Breaking barriers

Why a cultural festival in a Chennai fishing village could be the start of a revolutionary movement

Artistic and social barriers came crashing down as Bharatanatyam shared the stage with paraiaatam, a dance and percussion genre associated with funerals.

On a warm afternoon, on a stretch of beach in a fishing village in south Chennai, half a dozen local children did backflips. Two tall speakers set on the sand marked out the two extremes of a stage-in-the-making about 50 metres from the Bay of Bengal. An eye-catching wooden boat with a huge blue sail served as the stage’s backdrop.

On the weekend of February 27 and 28, for the second year in a row, Urur-Olcott Kuppam, a 130-year-old village, hosted an edgy music and dance festival – the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha. Over two days, a range of musical and dance forms shared the stage probably for the first time ever.

The radical pairings included Bharatanatyam with paraiaatam, a dance and percussion genre associated with funerals, and Carnatic music with gaana, a genre specific to Tamil Nadu that is akin to rap.

Everything we assume about these art forms was subverted and simultaneously being remade – their setting, the juxtapositions, the audiences.

Second edition

The village is situated adjacent to upper-middle-class colonies that came up much later but have become identified with the area. Of the village’s roughly 4,000 residents, half are fishermen from the Pattinavar caste and the rest are migrant workers from all over the country.

The festival debuted last year at the initiative of Carnatic singer TM Krishna, who wanted to address the parochial elitism of the Carnatic music world, which is almost entirely middle- and upper-middle-class Brahmin, from performers to listeners and organisers. He had then just published, in December 2014, a comprehensive critique of the art and practice of Carnatic music as a book titled A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story.

Krishna took his idea to Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist who has been working in the village for many years, and the festival was born. It is supported by crowd-funding and publicised on social media.

This year, the range of art forms increased. Better preparation and a stronger build-up led to a surge in participation and enthusiasm from all sections of society. The festival attracted all age groups from the village and outside, teenagers, college students, parents and senior citizens. A sprinkling of foreigners could also be seen.

Many houses in the village were lit up as if it were a family event.
Many houses in the village were lit up as if it were a family event.

The organisers made a special effort to make children an important part of the festival, whether as volunteers, listeners or performers. Children from the village and from underprivileged backgrounds in other parts of the city performed three items – they used villupaatu, a stylised form of storytelling, to talk about the floods, performed several Bharatanatyam pieces, and sang in a choir.

These children from the Urur-Olcott Kuppam trained in Bharatanatyam for several months. Here, they pose for the camera right before their performance.
These children from the Urur-Olcott Kuppam trained in Bharatanatyam for several months. Here, they pose for the camera right before their performance.

This increased participation for the festival’s second edition gave it a momentum that could become a revolutionary cultural movement.

Two dances, one stage

Before their turn came, about a dozen paraiaatam performers gathered on the beach and heated their drum membranes made of buffalo hide over a fire to get them ready for playing. Part of a troupe called Friends Kalai Kuzhu, they are all graduates and have full- or part-time jobs. They get together regularly after work to practise their dance.

Paraiaatam performers walked through the village before their dance.
Paraiaatam performers walked through the village before their dance.

Paraiaatam was traditionally performed by Dalit communities at funerals. “The drum was played close to the person declared dead in order to confirm whether he had really passed away,” said Dheepak, 25, the group’s head. “If the person still had life, he was sure to wake up to the drum beats.”

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Paraiaatam dance at Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha.

Today, the group is working to disassociate this dance from its morbid roots and caste associations – the group has a Muslim member, for instance – and to elevate it to an art form. They perform it during happy occasions such as marriages and baby showers, and are looking for funds so that they can give up their jobs and focus on further refining this art.

Right after their dance came a series of Bharatanatyam items by Sheejith Krishna and his troupe, which predictably proved to be a huge hit, given the genre’s visual appeal.

“I have seen dances such as the silambaatam (a martial art performed with sticks) during the temple thiruvizha (festival), and Bharatanatyam only on TV,” said Gowri, a woman from the village. “But I like the arts and really enjoyed this performance.”

A series of Bharatanatyam items were a huge hit, given the genre’s visual appeal.
A series of Bharatanatyam items were a huge hit, given the genre’s visual appeal.

Gaana follows Carnatic

The mixing of music genres was as radical, with gaana, the Tamil version of rap and blues, following Carnatic music.

The respected classical singer Vijay Siva, who took to the stage on the second day, did not follow the standard kutcheri or concert format, but refashioned it sensitively to suit the context. He did not compromise on the classicism and presented almost all improvisatory elements, but sensibly chose to sing only Tamil compositions, instead of Telugu and Sanskrit kritis, which dominate a normal kutcheri.

