After José Kuijpers attended a performance of the Kattaikuttu company of P. Rajagopal, she visited the director to interview him.
You can look back on a successful career as an actor. You are now a teacher and the director of the professional association for Kattaikkuttu players. How did you first come into contact with Kuttu theatre?
My father was a Kattaikkuttu actor and he was also known as a musician
and a teacher. People praised him for his female roles and the way he played
Krishna. He was a very popular Krishna. But he also played all the traditional
instruments. And he has trained many actors.
As a child, I used to travel with his company during my summer holidays. I was ten years old when I played my first small part. I wanted to become an actor too, but my father wanted me to continue my studies. But I did not listen to my father as my heart was set on becoming an actor. Once I convinced him, he taught me the art.
Sadly, my father died when I was nineteen years old. From that moment on, I had to take on the responsibility for the company. I have been playing major parts since my I was seventeen years old.
I watched you playing Karna. Have you played many leading parts?
Playing a leading part is something you grow into. When I was twelve, for
example, I played the role of a lady-in-waiting. Later on I played some larger
supporting roles. After my father died, I was given leading roles: Krishna,
Arjuna, Karna, or Yudhishthira. I played the clown too. The clown is always
on stage during the entire performance and acts as a prompter for the other
actors. He introduces characters to the audience, or explains where we are
or what happened previously in the story. When we play a performance with
a topical subject in it, the clown makes the connection.
The classic repertoire consists of 25 plays. An experienced actor knows all the parts from all the plays by heart.
How do you manage it, performing all night long?
We do not take anything against the exhaustion while we perform. There used to be a lot of drinking during the performance. That happens less nowadays.
You have been working as a teacher for years. What do you try to teach your pupils? And how has teaching affected you?
I have been teaching young actors since 1987. Together with a number of
colleagues I founded a professional association in 1990: the Tamil Nadu Kalai
Valarchi Munnetra Sangam. During the 1990s I started to teach employed youths.
In 2002 the Sangam opened a Youth Theatre School. I am the director and a
Teaching forced me to think about the stories and its characters. I have to explain what happens to the children. But what happens exactly, and what does a text mean, or a movement? I think that I would never have been able to play so many performances in the past, if I had thought about it all so long and hard then.
Is there more than one form of Kuttu?
Other texts and other compositions are used in the south of Tamil Nadu. The way it is done there sounds quite monotonous to me. In another part of Tamil Nadu a form is used that resembles ours, the only difference being that the actors are singing in a higher register. And their costumes are made of different materials. We use little mirrors, whereas they work with coloured glass. There are also theatre companies in the south of India who do not work traditionally, but are looking for a mixture of Kuttu theatre and melodrama. They sing contemporary songs from films, which is something we don't do.
Have you seen the Mahabharata by Peter Brook? Many Westerners became familiar with the Mahabharata through that performance.
Yes. What struck me was that the actors played without costumes. And there was no singing. It was quite bare. I would like to try it some time. The western style of acting is so completely different from ours. Our costumes' ornaments that we wear on stage change the way we perform. We move heavier across the floor. I can imagine that it makes quite a difference.
What intrigued me is the moment when an actor is ready. He is already wearing his costume and his make-up, but the audience can't see him yet because he is hidden from the audience behind a sheet that is held up by two men.
I call upon a goddess, using a song that my father wrote. Then I sing a song about the character, and finally I sing to the men who hide me that they can take the sheet away. I have written a song about my father for my pupils in the theatre school. They call upon my father now, to ask him for inspiration.
During the performance the Kattaikkuttu players wear lots of make-up.
The make-up defines the character. The colour and the intensity of the colour tell the audience something about his character. Karna, for example, Arjuna's rival, has a red face. The signs that I mark my face with using make-up show his mood. The audience recognises the symbolic language of the make-up. Duryodhana, the rival of the Pandava brothers, gets an increasingly accentuated make-up in the course of the performance, because he experiences so much bad luck. His tragedy is illustrated even more clearly that way.