On the night of January 19, Magsaysay award-winning Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna and Kattaikkuttu veteran Perungattur P Rajagopal were engaged in an animated discussion on the lawns of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. It was an interlude between two acts of a performance. The audience listened raptly, as the speakers encouraged them to consider a few weighty questions: Is art sublime knowledge or labour? Are the arts bound by caste, or does each caste have a designated art?

Having just watched a unique collaborative piece, the answers to the questions did not come easily – even and especially for the rasikas. In that moment, the success of that night’s experimental performance was evidenced.

The collaborative presentation, titled Karnatic Kattaikkuttu, represented a coming together of two powerful performing arts: kattaikkuttu, a centuries-old folk theatre form, and one of the world’s richest classical music traditions, Carnatic music. In the performance that lasted over two hours, a couple of acts from the Mahabharata – the disrobing of Draupadi and the 18th day of the great war – were played out.

The kattaikkuttu troupe comprised 12-13 performers – actors, musicians and singers – who were dressed in the traditional makeup and costumes. The main characters wore the elaborate wooden shoulder and head ornaments called kattai, which gives this theatre form its name. In a reversal of traditional kattaikkuttu norms, several female actors played male characters in the play. The original track of the play was seamlessly punctuated by Carnatic pieces, performed by Krishna, Sangeetha Sivakumar and accompanying instrumental artistes. Karnatic Kattaikkuttu also featured a short poetic composition by award-winning poet Perumal Murugan, to pose questions about oppression through the epic narrative.