terukkuttu more appreciated by the Indian bureaucracy and the urban arts establishment. And consequently, it does not really change its status as a cultural expression of the rural uneducated and illiterate, held in contempt until…. What?

And I am wondering whether Une chambre en Inde is a crucial moment for Kuttu’s future. The moment where Terukkuttu is being “presented” outside its own local context — an outside that frees it from the suppressive Indian middle-class morality and contempt — where it is being taken into a respected, well-known theatre venue embraced by a famous theatre director and by an ensemble of international, well-trained, talented performers. Is this where Terukkuttu goes “into print” to become respectable and fixed for the outside artistic world to define what this theatre is, means and should be like forever?

And I remember thinking, somewhat melancholically to myself sitting among spectators admiring the beautiful set up, costumes and performances and the exotic entries by the Terukkuttu characters: “Why cannot our own company of young professionals be on this beautiful stage in Paris — perhaps to offer a glimpse into another room in India, parallel to the one shown in this production?”

And I remember also our (i.e. Rajagopal and my) earlier question to the director and the crew, asked at a Q & A during the preliminary stage of the development of the play in Pondicherry: “What do you think will be the effect of you using Kattaikkuttu/Terukkuttu on the form and on its performers?” Our question remained unanswered then. It begins to find a few possible answers now, but also triggers many unresolved problems. And again, in all probability those who own Terukkuttu will not be able to participate in the debate and the evaluation what their theatre does and looks like through the eyes of Théâtre du Soleil and its global audiences — as it seems unlikely that the production will travel to rural India.

Dearest friends at Théâtre du Soleil – forgive me for being so critical. I admire your work and courage and it was a true joy watching Une chambre en Inde, seeing your passion and talents at work and triggering my imagination and passion (as should be clear from this response). Yet to have true liberté, egalité and fraternité for all remains a far dream, if not a hallucination. I am looking forward to seeing your production travel to as many stages as possible to stimulate a polemic without which we cannot even begin to try and reach out to materialize such a dream.

Hanne M. de Bruin
15 May 2017

Hanne M. de Bruin works as Programme Director/Facilitator for the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, an association of professional Kattaikkuttu performers. Together with her husband Kattaikkuttu actor, director and playwright, P. Rajagopal, she helped set up the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam in 2002.

The Gurukulam is a residential school where rural children and young people can train as professional Kattaikkuttu actors and musicians without having to give up their formal education. Kattaikkuttu was an all-male prerogative. This is for the first time that girls have access to all aspects of Kattaikkuttu training. The Gurukulam runs its own repertory company, the Kattaikkuttu Young Professionals (KYPC), which is the first-ever mixed gender Kattaikkuttu ensemble.

Hanne translated the all-night version of the Tamil play Karna Moksham (Karna’s Death) into English. She was instrumental in a reinterpretation of the play Pakatai Tukil (Dice and Disrobing) directed by Rajagopal and performed by the Kattaikkuttu Young Professionals Company.

Rajagopal ran his own Kattaikkuttu theatre company for more than 40 years performing all leading male roles. He is now the principal teacher of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam transmitting his very specific style of Kattaikkuttu to the young students of the school.

Rajagopal and Hanne live in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu (South India).
The Kattaikkuttu Sangam and Gurukulam are based in Punjarasantankal Village, near Kanchipuram.

For a preview of the Gurukulam, please go to: https://vimeo.com/35152951 (2012) and https://vimeo.com/118780763 (2014).

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