When hundreds of folk artists gathered on the dais for the inauguration of Chennai Sangamam-2010, one particular troupe captured the attention of the audience.
Accompanied by ‘magudam' (thappu) that is comparable to any classical percussion instrument in producing well-defined rhythmic patterns, the main singer heralded death in the battle-field in a tune set to raga Kambodi. Kaniyan Koothu, a folk art with elements of classical music, evoked primal feelings with its unique rhythm and song.
“We perform for seven to eight hours continuously during festivals (kodai) at temples of folk deities, primarily Sudalai Madan, in the southern districts. Short performances are unthinkable in our profession,” says V. Muthu Perumal, the ‘annavi' or main singer of the troupe.
The annavi is usually supported by a second singer. Two artists play the magudam - one plays the bass and the other the sharper version. As they play the instruments at breakneck speed, in perfect sync, the effect is terrific. Two men, dressed as women, dance to the tune with boundless energy.
Kaniyan Koothu gets its name from the community that the artists come from. Kaniyans are a Scheduled Tribe. Their population is less than 750 and only around 200 persons are currently performing the art.
“Legend has it that they were brought to earth to sing and dance for Sudalai Madan, the deity of the graveyard. He is seen as an incarnation of Lord Siva,” explains Dr. A.K. Perumal, who has done extensive research and published books on folk arts. One of the Saivite saints Thirugnanasambandar refers to Siva as “Kaadudaya sudalai podi poosi yen ullam kavar kalvan.” (The One who smears the ashes of the graveyard and captures my heart)
In some parts of Tirunelveli district, the Kaniyan performer makes a slight cut in his hand and allows a few drops of blood to fall on betel nut leaves to be offered to Sudalai Madan. “Blood from artists' tongues will also be offered in some temples,” says magudam player M. Ganesan, showing the permanent scar on his hand.
The art today is facing a crisis not because of lack of patronage, but because not many come forward to take up it as a profession. “As education is opening up employment opportunities, the next generation is not ready to take up this art form. Moreover it is not an easy art for everyone to perform. Singing, playing magudam and dancing in an aggressive manner may not suit everyone. After a certain age, you cannot do all these things,” says Ganesan.
Annavi Muthu Perumal's son is studying in an engineering college and Perumal's younger brother V. Adhinarayanan, a magudam player, has cleared his TNPSC Group II examinations and is waiting for a posting. A few people such as Annavi Thangasami are doubling up as a railway employee and a Kaniyan koothu performer. However, not many people can ride two horses.
Today, many dancers of the Kaniyan koothu are from the families of paavai koothu (puppetry) artists, who hail from Maharashtra. As puppetry is also at a crossroads, persons such as S. Chithiraivel and A. Mandhiramoorthy opted for a career as Kaniyan dancers. “For two days you will get Rs 15,000 and you have to share the amount with around eight people. ,” says Mr. Muthu Perumal, the son of sought-after Kaniyan artist Nanguneri Vaanamamaali.
“Honour more Kaniyan artists with awards like Kalaimamani to encourage them,” says Mr Ganesan.
Mr. Muthu Perumal agrees. “We want the art to survive. Let the State government take steps to teach it to those who are interested in learning it. Caste is no longer a consideration,” he says.