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Tuesday January 18th 2011, somewhere south of Chennai, India

rehearsing kuttu chariots at the school; photo Shirley It's unusual for me not to know where I am, but this was an unusual day. I am visiting Diana who is spending six months helping at the Kattaikkuttu Youth Theatre School set in beautiful countryside south of Chennai. The school is centred around the Kuttu, a regional art form consisting of acting, singing and dancing, and it's a remarkable place. I had seen the pupils rehearsing, so I was pleased that a performance coincided with my visit.

Or rather, a shortened performance - only two and a half hours. Apparently a full version lasts about eight hours and takes all night in a village where people can come and go, but the idea was to present it in a town to a more conventional audience. It was the Girls company (aged from about 12 to 17) that was performing. The show was called Subhadra's Wedding - taken, as are most of their performances, from the Mahabaratha.

We all got into the school bus and drove to a rather characterless hall where we sat around for a bit. (This is unusual for me; I'm usually in control of my trips and I make things happen; here I just wait.) Eventually bits of makeup and other equipment were produced, and a little puja ceremony was performed, to the God Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, and I realised that the performing process had begun. (I have my own equivalent preparation for a performance. though it doesn't usually involve burning things.)

photo of kuttu actors making up Then the makeup process started, and in some ways this was the most moving part of the evening. The older children know how to put on the lower and upper layers of the stylised makeup, but the younger ones don't; the older boys would do theirs for them, cradling their head in one hand while applying makeup with the other. The relationships between younger and older children here are so straighforward and natural, and so different from my own schooldays. And the atmosphere was focused - there was no question of messing around, or whingeing. By the time the makeup was on I could hardly recognise the girls I saw in school, and when the costumes were added they were transformed. Into Gods, mainly, and by the time we got back into the bus to go to the venue that's who they were.

photo of the kuttu audience The venue itself was unprepossessing; an open area with a stage at one end, on which sat three children reciting something in Tamil into microphones, which were turned up so loud that it was actually quite painful. Some of the audience, who were mainly women and a lot of children, had resorted to chatting among themselves. We all sat on plastic chairs (unusual this - normally people here sit on the ground) and waited for the noise to subside.

Which it did, and then it was 'our' turn - obviously the main event of the evening. The band - mridangam drums, harmonium, mukavinai (a kind of oboe) and some finger cymbals - set up at the left of the stage, the beginning actors came in from the right, initially shielded by a small 'curtain' carried by two other people, and the performance began.

And here the trouble also began. They were not using microphones, and the sound level in the open air was a lot less than it had been in the school - the oboe was no longer ear-splitting, the harmonium all but disappeared, and teenage girls don't have the loudest of voices, however well they project. Compared to the previous act, the sound level was low, and the audience carried on chatting.

photo of the kuttu band To their credit, the actors seemed unperturbed - they carried on doing their stuff. We, with our London attitudes of what constitutes a 'performance' atmosphere, were concerned, and so was the organiser. First he walked around trying to 'shush' people, with absolutely no effect. Then he got the microphone (still turned up absurdly high) and did the same, merely adding to the confusion. Then they got the idea of putting a microphone on the stage, which worked somewhat, though the stamping of the dancers' feet made noises. Finally they made a stack of plastic chairs in front of the centre stage, and rested a microphone on that. It actually worked surprisingly well.

However, the problems didn't end there. A little while later there was another ear-splitting announcement, and soon afterwards a very posh white car turned up, and some smart men got out and were ushered to the front. The performers continued to give their all; by this time I would have blown up or walked out.

The smart men watched the performance for a few minutes; then they signalled for it to stop, and one of them came up on stage and delivered a ten-minute oration, and you could tell he was a good communicator, even though the only two words I recognised were 'global warming'. When he'd finished, the performance resumed; after a few more minutes he and his retinue got up, climbed into the posh car and drove off. (I was later told that he was a local politician who had sponsored the evening.)

photo of Kattaikkuttu: three brothers I kept reminding myself that we were in rural India, that interruptions like this, which would have ruined an evening in London, might not have the same effect here; and even through all of this I could begin to see the magic of the Kuttu. In this early scene, three brothers are dancing around, singing and waving their swords, and the one on the right caught my attention. I knew her because I had been playing the recorder to the school a few days before, and when I needed a volunteer to try it out she came up. I knew that her parents were dead, and that her future was even more uncertain than it is for most Indians, and at a level that I would be unable to live with. I could also see that she was perpetually smiling with the joy of performing, even though I don't think it was the emotion that the drama was asking for at that moment; but she melted my heart, as so much about this school does.

photo of Kattaikkuttu: Krishna dancing Later on the character of Krishna appears. Diana teaches her, and I had been instructed to photograph her as her Dutch pen-friend has not been returning her emails, and it was felt that maybe a picture of her performing might make a difference. At this point she is doing a dance surrounded by even smaller girls to whom Diana teaches English, performing their first ever Kuttu in parts that had been especially created for them.

And so the drama unfolded. I didn't know the story, didn't understand a word, had got slightly used to the music having heard it in the school, but I was carried along. It's very stylised, but there is a lot of action. It's very visceral, very theatrical - you have to experience it live. When I first looked at my watch, two hours had gone by.

Kattaikkuttu: photo of Draupadi's wedding Finally Arjuna appeared - another of Diana's pupils, dressed like a Mongol warrior with appropriate athletic dancing. And in no time at all it seemed, Subhadra and Arjuna were putting garlands over each other's heads, the audience sighed with pleasure, and the show was over. It had been a resounding success!

Cast and assistants were called up to the stage to be given shawls to commemorate the performance. More people were beckoned up, including members of our hangers-on party. OK, I thought, but I'm not going up, I had no hand in this production at all, why should I take any credit. Diana went up, and eventually I was the only one left, but still I was beckoned. No, no, I shook my head. Yes, yes, they said - and people around me began whispering in English 'it's you, it's you'; so I bowed to the inevitable and went up.

Once on stage my showbusiness self took over, and I raised my arms in triumph, to be greeted with a roar of approval. They thought I was responsible for the show! (If you've read A Passage to India this was my 'Mrs Moore' moment.) I came off the stage later than the others, and hordes of young boys came up to me, pumping my hand and expressing their unreserved enthusiasm in a way that you see so much more in Tamil Nadu than in England.

And so the evening ended. We were taken back to the characterless hall and given a superb indian meal off banana leaves. Then we went home, with me marvelling both at the art form of the Kuttu, which sustains its length in the way that Wagner does, though (for me) more interestingly; and also at the professionalism and commitment of all the girls, who had acted, sung and danced without reservation, all obstacles having been removed.

© Jeremy Polmear 2011

Information about the school is at kattaikkuttu.org.
There's a short YouTube video that gives a good feel of what the school is like.

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