How Chennai’s performing arts communities are tiding through lockdown

Despite the absence of temple festivals and kutcheris, Chennai’s artiste community fights back with cardboard parais, Zoom lessons and online festivals

Published - August 19, 2020 01:06 pm IST

Performing artiste Thilagavathi amid a ‘kattaikoothu’ performance

Performing artiste Thilagavathi amid a ‘kattaikoothu’ performance

A three-fold cardboard parai ; a Zoom screen split in four; theory classes, and technical glitches — a typical day in folk and theatre artiste Vishwa Bharath’s life now looks like this.

Vishwa, who by his own admission had never experimented with technology before, took to the medium, albeit hesitantly, in April-May when he found himself with little other choice.

For this, he asked his students to repurpose cardboard as parai to practice the folk form of paraiattam with. “Like a practice pad,” he clarifies. Muffled beats flow as students try different rhythm sequences: “It’s otherwise a very loud art form,” he adds.

It was surreal: until March 8, Vishwa was shuttling between rehearsals and regular weekend shows. Come, March 24, close to three to four lakhs of revenue vanished into thin air and weeks of sitting idle followed.

Now, he spends his days on Zoom.

Festivals go online

This is not an isolated story. The artiste community, which thrives on live performances, festivals and temple traditions have taken a severe hit over these past few months. While some are trying to adapt, there are many others, who survive solely with help from fellow artistes.

Vishwa Bharath’s online ‘parai’ class

Vishwa Bharath’s online ‘parai’ class

Nadaswaram artiste, Mylai Karthikeyan, had a US tour planned along with his ensemble, A Carnatic Quartet, for the month of March. “It was supposed to be our first tour experience,” says Karthikeyan who plays nadaswaram for the quartet founded by violinist Shreya Devnath. Besides, it is in the months from March through June that a lot of concerts in the city come their way, Karthikeyan says. “ Muhurtham and weddings happen in the month of Aavani . And, in the month of Aadi , a lot of temple-related kutcheris happen.”

In addition to all this, in the run up to Vinayaka Chaturthi, a lot of pujas and temple-related concerts would, in a normal world, keep them busy and employed. But, so far 2020 has been a dead end. Professionally, playing nadaswaram and tavil, are their only source of income. Hence with events coming to a halt, they were blindsided.

In a bid to keep the arts alive, Karthikeyan organised a Nadaswaram Festival — Nadarchanai — online in March, inviting nadaswaram and tavil players to participate.

A screenshot from the Nadarchanai series

A screenshot from the Nadarchanai series

Each day was characterised by a raga. Artistes would send videos of themselves playing, for which a small remuneration was provided. These videos were posted on Karthikeyan’s social media handles. “I was able to put it up with the help of Carnatic vocalist KN Shashikiran sir. It was important for us to give them a remuneration, because there are many people in my circle who are struggling,” he says.

Outfits like GCMA (Global Carnatic Musicians’ Association) and individual patrons are also lending support in whatever manner possible, adds Karthekeyan, stating that he hopes to continue online initiatives like this.

The South Indian Stage Dancers’ Association has also been actively supporting performers.

Though most of them have been unemployed since March, the association with 500-odd members, has been active in procuring relief material for artistes left with no income.

This community of dancers who perform for stage shows, weddings and at times as back up dancers and impersonators in movies, are being forced to find alternate means of income — Kannan who used to impersonate movie stars, now works as an autorickshaw driver.

However, their strong sense of community, surfaces time and again as they help people (non-members, as well) with supplies of groceries. “This is not the time to see if they are members or not. Everyone needs help.There should be no distinction,” says, K Balaji, the association’s president.

‘Karagattam’ by J Jayakumar and group

‘Karagattam’ by J Jayakumar and group

Similiarly, Sumanasa foundation, an arts collective, also organised an online performing arts festival, featuring forms like kattaikoothu and karagattam and yakshagaana among many others that are outside the digital economy, in an effort to monetarily help performers.

Folk arts is a difficult horse to tame in the online medium — every form has a unique style of performance, says Vishwa. He is of the opinion that, while parai aatam , oyilattam and devarattam are easier to teach online, forms like karagattam , poikal kuthiraai aattam and so on, require personal hands-on training and cannot be replicated online.

Ultimately, for an artiste, the stage is a second home. And performance is second nature.

“We feed off the energy from our co-performers and the audience. There is a saying in Tamil, ‘ Aaduna kaalum, vaasicha kayyum, summa irukaathu ,”’ says Vishwa, “Nothing can replace that feeling.” This is perhaps what they miss the most.

This is the third in a seven-part series on Chennai and its people, in lockdown, celebrating 381 years of resilience.

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