Dr. Murugesan loves documenting little known facts about the folk art forms of Tamil Nadu, exploding myths about them in the process.
Did the dummy horse dance (Poikaal Kudirai) originate in Tamil Nadu? Are many of the folk arts as they are performed now, just 100 years old? If you answered ‘No’ to these questions, then you should talk to Dr. Murugesan, Professor Emeritus, Folklore Department, Tamil University, Thanjavur, whose research into the folk arts of Tamil Nadu has exploded many myths. “Except for Devarattam, Thappattam and Theru-Koothu, most of the other folk arts of Tamil Nadu are of recent origin,” he says.
But what about references to Karagattam in ancient literature? In the Nalayira Divyaprabandham, for instance, Lord Krishna is referred to as ‘Kudamadu Koothan,’ suggesting that Krishna danced with a pot on His head. “That reference is there even in Silappadikaram. But there’s nothing to suggest that what we see now as Karagattam is the same as the dance spoken of in the Silappadikaram,” explains Murugesan, who has a PhD in Tamil, and who has authored seven books on the folk arts of Tamil Nadu.
He has recorded the adavus of all the folk dances through line drawings. “Else they would have been lost to posterity,” he says. Wouldn’t it better to make a video recording? “I made these drawings when no one seemed to be interested in documenting the folk arts in such detail,” Murugesan says. There used to be 52 adavus for Karagattam in the early 1980s. Now only six survive. This is where Murugesan’s line drawings would be useful.
Murugesan’s research on poikaal kudarai dance dispelled the myth that the art is of Maratha origin. Nor is it the ancient dance mentioned in Silappadikaram, where Madhavi, when portraying Goddess Durga, is said to have danced on stilts, to show Durga avoiding the snakes that come to bite her. But there is no mention of a horse. There is a reference in the Tholkappiyam about the use of a dummy horse made of palm fronds. A man, whose love was unrequited, would tie this horse around his body, and the sharp-edged fronds would cut into his body. The idea was that the bleeding gashes would melt the heart of the girl and her parents. This was called ‘Eriya madal thiram.’ But this is not the dance that we know it.
How then did the dance originate? There used to be a carpenter called Ramakrishna Naidu, in Thiruvaiyaru. He used to make wooden jewellery for drama actors. Once he saw a drama, in which the person who played the prince had a wooden horse attached to his body. Inspired, Ramakrishna Naidu decided to try his hand at making a better horse.
After a great deal of experimentation, he found that he could get the most dramatic effect when he fixed wooden planks in the middle of a pair of stilts, rested his feet on the planks, and tied the upper part of the stilts to his legs. The lower ends of the stilts were iron clad, to produce the sound of a galloping horse. The body and head of the horse were made with bamboo, and then decorated. Ramakrishna Naidu learnt how to balance himself on this wooden horse on stilts, and thus was born the Dummy Horse dance. For musical accompaniment, he enlisted the help of Marathi musicians who played an instrument called the kondalam.
During festivals in the Big Temple, Ramakrishna Naidu would dance on the streets around the Big Temple. The art caught on, and there used to be contests between different performers, who would jump from a height of 16 ft, and make a perfect landing. “Imagine doing that on stilts, with a heavy horse attached around one’s midriff!” exclaims Murugesan.
Later there was a wage dispute between Ramakrishna Naidu and the kondalam players. So the latter took away a dummy horse in lieu of wages. They then began to practise the art. The present day Maratha exponents of the art are descendants of these kondalam players.
Although all folk arts interest Murugesan, his favourites are Devarattam, Thappattam, Karagam and Poikaal Kudirai. Thappattam is one of the most difficult forms, because the one who plays the instrument has to dance as well. “Unfortunately, the thappu was for a long time considered inauspicious because it was used to announce deaths.” But it was also used for worship, I point out. Isn’t the ‘parai’ the same as the ‘thappu’? “That’s true. Even in Sangam literature, five types of parai are mentioned,” says Murugesan.
Despite the antiquity of the instrument, it was not played in temples. “In 2000, we organised thappattam at the Big Temple, in the face of stiff opposition. There was an enormous response, and since then it has been performed regularly in the temple every year.”
Murugesan has taken Thappattam to Jakarta, Singapore and the U.S. He has trained school children in different forms of folk art. For the last 15 years, he has been visiting New Delhi for the Republic Day celebrations, as a folk arts consultant and expert.
Hasn’t his statement that many folk arts are of recent origin, attracted flak? It has, according to Murugesan. But a research scholar should look for the truth, he points out. One does not need to invest an art form with antiquity to make it appealing. Even the more recent folk arts are entertaining, he says. Murugesan is now compiling a directory of the performing arts of Tamil Nadu.