How stories from the Mahabharata are integral to the Kattaikoothu repertoire

‘Karna Moksham’ by the Kattaikkuttu Sangam showcased the versatility of the art form

January 23, 2024 05:50 pm | Updated 05:50 pm IST

A scene from ‘Karna Moksham’.

A scene from ‘Karna Moksham’.

The Mahabharata has many memorable characters, one of whom is the compassionate Karna, whose tragic life comes to an end during the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas.

Stories from the Mahabharata form an integral part of the Kattaikoothu repertoire. This is a challenging Tamil theatre form where actors are required to sing, dance, act and speak dialogues. It handles the theme of Karna’s liberation or death, and is believed to have been written by a poet named Pukalenthi Pulavar.

The version of ‘Karna Moksham’ presented by the Kattaikkuttu Sangam, led by famed actor, director and playwright P. Rajagopal, features the Perungattur style of Kattaikkuttu. Perungattur is a village near Cheyyar in Tiruvannamalai District where many hereditary exponents of this style lived. A condensed version of Karna Moksham was staged in December last at the premises of the Sangam at Punjarasantankal village as part of its Mahabharata festival.

Since the original play is designed as a nightlong performance, only a few important sections of the play were staged. Research scholar Hanne M. Debruin, who undertook the transcription and translation of the play, has extensively analysed and documented those aspects of Karna’s story that are unique to Kattaikoothu, with the help of Rajagopal. “Karna Moksham carries ritual significance among rural communities as it is performed as part of a funeral custom known as the karumaantaram observed on the sixteenth day after a person’s death. Relatives of the deceased hope that the staging of the play will facilitate the deceased’s soul to be liberated from the cycle of birth, reflecting what happened to Karna in the story,” explains Hanne.

The play began with a conversation between the protagonist Karna (played by R. Kumar) and the Kattiyakaaran (graveyard worker, played by A. Dillibabu). Subsequently, a host of characters made dramatic appearances as part of their self-introduction sequences. It must be noted that references to Karna’s wife are sparse in the Mahabharata — it describes her as the mother of Karna’s slain sons Vrishasena and Sushena. However, regional adaptations gave importance to this character. In ‘Karna Moksham’, she is called Ponnuruvi (or Ponmalai or Shubhangi) and is a daughter of the king of Kalinga. A large chunk of the play is devoted to depicting the strained relationship between Ponnuruvi and Karna. The versatility of Kattaikoothu as an art form can be gauged from the fact that the depictions in this play have been highly localised and contemporised.

From ‘Karna Moksham’, which is performed as part of a funeral custom known as the karumaantaram

From ‘Karna Moksham’, which is performed as part of a funeral custom known as the karumaantaram

“During festivals, actors focus on emphasising the play’s heroic aspects, like the final battle between Karna and Arjuna, and Karna’s death on the battlefield. However, when performed at funeral ceremonies, aspects related to family life are given more importance. Separation and death are the predominant aspects for elaboration in such ceremonies” says Rajagopal. He also explains how the play remains relevant to local village audiences by focussing on contemporary issues such as discord between couples.

Kattaikoothu also ties back Karna’s identity with Taanasuran, a thousand-headed asura who loses all but one of his heads to Nara-Narayana, ultimately seeking refuge with Surya, Karna’s father. Hanne says that Taanasuran is comparable to Narakasura in the Sanskrit epic.

The musical aspects of Kattaikoothu are interesting too. Rajagopal elaborates that the songs are mainly divided into paattu and virutham. Paattus have talam while viruthams do not. The songs are sung by the main actor on stage who is referred to as munnani and they are repeated by the chorus (pinnani) with the mukhavinai. Viruthams are important to bring out the emotional potential of certain scenes like Ponnuruvi waking up from her sleep, and speaking to her friends about a mysterious voice she hears.

S. Vijayan on the harmonium, P. Sasikumar on the mukhavinai and A. Selvarasu on the mridangam elevated the performance.

Among the many scenes and characters that delighted the audience, Kattiyakaaran seemed crucial. A scene where he interacts with the thozhis of Ponnuruvi has a rustic, earthly tone to it, and are savoured by rural audiences.

The sequence involving the maidens, portrayed by R. Mahalakshmi, S. Srimathy, A. Bharathi and A. Sathiya, all alumni of the Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam, had witty dialogues and satire.

Scenes portraying the final battle between Krishna and Arjuna, and Saliya (S Gobinath) and Karna were energetic and charged with brisk foot movements and dynamic, bold dialogues. The play concludes when Krishna demands and takes the ‘dharmam’ or the result of all of Karna’s charitable acts, paving the way for Karna to attain liberation.

Kattaikoothu needs to be appreciated by a wider audience so that it is accorded due importance by the public and other stakeholders.

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