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Asian Theatre Journal 1.1 (2002) 245-247

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Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Theatre Tradition. By Hanne M. de Bruin. Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1999. xix + 410 pp. Illus. paper, price NA.
Karna's Death: A Play By Pukalentirrulavar. Translated by Hanne M. de Bruin. Pondichery: Institut Francais de Pondichery [Publications du Department d'Indologie-87], 1998. xxxvi, 260 pp. Paper, price NA.

Written and translated by Hanne M. de Bruin, these two volumes are an excellent set of resources for understanding and interpreting one of the most important traditional forms of theatrical performance in Tamil Nadu, kattaikkuttu. Building from the earlier research by theatre scholar Richard Frasca on terukuttu, and South Asian scholar Alf Hiltebeitel on the cult of Draupadi, de Bruin's work combines the best aspects of attention to philological, linguistic, and textual problems, with "on the ground" attention to the everydayness of the lived socio-cultural context characteristic of ethnography. De Bruin argues that kattaikkuttu developed both from the processional terukuttu, which [End Page 245] is traditionally performed as part of the festival for the goddess Mariyamman from mid-July to mid-September, and in constant dialogue with the recent growth and development of contemporary Tamil music-drama (natakam). The name kattaikkuttu is derived from the special category of heroic characters wearing the kattai ornaments who have become one of the primary foci of these full-fledged dramatizations by companies of twelve to fifteen.

De Bruin wisely chooses to keep her study focused on and through a particular company performing in a particular style with which she has developed a close working relationship over the years. Further contextualizing data and information are provided from adjacent geographical areas, styles of performance, and operating methods of other companies she has observed less closely. This strategy provides consistent insight into one set of working methods for bringing kattaikkuttu into performance and making available particular meanings and experiences for its specific audiences. In part I, de Bruin focuses on the historical and social context for the performance of kattaikkuttu, and in part II she provides a detailed analysis of how the orally transmitted texts of the genre operate in performance.

As reflected in the title of the volume, de Bruin keeps focused on how and why kattaikkuttu performances are constantly adapting to their context and specific locale, and therefore remain flexible. She provides excellent discussions of "contextualization" and "localization," i.e., both the surface level "manipulation of the contents of a play to suit a particular context," as well as the short-term adaptation of a plot and other elements of story to the local village culture. The details of de Bruin's examples of these flexible processes provide the most intimate account available to date of how such flexibility operates to make available such a rich and evocative set of meanings for its intended audiences. It is a model of detailed textual interpretation combined with excellent ethnography.

De Bruin's interpretive emphasis on kattaikkuttu as a primarily oral tradition is another strength of the volume. Drawing on the earlier work of Walter Ong on the nature of oral transmission, she provides a convincing account of the fundamental ways and means by which oral transmission has shaped the genre's history, and how its performances are constructed and shaped in its present circumstances. It is a convincing counterpoint to overemphasis on texts and textuality in issues of transmission and the creation of performance.

Of the many other significant features of de Bruin's volume, I also want to praise the clear discussion of the phenomenon of possession and its relationship with the "heroic" within the tradition. De Bruin argues that the occasions for performer possession are not intended as a "representation" of a fixed state, but rather are an opportunity for an "exploration" of the dynamic nature state and its "power." Her interpretative exploration of the dialectic between the "heroic" and the "furious" provides a rich set of insights into the dynamic interplay between these behaviorial and interpretive states.



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