Not many would have had such a dream debut like folk singer Magizhini Manimaran — ‘Soi Soi’ song from the movie Kumki has brought her to the limelight. The song has emerged as the most popular number, crossing 2 crore hits on Youtube.
Hailing from an agricultural family at Malaipuram near Vedanthangal in Chenglepet district, Maghizhini had lost her father when she was studying 10th standard. Her interest in folk songs led her to become part of Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu, a folk troupe which specialises in ‘parai’ drumming and dance. The troupe is headed by Manimaran who eventually became her life-partner.
In a candid chat, the couple exchanged their views about ‘parai’ drum as a cultural signifier and how they wanted to reverse the art form and also about the magical debut. Maghizini was quick to say that her husband was her guru and inspiration.
“She was first a ‘parai’ drummers and later a singer. The ‘kalai kuzhu,’ right from its inception, worked on an ideology that they will never play for funerals — “Idhu saavukkana parai illai viduthalaikkana parai” (This ‘parai’ drumming is not for funeral but for liberation). Our performance always had a strong message that aimed at re-signifying ‘parai’ as a symbol of self-respect and assertion. Aadhikkam aliyattum, kizhiyattum paraigal alla, Indhiya saatheeya samoogam (Let the beating up of ‘parai’ destroy the dominance; let it break down not the parai but the Indian caste hierarchy),” he says. “The troupe performs for political and social conferences and for temple festivals of lineage gods and other traditional gods. Perhaps one of the oldest of the indigenous folk arts, ‘parai aattam’ embraces life in all its forms — birth, puberty, engagement, marriage and death. But, today, despite a rich legacy, ‘parai aattam’ has been pushed to the margins as a polluted form of art,” he says.
The artiste-couple conduct lectures and demonstrations at educational institutions in Chennai and northern districts such as Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. So far, Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu has performed across Tamil Nadu. The couple are now part of an initiative to not only promote ‘parai’ as a form of art among school children in Chennai schools, but also to make learning an interesting experience by making the students learn along with singing and dancing.
“In many schools, the children, mostly first-generation students, were not interested in what is classified as classical art forms. They wanted us to teach them ‘parai aattam’ and we taught them in a way which induced them to learn. Dr. Ambedkar’s biography was depicted through a performance and his strong message to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ is stressed in all our performances,” he says.
The artiste, who has been performing for the last 25 years, lamented that ‘parai aatam’ is seen as a form exclusive to a particular caste which is not so. The project of making drumming an art form had been reinforced by providing it a political platform. Most of our performances on neutral platforms try to destabilise the codes of caste and patriarchy in Tamil culture, just as how Tamil society in the recent past was forced to confront new possibilities of Dalit freedom and agency in various spheres, says Manimaran.
Magizhini has some fond memories of Madurai as she is a regular singer accompanying her troupe during the Dalit Cultural Festival organised by the Dalit Resource Centre. She says, “Madurai Dalit festival is important as it has helped in stemming the decline of the ‘parai’ drumming art. Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu is aiming to show how an art dubbed as a symbol of pollution could be skilfully re-appropriated as a sophisticated musical form, comparable to classical music. These days, every political party in Tamil Nadu conducts rallies and conferences with the drumming of ‘parai.’
Manimaran adds that people have begun to realise the richness in the art form. “We performed at a few Brahmin weddings at Mylapore in Chennai, which exemplified the receptiveness among Brahmins. We have also performed in Chennai Sangamam.”
Maghizhini, a shy singer, who never thought that she would make it this big in the film music industry, says it was the young music director, D. Imman, who had encouraged her a lot. She was selected as the best singer for the year 2012 by Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan.
Editor Lenin, directors Mu. Kalanjiyam and Ranjith and lyricists Ilaya Kamban and Kabilan had appreciated her for her performance. Now she has a handful of films in her kitty. Like every other singer, she is waiting to sing for maestro Ilaiyaraja, and A. R. Rahman.