Kattaikuttu is a form of theatre practiced in rural districts in northern Tamil Nadu. It uses song, music, dance and costumes and drama and ritual to engage and entertain the audience. The performances go through  the night and are usually powerful, high-energy, intense events that temporarily recreate the mythical world of kings, gods and sages on earth. Many a times these performances trigger emotional responses in spectators and performers causing some of them to fall into a trance-like state at particularly dramatic moments.

One of the most popular episodes from the Kattaikuttu performances is Karna moksham, about the tragic hero Karna who is portrayed as an extremely generous king, caught on the wrong side during the war.

In the play Karna is well aware of the fact that fate has placed him on the wrong side of the warring factions, the side where dharma does not reside. However loyalty for his friend Duryodhana mixed with resentment for his mother, who abandoned him at childbirth and hatred for his half-brothers, prevents him from crossing over, even though he foresees his death in the battlefield.

In the play Karna though benevolent, has a darker side that is not always visible, except during the disrobing of Draupadi. Karna at that time does nothing to stop the act, rather goes on to support Duryaodhan and even eggs Dushasana to carry on, besides calling Draupadi a prostitute. According to this tale, Karna’s demonic qualities are due to his past life, when he was a demon by the name of Tanasura.

Tanasura had thousand heads and his ears were decorated with thousand pairs of earrings. His body was protected with armour (some versions say thousand armours). Due to his penances, Lord Shiva had given him a boon that before anybody could kill him, the person would have to perform one year of asceticism and fight him for a full year. This boon had led Tanasura to believe he was invincible and thus started terrorising the gods. In order to kill him Lord Vishnu split himself to Nara and Narayana. While Nara, a human incarnation, fought Tanasura for a year, Narayana performed the penance. By this, they were able to cut off 999 heads of Tanasura. When Nara is about to severe the last head of the demon, he seeks asylum with Lord Surya, who thereupon transformed Tanasura in a fruit of the nelli tree (amla in Hindi). When Surya makes love to Kunti, the fruit passes into the embryo and thus Karna is born with the earrings and the armour.

In order to complete the unfinished work, Nara incarnates as Arjuna and Narayana as Lord Krishna, and Karna faces death in the hands of both in the battle of Kurukshetra.

 This is one of the most important episodes of the performance, but the story is not found in any other version.


Story Collected By:  Utkarsh Patel

Source: ‘Text and variations of the Mahabharata’, edited by K. K. Chakravarty

Location: Tamil Nadu

Image: A kattaikuttu performance

Image Source: www.chennailivenews.com