Campus News

From Street Theater to Kattaikuttu

Story posted November 04, 1999

When traditional terukkuttu actors perform in Tamil Nadu in India, they spin and dance and become possessed by the mythological characters they represent as they reenact a story that has been performed for generations.

Terrukkattu, or street theater, has helped bind people together in rural India and reinforce their cultural beliefs and values. Now, however, globalization is affecting this most traditional of art forms.

David Rudner, visiting associate professor of sociology and anthropology, has been studying terukkuttu to discover how globalization of culture is changing it. He shared some of his observations at a recent faculty seminar.

Traditionally, terukkuttu performers travel on circuits and have regular audiences, who watch the performances again and again over time. Because the performers are acquainted with the audience, they use mythological themes to represent events that have occurred within the community.

Two particular terukkuttu groups are now changing to operate as professional troupes. The head of Perunkattur Ponnucami Nataka Manram (PPNM), one of the theater companies, has established a yearly theater festival and a drama school. He has also begun seeking funding outside of the communities in which street theater groups traditionally performed.

The group is so intent on distinguishing its brand of theater as being more professional than the traditional terukkuttu that it calls its art form by a different name—kattaikuttu. Such actions on the part of this group could be a sign of changes to come in all groups performing this genre of theater, Rudner said.

As the PPNM tries to perform in new places and expose its art to people outside the villages, changes are made to the stories traditionally enacted by theater groups. Where plays often last for up to 10 hours, professional kattaikuttu groups have shortened plays to an hour or less so that they may more easily be performed to audiences in urban areas, Rudner said.

Whereas, in past performers were familiar with their audiences, they perform more often in front of strangers now. As a result, general themes are preferred to themes associated with a particular village, Rudner said. There have also been efforts to perform "modern" plays.

The modern plays use traditional mythological characters, but the stories are not the same stories audiences once heard repeatedly, and they do not rely on classical themes. The plays are often used as social commentary, addressing themes such as government corruption and destruction of the environment. Often some sort of inversion of a traditional play occurs in the modern dramas as well—a queen, rather than a king, is the ruler or a villain is killed by his own henchmen rather than by the hero.

Changes to this art form are raising larger questions in Tamil Nadu, Rudner said. Terukkuttu has been closely associated with the culture of Tamil Nadu, and as it spreads from the villages to the cities and is changed, there is concern over what that means for Tamil identity. Rudner will continue to look at this question as he studies further changes to terukkuttu.

The Faculty Seminar Series is open to faculty, staff and students, and is at 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. each Wednesday in the Main Lounge of Moulton Union.

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