He also engaged with the audience. After singing each composition, he asked the children which Hindu god was being praised. Those who got the right answer picked up a prize.

Before singing one kriti, he explained how it described Sita looking for a reflection of Rama in her gold bangles. “Unlike young women of today, she was too shy to look him directly in the face,” Siva said, eliciting laughter. He ended his performance with the popular song, Om Shakti Om, composed by the Tamil reformer, freedom fighter and poet, Subramania Bharati, and asked everyone to sing along.

But a singer can mould classical music to the context only to an extent without violating its essence. Ultimately, to enjoy such music one has to understand its grammar and cadences. “I can’t relate to this music,” said Devayani, a young woman from the village. “I don’t understand it. But I suppose it is good.”

Attention, concert halls

Yet how does one begin learning a language? By listening to it being spoken.

Who speaks the language also matters. Locals related better to the same Carnatic music when it came from players of a nadaswaram and tavil troupe, because they would have heard similar groups at temple festivals.

Composed of students of the government college of music and led by their soft-spoken guru, Vyasarpadi Kodandaraman, the troupe of young men opened the festivities on the second day by walking and playing through the streets of the village.

The audience comprised locals and visitors, children and students.
The audience comprised locals and visitors, children and students.

They played ragas Hamsadhwani and Jayantashree as they made their way to the courtyard stage near the beach, then sat down and rendered a beautiful Keeravani. Why we don’t hear such music on the stages of Chennai’s concert halls is a question that demands an answer.

For the festival’s grand finale, which followed Vijay Siva’s Carnatic performance, Anthony Dasan, a superstar of gaana music, and guitarist Sean Roldan made the college students in the audience go wild with their pulsating numbers.

Bridging classical and pop at the festival was the ghungroo-stomping star folk singer Raghu Dixit, who ended the first evening. Dixit’s renditions of two songs by the 18th century saint, Shishunala Sharifa, known as Karnataka’s Kabir, proved to be hugely popular.

“It was very liberating because for the first time I was performing in front of people who had not heard my music before,” Dixit said after his performance. “Also, I am more than just a musician here; I am a supporter of the movement for bringing all arts onto one platform.”

Raghu Dixit performed with his friend and collaborator Vidwan HN Bhaskar and others at the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha.
Raghu Dixit performed with his friend and collaborator Vidwan HN Bhaskar and others at the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha.

Art, a starting point

As good as that sounds, any materialist worth his or her salt would ask whether interventions through art can ever change the economic disparity between the various classes, which ultimately determines who is socially and culturally powerful.

The answer to this lies well in the future, but many aspects of the festival offer hope. Before the festival, at two other musical events in localities that had been badly affected by the floods that hit the state in December, the organising committee had honoured the fishing community for its sterling role in rescuing those trapped and marooned as well as conservancy workers who helped clean up.

It also raised money for musicians from modest backgrounds who had lost their instruments in the deluge. This showed a concern with fundamental issues of livelihood.

Also, like last year, a beach clean-up preceded the festival. The private contractor for the area does not pick up garbage from the village because payment is by tonnage and the residents do not generate as much waste as the posh colonies nearby: a clear case of a poor incentive structure that punishes those who generate less waste than others.

Genuine bonds have developed between the organisers and villagers, who worked together for three months to prepare for the event. The festival might allow the more privileged to witness our society’s deep inequities first-hand, lead to a deeper understanding and eventually to more sustained solidarity.

“An artiste is also a social, political and economic being,” said Krishna. “You cannot separate art from life. Art forms ask fundamental questions. This is a beautiful space. We are thinking about what we can do with it through the year.”

While such a festival cannot, in two years, challenge the mainstream system of Brahmin-dominated music organisations, it can become the threat of an alternative.

The image that best expressed this came in the festival’s last few minutes. As Dasan belted out his last song, the hugely popular dance number, Vandiyile Nellu Varum, the ponytailed Nityanand Jayaraman pranced on to the stretch of sand in front of the stage, spurring a chain reaction. Adults, teenagers and children stood up, moved to the front and joined him.

They danced, many in pairs, and hugged. Among them, framed against the sea under the moonlit night, was the unmistakable profile of the classical musician TM Krishna, wearing a blue shirt and spotless white veshti, folded up so that he too could boogie.

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Carnatic singer TM Krishna, one of the people behind the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, can be seen (in blue shirt and veshti) dancing to the hugely popular dance number, Vandiyile Nellu Varum.

All photographs by Sriram Rangarajan (sriram.nus@gmail.com).

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