Padma Shri honours for regional trailblazers

S. Damodaran, founder of Tiruchi-based NGO Gramalaya.

S. Damodaran, founder of Tiruchi-based NGO Gramalaya.

It has been raining accolades in the region this week, as clarinet exponent A. K. C. Natarajan and water and sanitation expert S. Damodaran, both based in Tiruchi, and R. Muthukannamal, the last living Devadasi and Sadir dancer from Viralimalai in Pudkottai district, have been named as recipients of the Padma Shri awards this year.

Mr. Natarajan, 92, and Ms. Muthukannamal, 85, have been honoured with the Padma Shri each for art, while Mr. Damodaran, 59, has received it for social service.

Talking to The Hindu at his home in Salai Road, a visibly delighted Mr. Natarajan said that the award crowned a long and storied career. “I am grateful for this acknowledgement, because so many veteran musicians have missed getting it in their lifetime. I was pleasantly surprised when I was informed about the award on Tuesday evening,” he said.

Mr. Natarajan, who also sports the title ‘Clarinet Everest’, bestowed by his mentor Nadaswaram maestro TN Rajarathinam Pillai, continues to perform with an ebonite instrument that is thought to be at least a century old.

Mr. Natarajan has modified the ‘A Clarinet’ by reducing the original 14 finger holes to seven, closing the rest with wax. An anasu (a metallic horn in the lower portion) from the nadaswaram, was added to improve its looks by lengthening the instrument’s body.

The clarinetist debuted at the age of 15 and started his career as a staff artiste in All India Radio (AIR) Kozhikode and Delhi. After returning to Tamil Nadu in 1952, he became a popular instrumentalist in Chennai’s leading ‘sabhas’, and was a fixture at the Music Academy’s December season for 20 years.

Like many artistes, Mr. Natarajan’s calendar has been empty since March 2020’s lockdown. “It is tragic to see so many talented musicians and performers become destitute during the pandemic. I hope the authorities will help these people from our fraternity who have devoted their entire lives to keeping the nation’s artistic heritage alive,” he said.

Legacy of dance

R. Muthukannamal is a descendant of seven generations of Sadir dancers and believes that awards such as this will keep their legacy alive for future generations.

Ms. Muthukannamal began learning Sadir at a very young age, and her arangetram (debut) at the age of seven was attended by courtiers and many others from the Pudukottai district. Her guru - her father Ramachandra Nattuvannar - had taught her and her sister the art form when they were as young as three years.

Ms. Muthukannamal dedicated her life to the Viralimalai Subramaniya Swamy temple and lived the life of a Devadasi where she would dance four times a day during the daily poojas at the temple. She would also welcome the processions during the temple festival held annually.

“I lived life on my own terms,” the 85-year-old Ms. Muthukannamal told The Hindu with pride. While there was a schedule including waking up at 3 a.m. to practice every day, and her father was a very strict teacher, she did it solely because she loved it, she said.

Though the Devadasi system was abolished through the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) Act in 1947, she continued to perform at temple festivals until 15 years ago. She now teaches at workshops and travels to dance institutes across the State.

There is no written evidence of the songs sung in Sadir. “It is all memorised, so the only way I could pass it on is to keep singing it for my children and grandchildren,” she said.

While the Devadasi system did not permit marriage, Ms. Muthukannamal chose a partner who approached her after being smitten by her dancing skill. After her partner’s demise, she lives with her son, two daughters and her grandchildren in Viralimalai.

Social service

As the first graduate in his family, from a very early age, Mr. Damodaran was determined to serve society in a meaningful way.

“When we started Gramalaya in 1987, our work was related to economic improvement. But when we visited the remote rural areas, we found that people were lacking drinking water and toilet facilities, which was affecting their entire life. So we shifted our focus to water and sanitation, and that has helped us travel so far,” said Mr. Damodaran.

Today, as an approved key resource centre of the Ministry of Jalshakti Gramalaya has been actively involved in community-led sanitation programmes aimed at eradicating open defecation and replacing it with safe personal hygiene protocols and eco-friendly toilets.

For the past six years, Gramalaya has been working in menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls by promoting reusable cloth sanitary napkins. It is also looking at reducing malnutrition among young children.

Making conservancy workers aware of the dignity of their labour is also on the agenda. “Our Harpic World Toilet Colleges in Tiruchi, Kochi and Kurnool (in collaboration with Reckitt and Jagran Pahel) help to build capacity and train workers in safe sanitation methods. We want to give them some pride in their work. Automating parts of their job helps us to avoid manual scavenging,” Mr. Damodaran said.

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 2:58:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/padma-shri-honours-for-regional-trailblazers/article38333399.ece