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Revival of the arts

Learning by osmosis at folk festivals

There is a Dalit character, Kuppandi, in Tamil writer T. Janakiraman’s short story Isai Payirchi (Music Lesson) who learns music by listening to nagaswaram concerts on the streets. Impressed with his talent to reproduce the ragas, Malli, a musician, persuades Kuppandi to learn music from him. Kuppandi hesitates but agrees. When they are ridiculed by the villagers, an angry Malli throws away his sruthi box.

Having learnt to appreciate classical music by listening to nagaswaram and thavil players, I identify with Kuppandi. In my case, the nagaswaram players are naiyandi melam (folk artists) who perform during the summer festivals (Kodai) of folk deities in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. During the nights, especially from Monday to Friday, music is always in the air. In a way, these festivals can be likened to the Margazhi Season (the Music Season in December) of Chennai. While the Chennai Margazhi Season is 100 years old, no one knows the origin of the summer festival of folk deities where there are folk arts such as the Naiyandi Melam, Kaniyaan Koothu, Villuppaatu, and Thappattai.

The folk festivals saw a lull in the 1970s and ’80s and gained momentum again in the ’90s. In Kanniyakumari, the Hindu Unity Conference organised by the Sangh Parivar gave an impetus to the festival, and people suddenly established a close rapport with their folk deities.

The southern districts also saw the process of Sanskritisation. Folk deities without a roof over their heads were housed in concrete structures resembling Vedic temples. Deities made of sand and lime were replaced by granite structures so that abhishekam could be performed. Meat-eating, arrack-drinking and cigar-smoking deities are now offered sweet Pongal and milk payasam.

The elevation of folk deities to the level of Vedic gods also broadened the scope for folk artistes, who had to earlier contend with concerts only during two Tamil months in a year: Pankuni and Chithirai. Proliferation of temples and economic empowerment of communities has resulted in festivals being organised throughout the year now. UNESCO recently included Chennai in its Creative Cities Network for the city’s contribution to classical music. Folk festivals of the southern districts deserve a similar honour for keeping alive the folk arts and musicians who are my childhood heroes.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:38:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/revival-of-the-arts/article21941700.ece

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