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Karnatic Kattaikkuttu at Biennale Blends Classical and Folk

In Entertainment
January 21, 2019

Behind the see-through curtain held by two male actors, Draupadi mouths dialogues musically to an animated Dusshasana ahead of his attempt to disrobe her. Just as the Kattaikkuttu artistes portray the famed Mahabharata scene in another 30 minutes, apt lyrics from a renowned Carnatic composition rend the air.

Two Dravidian arts that flourished over centuries but are shaped by different aesthetics owing to societal polarisation found a common stage at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Thus, a rural Tamil theatre found its presentation interspersed with the region’s classical music in a unique cultural experiment, which was greeted with frequent bouts of cheer.

That way, the semi-transparent veil which kept appearing at the ‘Karnatic Kattaikkuttu’ production tended to symbolise a keenness on the part of artists of the two forms to open up to each other. Nonetheless, as the audience at the Biennale Pavilion were told on Sunday evening, the programme was no way a bid to fuse Carnatic music with Kattaikkuttu theatre. Instead, the two-and-a-half hour show attempted a friendly conversation in a bid to sense their commonalities and individualities.

The “very different aesthetics” of Carnatic music and Kattaikkuttu has a lot to do with their historical evolution defined by divides in the form of caste in the medieval era to even an urban-vs-rural grooming in contemporary times, said classical vocalist T M Krishna ahead of the show. The tacit note: Carnatic has largely been a Brahmin preserve as against Kattaikkuttu whose practitioners are from marginalised communities, and that the music form banks heavily on towns as well as cities as against the theatre which thrives in the villages.

“Don’t mistake Kattaikkuttu for a vanishing traditional form, by the way,” said Chennai-based Krishna, 42. “It has a strong presence of young artists. They do regular schooling and college education while simultaneously practising the theatre.”

Middling the show with a 20-minute dialogue with Kattaikkuttu veteran P Rajagopal who replied with select Tamil songs from his repertoire, Krishna said his brush with the rural theatre gave him a culture shock. “One of the earliest sentences from Rajagopal to me was that Kattaikkuttu is ‘labour for us’. That was revelation for somebody from Carnatic music, which is all about ‘wisdom’. We keep saying ours is a spiritual pursuit for ‘jnanam’, ‘moksha’…everything centred around the brain. Kattaikkuttu opened me the window to looking at the human body to parts below the head in an artistic context.”

The January 13 show at the biennale’s Cabral Yard venue was brought in by Mumbai-based performing arts company First Edition Arts on the eve of Tamil Nadu’s harvest festival of Pongal. If the first half was about the travails of mythological Draupadi in the royal court where her five husbands (the Pandavas) had lost a game of dice and in the process mortgaged her, the second too was from the same epic where the eldest Kaurava Duryodhana seeks ways to escape overnight from death at the hands of his arch-rival Bhima on the last day of the Mahabharata war.

The dozen Kattaikkuttu artistes, who would sing lyrics as well as render dialogues in prose besides often doubling as vocalists, were accompanied on two drums, a pipe and the harmonium. Often delivered musically in an extremely high pitch, the dialogues were peppered by dashes of humour even as there were passages where body exercises came into sharp focus with the dancers twirling in varied frequencies and different-size circles.

At the conclusion of the Draupadi episode, Krishna and his wife Sangeetha Sivakumar sang a piece by classical composer Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835). The Bhairavi-raga ‘Balagopala palaya’ had its lines hailing the lord’s timely intervention that saved Draupadi from a disgraceful act chaired by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava. Violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi accompanied the Carnatic vocalists, who got percussion support from K Arun Prakash (mridangam) and N Guruprasad (ghatam).

Besides breaking into presenting standalone slices of Carnatic pieces, Krishna often sang for the Kattaikkuttu. Often, he and his classical team laughed in amusement at the Tamil dialogues from the characters. Together, the artistes totalled 18.

Musically, the two art-forms did find cross-roads with no-frills versions of ragas such as Mukhari, Mohanam and Dwijavanthi emerging during certain Kattaikkuttu passages from the artistes of the theatre. Theatrically, the Duryodhana in the second half revealed dimensions of the ‘moving stage’ when the actor, essaying the character fraught with existential pangs, crawled into the audience space, much to the surprise of the onlookers.

Going by the sample served at the Pavilion, Kattaikkuttu can be viewed from all sides: its characters do not face a particular direction. Performing-arts scholar Hanne De Bruin of the Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram of northern Tamil Nadu, said the theatre typically hosts all-night plays from Hindu Purana stories in great detail, pre-conceived additions and impromptu improvisation.