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Art for peace

M. Balaganessin on power and influence of folk art.

IT WAS well past midnight in the month of Marghazhi, when she was performing a folk dance, balancing back and forth a bunch of Neem leaves she was holding in the right hand in tune with the beats, representing a rural goddess.

It took a while for the audience to realize that the performance had ended, even though she disappeared backstage with hands folded in a `pranam'. "That is the power and influence the folk art still wields among the masses," says Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan, a professor in the Department of Folk Arts at the Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU).

The traditions and ethics set by our forefathers have positive values like humaneness, love, brotherhood and discipline. "Every aspect of our ancient culture has its own objective. Each custom has been carefully codified. Apart from spiritual aspect, even personal habits have been welldesigned."

Strong dismay

She holds a strong dismay over what she terms `misleading and misinterpretation' of many of these customs by present-day lyricists. And precisely that is why she has taken upon the responsibility of using folk art as a powerful weapon for creating awareness about the rich values emphasised in our culture. "An oil-bath has a specific purpose and our ancestors have laid out the dos and don'ts for every Wednesday and Friday when a husband and wife take the bath respectively," she says while explaining a diametrically opposite interpretation for this in a lyric.

Every minute of her three-hour performance brought out the much-forgotten customs relating to multifarious activities of mankind that were in vogue in the past centuries in different parts of the Then Pandi Seemai, Kongu Nadu, and Nadu Nadu. "I keep my audience informed of the various aspects of ourtradition."

She lists out various the nomenclatures of the `Karuppannasamy' (Ondi Karuppu, Nochi Karuppu,....the list seems to be endless), the art of `kolam', the benefits of regional-specific patterns of prayers and worship, a reminder of lyrics like the one sung by P. Leela (Saandhu pottu kalakalakka, Sandhana pottu gilu gilukka from 'Sivagangai Seemai' film of yesteryears). All testify her in-depth knowledge of the overall spiritual, cultural and traditional systems that prevailed in the various parts of Tamil Nadu.

Prof. Vijayalakshmi's performance was not just entertaining, but also was a venue that showcased myriads of ancient rituals and practices in their respective contexts.

Profound faith

To drive home the significance of a folk song sung during the course of irrigating a field, she brings a conical brass vessel tethered to a rope, which had been used in the hoary past. She has a profound faith in the significance of folk art for imparting positive values among the masses.

According to her, one should not look upon this art as a means for an assured livelihood. Many affluent foreigners were even turning to this art form for peace. She firmly believes that folk art could be a source of spiritual solace and mental peace. She narrates how her audiocassette on lullabies was of much help to an Indian lady living in a foreign country, who did not know what to sing to put her baby to sleep.

Her memories take her back to 1985 when the All India Radio, Madurai, sponsored a half an hour programme at the village of Kuruvithurrai. She went to the root of the customs and the rituals of the village and the response to her show was overwhelming. Since then, along with her husband, Prof. Vijayalakshmi has traversed far and wide in the villages in Tamil Nadu to trace the origin of folklores.

Her performances on stage thus are not just mere entertainment shows, but an attempt to trace the rich cultural heritage of the folk scenario. She relates the symbolic significance behind each custom and helps the audience to understand it. She describes with vigour and expressiveness, the way the `Sudalayandi', the God of the Ashes as he walks in the darkness holding a torch, from his fort to the crematorium to cleanse the place of ashes and impurities. The faith in Sudaliyandi was symbolic of the concern that the ancient population had for the environment- she clarifies.

The couple found an avid admirer in the former chief minister, MGR, who enthralled by their performance at the World Tamil Conference held in Madurai in the 1980s, offered a blank cheque to them at the end of the programme. "I could not speak for tears," Ms. Vijayalakshmi recalls. "I told him I was a professor and returned the cheque. But it was aninspiring encounter."

Sore with visual media

Expressing her concern over the bad influence of the obscene sequences propagated by the visual media, she feels the censor board has to make itself more assertive. Meanwhile, her own conviction that the folk tradition was thereal base of any individual's cultural existence only prompts her to be more innovative and creative in field to reach out to the masses.

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