Akila Kannadasan visits Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, a residential school for kattaikkuttu in Kanchipuram, ahead of a performance in the city

“I’ll divorce him,” says the shy S. Thamizharasi. “If my husband doesn’t let me perform koothu, I definitely will.” The slender young woman from the village of Perungattur smiles as she says this. But you know she means it. Thamizharasi is among the first few women to perform kattaikkuttu, a form of street theatre with roots in northern rural Tamil Nadu. She is known to ‘become’ Draupadi once she dons the chalangai and steps in front of the audience for a performance of the Mahabharata. Koothu transforms her; this would not have been possible without Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam.

Founded by P. Rajagopal, a third-generation performer of the theatre form, the Gurukulam is a residential school for kattaikkuttu. There is silence all around as we walk into the campus in Punjarasantankal village in Kanchipuram District one morning — students are in their classrooms. An expansive hall opens out from the entrance — this is the heart of the school, where students train and perform the koothu.

Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam is Rajagopal’s dream. He has realised it with the support of his Dutch wife Hanne M. de Bruin. “I met her on January 10, 1987 at Kalavai in Tiruvannamalai,” remembers Rajagopal. Hanne was a researcher in her twenties who was falling in love with India then. “I told her about my dream — to start a school for kattaikkuttu.” They started it in 2002 with 21 students. “Today, there are 23 girls and 27 boys in all,” he says. The school is run by the Kattaikkuttu Sangam formed by Rajagopal in 1990 to bring together various kattaikkuttu companies to share their knowledge and experiences.

Koothu is seamlessly merged into the Samacheer Kalvi syllabus. Alongside Math, Science and History, mridangam, dance and mukaveenai are taught. There are periods for each of these subjects, whose teachers are sometimes old students. Thamizharasi, for instance, is a pass-out who is now a teacher.

“The performing arts and education are organically linked,” says Hanne, an Indologist, who holds a PhD in kattaikkuttu. Though their syllabus is not unique, their approach to education is. “Koothu helps in the overall development of children. They do better in class; learn how to perform in front of an audience. This gives them confidence,” she feels. While koothu itself can be empowering, when combined with education, a student has the choice of opting to pursue it or any other career he/she prefers.

The school is gradually transforming kattaikkuttu and people’s notions about it. Women, for instance, did not perform kattaikkuttu traditionally. Male actors played the female roles; women had nothing to do with the art form. But Rajagopal has changed that. “Why shouldn’t women perform?” he asks. Girl students are taught what women couldn’t dream of learning in the past.

Changes in costume

Hanne takes care of fund raising. She has also brought about changes in the costumes. “We are trying to use cotton instead of the polyester costumes artistes wear,” she explains. She is experimenting with handloom fabrics and colours that go well with the mirror-studded accessories actors wear.

At the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, children participate in every activity. The students of Standard VII are having a free period and Sundara Lakshmi, the director of education, is showing them how to make nei urundais. Another bunch is seated outside the kitchen, chopping vegetables for dinner. A little boy among them suddenly breaks into a virutham (a verse) to the accompaniment of the ‘chop chop’ of the knife — koothu leaves its imprint on everything they do.