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Asian Theatre Journal 20.1 (2003) 100-102

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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. Paper. Price NA
Karna's Death: A Play by Pukalentirrulavar. Translated by Hanne M. de Bruin. Pondicherry: Institut Français 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 sociocultural context characteristic of ethnography. De Bruin argues that kattaikkuttu developed both from the processional terukuttu—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" derives 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 focus her study on a particular company performing in a particular style with which she has developed a close working relationship over the years. Further contextualizing information is provided from adjacent geographical areas, styles of performance, and operating methods of other companies she has observed less closely. This strategy ensures consistent insight into one set of working methods for bringing kattaikkuttu into performance and making specific meanings and experiences available for its specific audiences. In Part I de Bruin focuses on the historical and social context for the performance of kattaikkuttu; in Part II she presents 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 stays focused on how and why kattaikkuttu performances are constantly adapting to their context and specific locale and therefore remain flexible. She offers excellent discussions of "contextualization" and "localization"—that is, 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 [End Page 100] village culture. De Bruin's examples of these flexible processes represent the most intimate account to date of how this flexibility makes a rich and evocative set of meanings available to 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 oral transmission, she offers a convincing account of the fundamental ways and means by which oral transmission has shaped the genre's history and how its performances are shaped in its present circumstances. It is a convincing antidote 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 book, I also want to praise the clear discussion of possession and its relationship to the "heroic" within the tradition. De Bruin argues that the occasions for a performer's possession are not intended as a "representation" of a fixed state but rather an opportunity for an "exploration" of the dynamic nature of this state and its "power." Her exploration of the dialectic between the "heroic" and the "furious" yields a rich harvest of insights into the dynamic interplay between these behavioral and interpretive states.

Karna's Death represents the first transcription (in Tamil) and translation of a complete kattaikkuttu play-in-performance. The transcription and translation are...