Art should be above religion, say Kerala artistes

Navamy Sudhish

Navamy Sudhish | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When Mansiya’s mother died, she was denied a qabar (grave). The mahal committee felt she didn’t deserve one as her daughter was practising a “Hindu art form”. Years later, the 27-year-old, who is pursuing her research in Bharatanatyam at Kerala Kalamandalam, was ousted for being a non-Hindu from a dance festival at Koodalmanikyam temple. The dancer says she has faced many such incidents in the past, but this time the sudden announcement came as a rude shock. A section of the art fraternity has expressed outrage and spoken up in support. Three dancers pulled out of the festival in protest.

“I spoke up as it was not a stray incident involving an individual. I am speaking for artistes who have been denied a stage, and against temple officials who ask artistes to sign a declaration about their religious identity. I had the same experience at Guruvayoor, but the committee was polite. When they expressed concern over possible opposition, I decided not to participate and create an issue,” says Mansiya.

For many performers, art is their religion and medium of worship, but that is questioned in a divisive world. “Two years ago, a dancer-friend was excluded from a performance at the last minute as she belonged to an oppressed caste. She waited backstage in full costume for the others to finish. Do we deserve such humiliation?” she asks.

Mansiya started learning classical dance as a three-year-old. Since she belonged to a conservative Muslim family, the journey was fraught with challenges. “All my teachers were very supportive, but our mahal committee couldn’t accept Muslim girls learning Hindu dance and we were expelled from the community. Ours is a very religious family and my mother was a devout Muslim. When she was denied a qabar, we were shattered. After the incident we severed all ties with our religion.”

Cyber bullying

While several politicians and celebrities are rallying behind her, the artiste is facing severe cyber bullying. “I have been getting threat calls. This is the reason why most artistes remain silent. They know it might open a Pandora’s box and they will have to face criticism from multiple quarters.”

Poorakali or Marathukali, an amalgam of melody and movements, is a ritualistic art form performed by men during the Malayalam month of Meenam. A novice earns the title of ‘Panicker’ after several performances and Vinod was honoured with ‘Pattum Valayum’ and ‘Panicker’ in the mid-80s. A lead performer in various temples, last year the Vaniyillam Someswari temple committee replaced him with another artiste. “As per custom, the temple committee members visit the Panicker’s home and escort him to the temple. But they refused to come to my house since my daughter-in-law is a Muslim. I was given two options — either my daughter-in-law or I shift to a different house. When I refused, they hired another artiste,” he says. This year one more temple followed suit, citing it as a norm and triggering a controversy.


Vinod | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The incident has destroyed Kannur’s reputation of being a town with a secular ethos. “In my 38 years as a poorakali artiste, this is first time I am facing such a thing. The worst is, it is a Thiyya (Ezhava) temple, a community that had a great reformist leader in Sree Narayana Guru, who believed in ‘One caste, one religion, one god’. These days, when I get an invite from a temple, I inform them about my daughter-in-law being Muslim. Most of them have no problems, but I am still sceptical. We are usually booked a couple of years in advance, but when the festival actually takes place the decision may change,” he says.

The only positive outcome, says Vinod, is the tremendous response to the news of his ouster. “I was planning to stop performing, but I am inundated with calls asking me to stay strong and also offering opportunities to perform. As of now, I am scheduled to perform at two important temples in 2023 and 2024,” says Vinod.

Not a happy outcome

According to dancer Soumya Sukumaran, after the controversy broke out she lost the opportunity to perform at the famed Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Every year I perform at the temple and this year my programme was scheduled for April 13. A Hindu by birth, I converted to Christianity when I was 18. I follow the customs and rituals of both the religions and so far it has caused no problems in my dance career.”

Soumya could not perform at the Koodalmanikyam temple either as she was not able to produce documents proving her religion. “After the issue was reported widely in the media, Padmanabhaswamy Temple authorities said that if they allowed me, other non-Hindu dancers too would insist on performing. Every year I perform at nearly 15 temples and I had no idea about this non-Hindu norm. We need to change the temple laws to address this issue. Until then these stages will be off-limits to many talented artistes,” says Soumya.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2022 6:26:57 pm |