A long time ago, erstwhile Desinganad used to resonate with the rhythm of Seethakali during the festival days starting with Atham. A dance drama primarily performed by Dalit artistes belonging to the Veda and Pulaya communities, it presents minuscule episodes of the Ramayana at every homestead.
Over the years, the staging became sporadic and around three decades ago the folk art started fading away from public domain. Saving Seethakali from its slow death was no easy task, but a group of folk art aficionados cutting across caste and communal barriers could successfully salvage it in 2017. The Perinad Seethakali Sangham currently has artistes from all walks of life and the 20-member group is all set to perform outside Kerala for the first time.
“I started performing at the age of 15 and I was trained by my maternal uncles who were Seethakali artistes. Small scenes from the epic were staged at each house during Onam. People used to follow us carrying petromax lamps so that they can see the full play. It usually takes till dawn to complete the story,” says 64-year-old Babu, the senior most artist of the group.
Since the Seethakali songs were orally passed on from one generation to the next, the tradition came to a standstill at one point. “There were zero performances for a long while and then some of us came together to revive the art form. Most of the artistes belonged to underprivileged communities and they were not very keen to ditch work for art. I work as a karmi (a person who performs funeral rites), but I will continue to perform as long as I can,” he says.
Roshni, who plays the role of Sita, says she was always smitten by the art form. “I had heard stories about Seethakali from my grandmother, but there were no teachers. According to elders, the artistes were invited to prominent families in the area to perform during Onam.” A MGNREGS worker, she had to practise for several months after joining the group. “Coming from an ordinary family with no links to the art form, I always wanted to play some role in Seethakali. Today I appear on stage as Sita and it’s really exciting experience,” she adds.
The Perinad Seethakali Sangham was formed by T.N. Shajimon, a Kerala Folklore Akademi award winner who was in the forefront to revive the art form. “Seethakali was a part of Onam festivities in the past and it’s a Dravidian dance form portraying the portions from vanayatra (exile to the forest) to Sita’s andardhanam (descend into the earth). It’s a blend of songs, story telling and fast movements while ganjira, manikatta, chiratta and kaimani are among the accompaniments,” he says.
He adds that the fragmented nature of the art form was a huge challenge and it took him years to compile the whole narrative with the help of multiple sources. “During the last few years we have performed at more than 200 stages and now the sangam is all set to take Seethakali out of Kerala. We will be performing at Hyderabad very soon,” he says.