Karagattam dancers T. ThavamaniM. A. Zaffar Hussain tell Soma Basu their performance is an art form to be enjoyed by all

During the annual Chithirai festival at the Police Grounds recently, Zaffar Thavamani set the stage on fire. Those in the audience who thought the name belonged to one person were surprised to see two karagattam performers. In their traditional costumes, make-up and matching steps, the pair delightfully introduced innovations in their performance, playing with fire, dancing on stilts, doing stunts with bamboo sticks and displaying other acrobatics even as they balanced on their heads intricately decorated pots filled with sand and water.

At the end of the hour's performance, the spectators realised art has no religion. Some curious minds enquired which of the two was Zaffar. A few wanted to touch his feet, so impressed were they with his serene looks and graceful performance. As always, Thavamani received encomiums for his brilliant display of skills.

Chartered accountant T. Thavamani and businessman M.A. Zaffar Hussain are the unlikeliest of birds to flock together given their respective family, educational and professional backgrounds. But karagattam binds them like Siamese twins.

Says Thavamani, “We were batchmates in school but only after joining college, we bonded.” “The connection happened accidentally,” adds Zaffar.

In 1986, both responded to an announcement for participating in a folk dance competition at the Madurai Kamaraj University Youth Festival.

“None of the existing performers wanted to register in folk,” recalls Thavamani. “That helped us to team up though neither of us was a dancer.” “Our college was interested in promoting traditional and folk arts and both of us wanted to contribute in some way,” says Zaffar. Both were trained in kavadiattam, poikkal kudirai, and mayilattam. They do not remember how or why Karagattam and they clicked, but both believe in divine blessing. That maiden performance was not just about representing the college or returning with a prize, which, of course, they did. It was more about understanding a dance form whose popularity was on the wane.

Thavamani points out, “Karagattam is restricted mostly to rural areas as temple functions to invoke the Amman.” Zaffar continues, “We felt the need to mainstream the dance and focussed on energetic performance based totally on skills.”

No looking back

Today, the duo has taken the open-air dance form to closed auditoria. With more than 1,000 shows behind them, besides 100-odd temple functions, they are now sought after not only as artists but also as teachers.

For karagattam's sake, they do everything free of cost. They take only travel expenses for their shows and some negligible payment for the accompanists. Both take time from their respective work schedules and performances and voluntarily train school and college students in karagattam.

“In the initial years, we learnt and chiselled our skills with every performance,” says Thavamani. “Today, we enjoy our performances more as a recreation. Awards and appreciation motivated us to keep going.” Zaffar adds, “Our audiences are elated with the chemistry we share on stage, the element of humour we impart to our shows and the way we are able to educate the people.”

Rising popularity

Their name and fame has crossed geographical boundaries. Apart from participating in cultural programmes, they are also invited to give private performances at birthday parties, weddings, sashti- and ashtapurti ceremonies. Thavamani's job profile fetches them opportunities to showcase their artistry in other States and countries during national and international conferences of chartered accountants. “The response has always been overwhelming and we keep gaining confidence,” he says.

What troubles them is the travel. “We need a lot of accessories for our performances,” says Zaffar. “Transporting them often turns out to be a big problem as we ourselves like to carry our things for safety. If even one item gets misplaced, it upsets our performance. It is always a lot of hard work before the show. When people praise us, we forget the labour.”

Thavamani recalls an incident when they put all their things in a cycle rickshaw but the rickshaw puller refused to drive the vehicle because of the weight. The two dancers drove in turns to reach the venue. Another time they missed a flight after arguing for hours with the airport authorities for permission to check in a ladder!

Their friendship goes beyond the stage. The dancers tease one another for helping to choose and approving each other's spouses. And with much success to smile at, Thavamani and Zaffar are daring to dream again. “We want to create a record with a non-stop 36 hour performance. We have the determination and family support. All we need is a sponsor who will take us closer to our dream.”

To unite

Zaffar, performs Karagattm with passion to “unite people”, but he is also an established pattimandram speaker, a hobby he started pursuing from 2000. He and his wife, a school teacher, together have done over 500 programmes at public functions and on television. He has also trained his daughter in karagattam, and she gives performances in her school functions.

FRIENDSPEAK: Thavamani says Zaffar is “cool” and rings in laughter wherever he goes.

Time Management

Thavamani knows how he manages his time. “I have a supportive wife who with a smile let me stick to part-time consultancy while she continued with her bank job to run the family.” As a child, he wanted to become an IPS officer. Since that did not happen, Thavamani volunteers as a traffic warden for Tamil Nadu Police, controlling traffic at assigned intersections four hours a week.

FRIENDSPEAK: Zaffar says Thavamani “has a solution for every problem.” “He is a very balanced person with leadership qualities”.