More and more girls are taking seriously to the male-dominated art form, Koothu, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam.

The spacious room at Kalakshetra is filled with girls busy with various stages of make-up. Hanne M. de Bruin, facilitator, Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam in Punjarasantankal village of Kanchipuram district, is trying to tame the unruly curls of a participant into a braid. Other helpers twitch ornaments into place, tie sashes and anklets, and get the 16 young artists ready for the show.

‘Subhadra Kalyanam,' a Kattai Kuttu/Theru-k-koothu performance by an all-female cast, is to begin shortly. The gurukulam prefers to call it Kuttu. The show is being presented by Dastkari Haat in collaboration with Kalakshetra Foundation. The only man in the cast is P. Rajagopal, executive director and artistic director of the institution, who has stepped in for a young female artist who is fulfilling a prior engagement at the Museum Theatre.

A petite, radiantly bedecked figure appears before me. She turns out to be ‘Shakuni,' the most innocent looking Shakuni you can see. “That is Duryodhana,” she says pointing to Rajagopal. At the far end of the hall are a bright blue ‘Krishna', a tall lean ‘Arjuna' and a small ‘Balarama.' Gopikas, from pint sized to substantial, are arrayed in white skirts with zari worked borders and blouses.

The girls make their way to the peepul tree under which they are to perform. The musicians seated on the dais are joined by the performers who from time to time participate in the singing. The show is part of the crafts fair that is going on. The fair sized audience is soon enrapt in the witty exchange between Balarama and Krishna. Neither the story nor the Koothu are new -- of Duryodhana wanting to marry Subhadra, Krishna's and Balarama's sister, and of his sending Vidura as an emissary to them. Krishna cleverly tries to fob off the match for he has Arjuna in mind as the groom and not Duryodhana. Finally Subhadra's and Arjuna's love match comes through. Threading the way in and out is the clever and lithe ‘Kattiyakaran'(sutradhar), or should that be ‘Kattiya-kari' (dharini)?

Spirited show

But the simple and entertaining one and half hour Koothu has much more to it. It shows how in the village of Punjarsantankal , a quiet revolution is going on that hopes to change the performing face of a traditional art form and its social countenance. It shows too the confidence of girls from deprived families who with education and training can hold their own in dialogue on the stage and field questions off stage. The institution hopes to free girls from the straitjacket of convention and conditioning, and win them acceptance through pursuing a career in the arts. It aims to make Koothu a financially viable career choice.

“The all-girls programme of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam challenges the dominance of the men in rural Kattaikkuttu theatre and opens up avenues for discussion regarding right to choice in a community where women are subservient to the men,” says Hanne.

The all-girls theatre company was established in 2007 “as a training ground where they could develop their skills within a safe and protected environment.” In the residential school, along with the boys, they receive boarding, lodging, education, theatre skills and medical care. The girls' company evolved quickly and now has two plays in its repertory – ‘Bhima and the Flower' and ‘The Marriage of Subhadra.' Artistic workshops are held frequently as the one now on in developing the role of the female clown.

“The presence of the girls on the rural stage has affected the very nature of Kattaikkuttu – the interpretation of female characters has become more nuanced and less stereotyped,” says Rajagopal. “The presence of girls on stage has altered the composition of audiences, many more women and children now attend the all-night performances.”

There is a double stigma attached to women performers in Kattaikkuttu -- the stigma regarding women performers in general and that attached to the form itself with caste-based association. Parents are afraid that the performance of Kuttu could affect the marriage prospects of their daughters. Hanne firmly believes that Kuttu will emancipate the girls and give them the courage to make the right decisions, regarding marriage, for instance - not to get married in their teens but at a later age.

What does she hope to accomplish? The women Isai Natakam performers do not seem to generally have a good deal? “I hope these girls will lead better lives than their mothers,” replies Hanne. “We need society's support -- Kattaikkuttu ambassadors in business and the arts. There is little Government support. Kuttu performers and audiences are also cut off from the urban-based arts scene which is mainly classical and contemporary.”

What do the girls who graduate soon plan to do? “The gurukulam can accommodate 50 students. Our goal is to ensure that by 2015, half of them will be girls. The first batch of girls who will graduate in March 2010 plan to form a mixed gender group of their own,” says Rajagopal.

The spirit of the pioneer is manifest in 14-year old Thamizharasi (Arjuna). When asked what she will do if later her husband objects to her performing, she retorts. “Let him. I will follow my calling.” You know then that the Punjarasantankal girls' programme is speeding towards its goal.

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