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The Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam: A theatre commons in action?


We are very pleased to include this guest blog post from Hebe Reilly – MA Applied Theatre student at the University of Manchester. The post arises from her MA research on theatre commons in India and the UK.

When reading Jenny Hughes’ posts on the theatre commons I began contemplating my experiences of the rural Tamil theatre form Kattaikkuttu. Kattaikkuttu, or kuttu, is a rural, folk theatre form found in the North Eastern region of Tamil Nadu in South India and amongst Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. Traditional performances begin around 10pm and last eight hours, finishing as the sun rises. They are performed on a piece of common village land, and entire communities spend the night on blankets, mats and even the floor to enjoy kuttu. I am familiar with Kattaikkuttu as I spent six months living at the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam. The Gurukulam is a residential school for children aged 7 – 21 to learn the art of Kattaikkuttu theatre as well as study academic subjects.

This post will review the practices of the Gurukulam, through what Jenny calls a pair of commons tinted spectacles’.  I propose that there is a vibrant ‘theatre commons’ in action in the rural Tamil village of Punjarasanktankal, where the Gurukulam is based. International artists frequently visit the school, where, in return for a six-month teaching residency they receive free accommodation, food and the opportunity to engage in the practices of the theatre and the school. As new artists arrive, share their skills and take the lessons from the Kattaikkuttu performers, ‘the commons’ is being added to and drawn from.

Kattaikkuttu offers a unique way of sustaining itself, through the collective commissioning of a performance by the audience. De Bruin (1999: 57) attributes Kattaikkuttu’s power of survival to the ‘golden rule of kirāmattiṉ ishṭam’. Kirāmattiṉ ishṭam is the idea that every performance should meet the wishes of the audience. The sponsors of the kuttu event, members of the community audience, decide which performance should be played and can influence the casting. Kattaikkuttu also often draws inspiration for its plays from the Indian Hindu epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. These are cultural resources, not owned by anyone, but are a part of oral tradition and the embodied knowledge of Indian society, engaging with ‘the past as a commons’. Therefore there is a great sense of collective ownership in the spectatorship of Kattaikkuttu theatre. The fact that performances traditionally take place on a piece of common land, in the audience’s village, mean that they are freely accessible – there are no ‘cheap seats’ or ‘expensive boxes’, but the entire audience share the ground equally, kuttu is accessible both on the common land and in ‘the commons’.

During my own artistic residence at the Gurukulam, I directed a new play entitled After Abimanyu. The production is as an example of the commons ideal ‘barter without extraction’ where both director and participants entered the process with mutually agreed aims and benefits in mind. Nine performers from the Kattaikkuttu Young Performers Company devised After Abimanyu. Prior to directing After Abimanyu I developed a good professional relationship with the cast through workshops such as vocal training. A trusting relationship between visiting director and local performers is important to ensure barters are without extraction. After Abimanyu is a based on the tragic story of Abimanyu, a young character from the Mahabharata who is killed by his uncles on the battlefield. The performance coincided with rehearsals of the Kattaikkuttu Young Performer’s Company 2011 Kattaikkuttu version of Abimanyu written and directed by Artistic Director P. Rajagopaal. My play, After Abimanyu focused on the life of other characters after Abimanyu’s death and used naturalistic acting techniques. Cast members observed how naturalism, which is not included in traditional kuttu training, allowed them to bring new subtleties of emotion to their acting style, and they gained skills they could transfer to the kuttu version of the play. It was therefore beneficial for the local performers as they developed their range of acting techniques. The performance also satisfied the desires of the Gurukulam, our host, who wished to use drama as a method of learning the English language. My own practice was enriched in terms of directing cross-cultural theatre and working with actors trained in a different discipline. The process of ‘barter without extraction’ here was successful as both director and cast participated freely and neither were exploited.

In 2014, Tamilarasi, a Gurukulam graduate and apprentice teacher, and a member of the Kattaikkuttu Young Performer’s Company travelled to Switzerland to train for 3 months at Scuola Dimitri di Teatro. The 3-month scholarship was the first of its kind, and arranged by some of the acrobatics teachers from Scuola Dimitri who had visited the Gurukulam. Tamlia, who comes from a financially impoverished, rural home, and is just 19 years old, was not in a position to pay for her travel and living expenses. The funds were raised by supporters of Kattaikkuttu from all over the world who joined in efforts to promote donate and give so that the theatrical exchange could happen. Staff and volunteers of the Gurukulam made a lot of effort to ensure that this went ahead, with no financial compensation, however a contract has been made so that Tamila will remain at the Gurukulam to teach what she learnt in Switzerland to the future students.   This contract is one method of upholding the important ideal of ‘the commons’, ‘that everyone can make use of the commons so long as they don’t take them away from others or leave them depleted’ (see the theatre commons posts).

Tamila’s story, and the play After Abimanyu are examples of theatre production and training that is situated in ‘the commons’. There are, however, some important factors to consider in regards to these exchanges.   Participation by both director and actors in After Abimanyu was unpaid and the performance was free. Similar with Tamila’s experience, the profits of these exchanges were not financial, but theatrically beneficial. In the context of the Gurukulam, where accommodation and food is provided for both director and performer, finances are not a pressing concern. However, if the Gurukulam is to be offered as a model for the ‘theatre commons’, it is important to consider the lack of financial gains. Artists are not, and nor should they be expected to work for free and finances will pose a significant problem to the success of ‘the commons’.


Bruin, H. M. (1999) Kattaikkuttu: The flexibility of a South Indian theatre tradition. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.

For further information on Kattaikkuttu please see: www.kattaikkuttu.org






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