Arts Does folk art get its due? Sudarshan Varadhan speaks to some artists who say they could do with a little more help

“What are the traditional art forms of Tamil Nadu?” I ask a few school kids in my neighbourhood. “Bharathanatyam”, comes the answer in chorus. One kid says, “Carnatic music”.

After some heated discussion and debate, a child in the crowd reluctantly says “Karagattam”, to be immediately greeted by hoots of laughter. Karagattam is either unknown or considered a funny or uncool dance form going by the reaction of the kids.

Fading away

“It is this callous attitude that is pushing Karagattam towards extinction” says Nishanth, a student of Kongunadu Engineering College, one of the few college-goers who practice the art today. “People look at us strangely every time we go on stage. May be, it is our costumes and props. The art is not in vogue anymore. Except for those who have the patience to appreciate its intricacies , we usually encounter silly banter. ”

But thank god not everyone is like that. Serious connoisseurs of art have taken notice of Nishanth and the group's efforts to re-energise a dying art. The troupe has been conferred with a special award by a jury of a national-level cultural event that was held recently at VOC Park, Coimbatore.

According to B. Hemanathan, Regional Assistant Director of the Department of Art and Culture, the State Government has identified over 100 traditional folk arts and 30 of them are in the Kongu region.

Samynathan, an exponent of Thudumbattam and the leader of Cheran Thudumbatta Kalai Kuzhu, a percussion-based art form says, “People with prior knowledge about the art don't respect it enough. During our performances at kovil thiruvizhas , some people get drunk and disturb the performers”. People who haven't heard about the art earlier are more likely to appreciate it.” Samynathan's group has worked with rapper Blaaze for the album “Time for Gandhi”.

Students of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham have found a novel way to educate people about these art forms. Says Srivignesh, a Villupaatu enthusiast: “We juxtapose contemporary culture and elements of traditional art forms. This way, we not only attract crowds, but also educate them while we entertain.”

Is there hope?

Has the Government done enough to encourage such traditional art forms? Be it the torchbearers of the graceful Oyilattam, Mayilattam, the energetic Thappatam or the grand Kavadiattam, artists have benefited from the Chennai Sangamam and the Semmozhi Maanadu in Kovai. People like Samynathan are grateful to the Government for setting up welfare associations to benefit performing artists. The Tamil Nadu Naatuppura Nala Vaariyam and Kalai Panpattu Maiyyam have ensured that the children of artistes get education and the aged artistes get pension.

However, Manimuthu, 75, practitioner of the lesser-known Valli kummiyattam, disagrees. “People who practise this art form get a paltry thousand rupees a month. The Government has done nothing to ensure their financial security.” But, he has taught this art form to his children, grand children and many others.

How have these art forms evolved over the years? “Gender barriers have been broken. Oyilaatam, an art form that used to be practised only by men, is now open to both sexes. Thousands of women across Tamil Nadu practice the graceful art form.” says Gandhimathi, an Oyilaatam dancer.

The purists in the field have been working overtime to retain certain key elements of each of these art forms. Though the Government seems to have done a lot of good work to support the livelihood of these artists, a little more monetary support would go a long way in enhancing the quality of the lives of these artistes and keep the indigenous art forms in good health.

People look at us strangely when we go on stage. Except for those with the patience to appreciate its intricacies, we encounter silly banterNishanth