[Guest post by Cal Brackin in Kanchipuram, India]
I work and live at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, which is a school that provides formal education while professionally training students (ages 8-18) to perform in a regional theater form known as Kattaikkuttu. The school is in southern India in the state of Tamil Nadu. It was founded by Kattaikkuttu actor P. Rajagopal who was taken out of school at the age of 10 to act, but later realized the value of the formal education he was missing. He has since worked to realize his dream of transmitting the skills of Kattaikkuttu theater arts and formal education to girls and boys at a single school.
Kattaikkuttu is a full-theater production with costumed actors. Dialogue, song and dance are an integral part of it. There is also a full chorus who sing and play instruments. Performances run all night long in this traditional form of storytelling from the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written with about 1.8 million words. The stories being so long and performances so elaborate make Kattaikkuttu performances last a whole night.
Five-months ago, I arrived by train in Chennai, took a bus to Kanchipuram, then took an auto-rickshaw to arrive at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam for dinner at 7 p.m. While scooping up stewed potatoes and rice with my hand, I was asked, “Are you going to come to the all-night Kuttu performance?” I replied, “absolutely.”
Before the children began their all-night Kattaikkuttu performance, they held a ceremony inside the performers canopy tent to bless their costume items. Candles were burned while several adults led the children through prayers with their hands solemnly pressed together. When the prayers ended, the production started. Performers sat in a circle applying red and blue makeup with jet-black eyebrows and mustaches.
Seven hours into the performance, my back was cramped and head heavy from sitting through the Kuttu. Demon god characters shouted from the stage while drums popped and thumped to the accompaniment of singers and a wheezing flute. Kuttu performances tell complicated stories from the Mahabharata where gods quarrel with humans through moral dilemmas. Oftentimes, only men perform this theater form, but the Kattaikkuttu envisioned a theater company that broke gender barriers and encouraged girls to perform. Girls, discouraged from performing due to perceived weakness or impropriety, perform as spinning warriors that own the stage along male counterparts.
At five a.m., men, women, and children in the audience were sprawled out on mats sleeping, but the majority of the estimated 300 people were still captivated by the show. Near the end of the show I walked beyond the village on a dirt road bisecting rice paddies and palms reflecting on the culture, artistry, and humanity of the young performers of the Kattaikkuttu Sangam. It has been my pleasure and an inspirational experience to be living here.
I came to be at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam as an American India Foundation Fellow, which is an experiential learning opportunity in India where participants work in various sectors of international development (education, livelihoods, health, environment, law). Throughout my time in India I’ve been privileged to join 31 intelligent and ambitious men and women from India and the United States. Through our experiences, we’ve collaborated and learned from youth with big dreams, women who started milk collectives to earn their fair share and break barriers, and empower people to work for better lives.
Sketching is a way I experience, share, and capture moments of my life. I draw scenes in the moment, with the scents of food, honking of horns, crowds of curious onlookers, and expressions of people I admire imbued into each drawing. I hope you enjoy looking through these drawings, a lens into my world, as I experience serving in India.