Meagre payments compared to taking up other chores is the main reason

Seventy-five year old Lakshmanan remembers with fondness the days he, along with a few other men from his community, used to play the ‘thappattam,’ ‘parai,’ ‘thudumbu,’ and even the cone-shaped ‘kombu’ during temple festivals or deaths. He carried on his father’s profession for over 40 years till he was forced to seek alternative means of livelihood eight years ago.

He belongs to ‘Maathari’ community which plays for temple festivals, and also take on the role of professional mourners during bereavement. The men play the instruments, keening the traditional ‘oppari’ (dirge) and also sometimes dance wearing anklets. But that was all a long time ago. Now the members of the community are making ends meet by working as daily labourers doing odd jobs – at least those belonging to a hamlet of 60 houses in Uppilianthitu in Nanjundapuram.

The men, along with their family members, have been living there for the last 62 years when their forefathers moved from elsewhere to settle there. There are similar settlements in Vellalore and Thondamuthur that are engaged in similar activity.

The men gave up their traditional profession for various reasons, the chief among them being that temples did not pay them enough as did the families that called them to play during bereavements.

Maragatham, wife of Lakshmanan says that the family was not able to sustain with the income that he brought home.

“They were paid a meagre amount that they had to share among themselves and it amounted to Rs. 50 or Rs. 60 each for a temple festival or a death. The temples refused to pay more and the families too did not consider increasing the amount. A daily labourer earns anywhere between Rs. 150 to Rs. 300 a day and our children are not inclined towards this profession,” she says.

Another reason they say is that temples have turned towards professionals from other places outside of Coimbatore, and are engaging more of classical / Carnatic musicians.

Mr. Lakshmanan, however, added that it was not very heartening when some temple authorities refused to let their children inside the premises.

Also, many communities have stopped calling these professional mourners during deaths, because funerals have turned into private and quiet affairs and also the traditional procession that is involved in carrying the corpse from the home to the crematorium / burial ground has been done away with. Most of the people have now opted for ambulances and hearses.

S.M. Ravichandran, Head, Department of Tamil, Bharathiar University, who has been researching on the multifaceted folklore of Kongu region, says that it is a fact that these people are not treated well by temple authorities.

“They belong to the lowest sub-caste among the Scheduled Castes community. They are deprived of various reservation benefits too because of this. Also, urban areas have shed some of their traditional procedures during bereavement. These men were engaged in earlier days when professionals were called to make the ‘paadai’ (a floral palanquin) that used to be carried by pall bearers from the home to the crematorium. The men used to play the instruments when the ‘paadai’ was being made, a work that took nearly five to six hours. It was also a mode of communicating to the rest of the community that there was a death in the family. But now all this has become obsolete,” he says.

Another senior resident, 73-year old Kittan says that certain communities who still played music during deaths, have trained a few people from their own community to cater to their needs, and hence do not engage the ‘Maatharis.’

Most of the ‘Maathari’ families do not even have the instruments now. They were not even able to muster a few for a photograph.

Though some from the younger generation have learnt the art from the elders, they do not play them professionally.