“People’s tastes have changed and there is no respect for us in society”

Thanjavur may be a land of classical music and dance, but in three places, particularly in – Vadakku Vaasal, Keezha Vaasal and Reddipalayam – many Dalit folk artists are on the verge of quitting their profession. 

Though people from all communities perform folk arts, majority of them are Dalits who migrated from Ramanathapuram district around 60 years ago.  Many families have decided to call it a day, arguing that degeneration in form and content of their art have made it impossible for them to pursue their profession.

“Only the poorest among us will continue to perform. Enough is enough. Who wants to dance when the audience make vulgar gestures and utter dialogues laced with sexual remarks,” said Rajendran, a thavil (‘nayandi melam’) player and his wife Thenmozhi, a winner of Kalaimamani award for ‘karagam’ dance.

The Dalit couples live in Reddipalayam where most of the families are folk performers. All of them have converted to Christianity and they are members of the church belonging to Salvation Army.

 “We earn our livelihood performing at Hindu temples. But our religion is Christianity. In reality, we are neither here and nor there,” said Mr Rajendran. An array of decorative vinyl posters with photos of folk artists and their address welcome a visitor to Keezhavaasal. Some of them just have office their and live in places like Reddipalayam.

The artists in Vadakkuvaasal are Maharastrians, whose ancestors settled in Thanjavur when it came under Maratha rule. “For generations we performed ‘kargam,’ ‘kavadi,’ ‘mayil’ and ‘maadu attam.’ But organisers of temple festivals and other events have renamed ‘karagam’ as ‘kuravan kurathi aatam’ and we are expected to display vulgar movements and dialogues with double meanings,” said T. Rajarathinam, 49-year old artist, who began his career as folk performer at the age of seven.

“But our children will not follow our tradition. People’s tastes have changed and there is no respect for us in society,” said Bhanumathi, Rajarathinam’s wife, who is a ‘karagam’ artist.

The couple’s view was supported by E. Vinayagam, a well-known ‘kaavadi aatam’ artist and recipient of Tamil Nadu government’s Kalaimaamani award. “People are no longer interested in the aesthetics of folk art forms. Organisers of events want me to bring fair young girls for dance. I hate it now,” said Mr Vinayagam, pointing out that they would have work only six months in a year.

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