Meet scholar Hanne M. de Bruin, who is striving to promote Kattaikkuttu

Red is not a colour you associate with Hanne M. de Bruin — it is white. Satvika is the emotion you identify with this soft spoken votary of the traditional theatre form of the rural areas of Tamil Nadu. But Hanne sees red when she hears certain phrases used about Kattaikkuttu, which is the nomenclature the scholar-facilitator prefers for Theru-k-Koothu.

‘Kattai' refers to the wooden ornaments the performers wear. ‘Dying folk form', ‘becoming extinct', ‘declining audiences'… these are formulaic references that make Hanne bristle with anger. They are so contrary to the ground realities, she says. And Hanne has every reason to know. She has researched extensively into the art form. Her knowledge is much more than just academic. Married to Kattaikkuttu artist P. Rajagopal, she has lived for 20 years in Kanchipuram. Hanne is the facilitator of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam and the Kattaikkuttu Sangam which she co-founded in 2002 with Rajagopal, a veteran in the Perungattur style of Koothu.

The present status

The Gurukulam is located in Punjarasantankal village, 8 km from Kanchipuram. It trains children of Koothu performers and those from underprivileged backgrounds in the form, and also provides them formal education. It has also succeeded in grooming female performers in this traditionally male preserve.

The Sangam seeks to promote the cultural and social welfare of Koothu artists of different styles and regions; membership is on a voluntary basis. But today, Hanne prefers to talk about the status and the present position of the art form rather than the achievements of the Gurukulam.

“There is a lot of misconception about the folk arts in general and about Koothu in particular,” says the scholar, her brow wrinkling. “There are roughly150 performances in a season from January to October in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu alone. Does that not make Kattaikkuttu a thriving form? Even when I came here two decades ago, the media was referring to it as ‘dying'. Should it have not gone by now?” she laughs.

Hanne has a Ph.D from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Her book ‘Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Theatre Tradition' grew out of her thesis. She came to Tamil Nadu in 1984 to study Tamil and became fascinated with Koothu which is a riveting spectacle of songs, music, and drama.

“There is no scholarly record of Kattaikkuttu in Tamil Nadu,” says Hanne. “It is hard to talk of the past when you refer to it. There is no data though there are roughly 50 companies. We only have superficial writing or missionary writing. We don't have a proper history of the theatre in Tamil Nadu. So it is always convenient to say ‘since times immemorial',” she chuckles. As for the current position, “unfortunately there are no yellow pages for Kattaikkuttu.”

Hanne becomes impassioned when she talks of the bias regarding the folk arts vis-a-vis the classical. “What is folk and what is classical?” she queries. “Why is the gap so huge? After all, Bharatanatyam and Koodiyattam also have folksy elements. Why is there such a dichotomy when these forms share certain features? They are performed in a different way because expectations are different. The Kattaikkuttu performers also use classical ragas. They know the names but not the swaras; in their profession, it is not necessary to do so,” she states.

Hanne feels you should see as many performances in order to understand the nuances of Koothu, as you need to regarding Carnatic music.

“There are banis in Kuttu depending upon the region and who it is transmitted by. There are six or eight styles perhaps in the northern area. In the rural areas, it fulfils both the needs of ritual and entertainment. But Patron No. I is the deity who has to be entertained.”

Prevailing attitudes towards the folk performing art forms pain her. “The classical art performers want to filter the audiences,” she avers. “Even the media applies formulaic texts to the folk arts. Serious criticism is not offered. There is a patronising air about it all — the folk being those who are ‘illiterate rural people' or ‘those from the slums'! Their taste and aesthetics are questioned.”

The higher castes are generally not allowed to sit in the audience by their families; even today in the village, the various castes sit apart, Hanne points out. “The media too is dominated by the higher castes. Even major English newspapers do very little reporting of theatre that does not take place in the city. The folk arts are not dying, they are changing quickly,” she says.

“It is important to treat folk artists with dignity,” says Hanne. “When our all-girls troupe was invited to perform at the Elliot's Beach recently, the organising authorities had made no provision for even toilet facilities! The Chennai Sangamam brings the folk arts to the city, but do the classical performers go out to the villages?” she asks.

What about the future? “We need to think in terms of training and the expectations of both village and city audiences. There is a need to link Kuttu to the larger world outside. Artists have to pay attention to quality.” Hanne is certain “we need appreciation courses in Kuttu just as we have courses in film appreciation.” Why does she not conduct them? “I tried to, during the Music Season. But I was turned down.” Why? “They never tell you why,” she smiles wryly.

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