Kattaikkuttu theatre is a form of traditional music theatre, in which parts of the Mahabharata are acted out. The performers sing, act, and dance and the musicians accompany them on a harmonium, hand cymbals, drums, and an Indian mukavinai or small oboe.
An interesting feature of the Kattaikkuttu tradition is the artistic mastery of the actors and the musicians, who learn the art from father to son. Its name is derived from Kattai or ornament, the wooden elements of the players' costumes that are inlaid with small mirrors or decorated with coloured paper. The audience recognises the various characters by the shapes of their head wear, shoulder pieces and breast plates.
In contrast to some other South Indian theatre forms, the Kuttu players sing themselves. The performer on stage is backed supported by a choir that consists of all the players who are off-stage getting changed at that time. The performances last for eight hours. They are performed at night, usually on the occasion of a religious holiday, in the open air, on an open space near a village or small town. Sometimes one or two actors perform a small part of the play in the main street of the village, as a preview. This usually concerns the most popular scenes.
An extraordinary characteristic of Kattaikkuttu is the way the theatre is embedded in its audience. A number of theatre companies travels over the countryside of Tamil Nadu. Villagers can book the theatre companies, either individually or as a community, whereby everyone contributes a part of the performers' pay. Performers and villagers used to be mutually dependent on each other through their caste serfdom. Performers had to offer their services to farmers and in return they received a share of the harvest. Until today it is still the case that most actors are from non-agricultural castes of servants: bakers or washers.
The future of Kuttu is at risk. This live form of traditional theatre is threatened by the rise of the mass media. The performers are suffering from the mounting conflicts between castes in India. The way the players depend financially on their companies and the way the companies are financially dependent on clients causes problems as well. The fact that the performers are from the lower castes and perform in villages means that the urban cultural elite of Tamil Nadu has little knowledge of Kaittaikkuttu. The media and subsidy awarding institutions regard Kuttu as primitive folklore, which clashes with their view of high culture.
According to the urban population Kattaikkuttu died out years ago. Nothing is further from the truth. The performance culture is flourishing, with a traditional as well as a new repertoire. The centre where this tradition is preserved is situated 10 kilometres away from the district's capital Kanchipuram: there is a Youth Theatre School where a new generation of actors and actresses is educated and an office for the professional association of Kuttu players. Thanks to the support of Hivos the first stone has recently been laid to build a Kuttu open-air theatre. The driving force behind these initiatives is the couple P. Rajagopal and Hanne de Bruin.