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One more folk art breathing its last

Reading the Blaveli, during the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, is a dying art. K. PRADEEP meets Haridas, one of the last exponents of this traditional art.

TRADITIONAL FOLK art is all about Nature, about the vagaries and changes of seasons, the hopes, beliefs, aspirations of the simple, rural folk. It is a reminder of the past and a facilitating link to the present. Some of these art forms are characterised by its raw vigour, splash of colours and spontaneous movements. There are many others, relatively quiet, less vibrant and still clinging on to religious roots. The few practitioners of these arts carry everybeat of the age in which they sprung, preserving every imprint of that socio-cultural society in which they were created.

The reading of the Blaveli, (often transposed to Mdaveli or Bdaveli in local parlance) is one such folk art, perennially relevant and needs to be cherished and preserved. The rapid changes in the society, breakdown of joint families, resulting in loss of promotion and patronage, has put this very crude, ancient art form into the endangered list of rural art forms.

Haridas, 49, one of the very few practitioners of this dying art, is not quite sure about the origins of this form. He only knows that his ancestors came from Karnataka, but is not sure whether this art exists in that State.

"All that I know is that this art has been hereditarily practised by the Veerashaiva community to which I belong. From the time I can remember we have been staying in this State, with my family, settled down at Pattimattam. I have seen by grandfather and father going around, reading the Blaveli, though I never intended this to be my profession, I picked it up quite early," says Haridas.

Though the reading of the Blaveli is performed at the Hindu houses throughout the year, it is popular during the month of Karkidakam.

The only prop that Haridas carries with him is a rolled up chart made of stiff paper. Once the members of the family gather, he unfolds the chart and hangs it wherever convenient. On the yellow coloured chart are crudely painted human and animal figures, various shapes, filling up the space. The figures look a bit abstract, some of them reminding one of the tribal paintings. "Earlier the chart used to be made of cotton cloth, which used to be mixed with maida, to make it stiff. This was then coloured yellow, using turmeric powder on which the figures and shapes were drawn, using ink. This was a more perfect and attractive chart than what is used today. The expert artists are no longer there and so I make the charts on my own."

Using a stick to point at specific figures at different points in the course of his narration, Haridas tells a story that he believes, is from an ancient Telugu book, titled `Sharithundan.' The main story is of a childless landlord whose constant prayer and penance moves Lord Shiva. "The Lord visits his house in the guise of a `paradeshi'. He asks the landlord if he would be willing to sacrifice the child when it is five years old. The landlord agrees and soon a baby boy is born. Every year the birthday of the boy is celebrated with great fanfare. On the fifth year, strangely no one turns up, not even a bird or animal. Then a paradeshi arrives and demands the sacrifice of the boy. Reluctantly the landlord agrees. The child is cut into pieces and put into pots to be cooked and served to the paradeshi. The mother swoons. When the human feast is ready and set to be served, the paradeshi complains that he cannot have anything from a house without life, bereft of the laughter and mischief of children. When the landlord and his wife rue their predicament, the paradeshi asks them to call for their son and miraculously the boy appears. The parents are elated, the servant announces that the pots are now filled with steaming vegetables and the paradeshi vanishes." This main track is interspersed with sayings and words of wisdom."Listening to this narration is believed to bring happiness and prosperity to the household. Even today there are families that make a Blaveli offering, almost like giving away rice, vastra etc for blessings received. Those who do so ask the man who practises this art to make a new chart or the Blaveli. This is then given away after a very formal, traditional ceremony. This is still in vogue."

For Haridas, reading the Blaveli is more than a hereditary profession. It expresses, quite vaguely, his dreams, hopes, joys, grief, beliefs and aspirations. "In my younger days I used to go around reading the Blaveli for almost the whole year. When most of the earning members of my community got only a pittance after a day's hard labour I was able to make some substantial savings, in cash and kind. Since I decided to take up this art my family and I have never gone through poverty. I feel that it brings prosperity to the person listening and also to the man who reads it. Very often people are not sure what they have to shell out to listen to this reading. We are not supposed to demand anything and hope for nothing more than one square meal."

Nowadays, Haridas spends hardly around two months every year, roaming around and reading the Blaveli. "For the rest of the year I sell bangles and those fancy articles, especially at temple festivals. This has really helped me build up my family. My elder son, a good volleyball player, is with the Indian Army and the second son works as an autorickshaw driver. I have a nice little house, looked after well by my wife. I think I have been fortunate in life."

These days very few homes invite Haridas to demonstrate his art. Without complaint, he leaves, his chart and umbrella in tow. Little does one realise that this man carries with him a unique art form, which would very soon be obsolete if immediate steps are not taken to preserve it.

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