New centre for performing arts in South Indian village

April 2006 -

A brand new building has arisen among the palm trees of Punjarasantankal, a village in southern India. It is the new centre for performing arts, the Kuttu Kalai Kudam, which was dedicated on 26 March 2006 amid considerable festivities. Here the tradition of Kattaikkuttu, musical theatre from Tamil Nadu, will be passed on. In addition to a podium, rehearsal space, office and adequate storage for the colourful costumes, the centre is home to a theatre school for young people. “On the one hand we are maintaining tradition; on the other, we see the influence of contemporary theatre. This combination results in tremendous vitality,” explains Hanne de Bruin. She is one of the centre’s founders, along with actor and instructor P. Rajagopal.

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The public for the new theatre will consist of villagers. In addition to Kattaikkuttu – the provincial theatre – the public can also see first hand Indian cultural traditions that they could previously only see on TV, such as the classical dance form, Bharata Natyam by attending productions at the Kuttu Kalai Kudam centre. The Kuttu Kalai Kudam will bring that culture back to the village. That not only creates jobs, in an area devoted exclusively to industry; the Kattaikkuttu provincial theatre also provides a stage on which people can contribute to their cultural identity. De Bruin: “What is unique is that people themselves can choose: this is the type of production we want to see. In spite of film and television, this is still possible, financed by the villages itself. That means that there is broad-based support from society.”

A Kattaikuttu production consists of both sung and spoken text. In the spoken parts, the actors incorporate references to current events. But the production is not really political. The actors cannot allow themselves to choose sides because this would mean a potential loss of income; moreover, they are from a low cast. In spite of this, the theatre is full of subversive elements. The mighty are frequently brought low. The Brown: “That is typical kuttu: play with power and make fun of it.”

The 29 students of the youth theatre school, the only one of its kind in India, learn more than just acting here. They also create costumes, music, lighting and technique; the customary school subjects, such as math and English are also part of the program. This offers a unique chance for these children, a number of whom come from poor families. Others have lost one or both parents. ”But we have not selected the children because of their pitiable situation or because they are poor,” Hanne de Bruin is quick to explain. “They are here to learn to become performers.”