“I have danced even in my mother’s womb,” says Raju, poikaal kuthirai dancer. “Programme organisers used to insist that my parents come and perform as a couple. So my mother used to put the draw-string on top of her pregnant stomach; she danced till the ninth month.” Raju’s father, Kalaimamani T. M. Ganesan, was from Thanjavur. “That’s where this dance originated in Tamil Nadu. It is said to have come South with the Marathas.” Raju’s father initially made frequent visits to perform in the city’s temples. “The train fare then was only Rs. 8. But travelling up and down became difficult, and he settled down here.” And the dance — traditionally performed in front of temple processions and weddings — came to Chennai. Seated in his house in Sowcarpet (which is his grandmother’s legacy) Raju tells me what it’s like being a third-generation Poikaal dancer, an art form that has seen better days. “In my father’s time,” he says, pointing to the portrait of his late father, behind him, “poikaal dance was also performed during government functions.” But on many occasions, it wasn’t just the money that made him accept an event. “I remember appa dancing on a stage, opposite Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram. They paid only Rs. 150 for ten people, but it was a prestigious event!”

Raju himself began dancing when he was eight. He was initiated into the art early, and he recalls assisting his father paste the false girdha (side-burns). “Then one day, during a performance, a poikaal dancer did not turn up. My uncle — also my guru — did my make-up quickly, and tied the kattai (dummy legs) for me. Initially, my legs shook, but then, that day, I danced from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.!” Raju’s association with Poikaal goes beyond that of a performer. He choreographs dances, arranges folk dance events (where besides the poikaal, karagattam and peacock dances are performed) and also makes the horse entirely by hand. “It takes months to make a horse. Made of papier mache, each layer has to dry before the next one is added. And then comes the famous Thanjavur glasswork. Just the head has 150 coloured glass pieces pasted on it.” Transporting the gear, naturally, is laborious. “Everything has to be wrapped up well; if not, the horses will get damaged. And for a 4 p.m. programme, we leave at 1 p.m. Do you know, it takes nearly two hours just to get ready, with the make-up and costume?”

And yet, the monetary rewards, for putting up a show, are barely worth his while. “But I don’t do this for money,” Raju says, emphatically. “If that was the most important thing, wouldn’t I have got a full-time job?” As Raju speaks — now melancholically — the afternoon sun pours in through the skylight; and a ceiling fan circles that white light round and round, on top of our heads. “Sometimes, when we go for a performance, there is no protection, especially for the ladies in our troupe. When we tell the organisers, they say, ‘Konjam adjust pannitu aadittu ponga’. So we dance and come away.” The absence of interest in the art form upsets Raju. “How is a full-time artist to survive, when they don’t get opportunities? They’re forced to borrow money, but how will they repay it?” The silver lining though is people like V. R. Devika (founder & managing trustee, Aseema Trust). “She’s helped us, and also introduced us to DakshinaChitra. We get a chance to perform there regularly, and earn some money.” But to keep the art form from dying, it’s important for more people to learn folk dances. Raju, very keen that the art must flourish, has personally trained students across the city. “When folk dances are performed, with the traditional accompaniments, even sleeping people will come out of their homes and watch. It’s heartening that my 22-year-old son also dances; he does it out of respect for me. But, will he do it when I’m dead?”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)