Since 2015, we – the residents of Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing village in Chennai – along with volunteers from the city have been organising a festival featuring diverse art forms and welcoming varied audiences.
Despite our best attempts and that of volunteer organisers in Chennai to drive home the spirit of inclusiveness behind the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, or festival, the media continues to portray it wrongly.
This is most evident in the superficial and feel-good reportage that was seen after Carnatic musician and social commentator TM Krishna won the Ramon Magsaysay Award on July 27. Examples of this are here and here.
What’s common to these and many other articles about the award are that they fleetingly refer to how the musician brought “Carnatic music to the slums".
The award itself is a source of great joy and pride for us. That our fishing village, which has so far either been ignored or referred to in disparaging terms, has been spoken of in a positive context in the award citation gives us a sense of fulfilment.
We are also happy for Krishna, and share his joy in being acknowledged for, among other things, our joint effort. He shares our objectives in organising the festival. We have spoken to him and he, like us, is deeply pained by the reduction of the festival by mainstream media to a simple task of “taking classical arts” to “slum” people”.
That phrase belittles us, reduces us to insignificant objects incapable of exercising our wills, thinking through our choices or influencing our own collective futures. It also reminds us of the challenges that remain in tackling inaccurate stereotypes about us and in educating the so-called educated, including writers, who tend to become victims of their own privileged upbringing.
And in response, here are a few points we’d like to make.
Not a slum
Urur Olcott Kuppam is a fishing village, not a slum. Our village is perhaps older than the city of Chennai. We object to the use of the word “slum” to describe Urur Olcott Kuppam because the world invokes certain stereotypes – of illegitimacy of tenure, crime and violence, unsafe environs and dangerous people.
We believe it is not the intent of those who have written these reports to cause us pain. Their writing is possibly influenced by their lack of exposure and positions of privilege. But this is not an incurable disease.
We invite to our village all those who wish to write about the festival, so that they can understand us better.
Not just Carnatic music
In describing the festival as one that “takes Carnatic music” to a few “slum children” or slum people, the writers do a great disservice to the musical form, our village, festival volunteers and the capabilities and aspirations of our children.
To the media, Carnatic music may be an exalted art form, but to us, it’s just another art form. There is beauty in it just as there is beauty in the songs we sing while hauling our nets. There are some among us who like Carnatic music and others that will swim a mile to avoid it.
That said, we had our own reasons and conditions for agreeing to host a festival in our village and Carnatic music happens to be one of the art forms on display – along with Bharatanatyam; the folk forms of Koothu, Villuppattu and Parai aattam; rock music and songs from several languages.
The village found the idea of featuring Carnatic and Bharatanatyam performances appealing as we saw it as a way to welcome audiences who would not normally come here, because of a lack of cause to visit and/or the various negative stereotypes that have been created about places such as ours. So it was not a matter of taking "Carnatic music to slum children". Rather, it was a means of inviting those who see us merely as a handful of slum children to visit us and experience our hospitality.
That said, we do not see Carnatic and Bharatanatyam merely as baits to lure people. We too want our children to be exposed to these art forms, just as we encourage them to learn Silambattam, a martial art and dance form from Tamil Nadu, Oyilattam, a folk dance, and Parai-attam.
We are exposing our children to new experiences without belittling our own heritage and identity and instilling in them a pride of belonging and a sense of who they are as fisherfolk, as hunters of the sea and as a community where people still look out for one another.
The dismissive portrayal of us by a section of the media frustrates our efforts and robs our children of the pride that rightfully belongs to them. We wish they had spoken to us before depicting us as people without agency.
The festival was not and could not have been organised by any one person. TM Krishna was a prominent volunteer organiser, and we are happy to have a person of his talent in our community of organisers. But for us, even volunteers without prominence or eminence are important. We do not have the same preoccupations as the media with eminence, notoriety or prominence.
Many who have written about the festival assume that our village had no role to play in the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha other than lending its name to it – and that we and our children were mere recipients of a superior art form.
Such an assumption may be a result of the fact that people from the city have forgotten what it means to be a community.
Do you know what it takes to organise a festival in a village for an audience of thousands? To ensure that the vizha concludes without incident – without a fire or an altercation? Do you know that the J5 police station near Chennai’s Besant Nagar was so confident about our village's ability to see the festival through without a hitch that they deputed only one constable for the event? Or that that constable enjoyed the event and told us so afterwards? Did you know that before the event, we worked with Chennai Metro Water to de-clog all sewers so that our guests are not inconvenienced by any poorly timed sewage outflow?
To think that someone can come into our village and use our space without our wholehearted acceptance and participation is the height of ignorance. It is this ignorance that we're trying to address.
Organising the vizha involves discussions between all of us – men, women, and children. The village has to be spruced up. This is no mean task. The private contractor who is tasked with cleaning the city only covers streets and public spaces in areas where the rich live. So, when we cleaned our public square, we cleaned up a year’s worth of accumulated garbage.
Thankfully, volunteers from Chennai joined us by the hundreds and together, we achieved the task.
Not without art
It is not that our village is deprived of art. Have you seen our men poised on boats as they ride the surf? Have you seen the lines of our boats, the colours and the art that adorns them? Or the kolams that our women draw on the floors?
Did you notice the backdrop of the main stage – a kattumaram (a raft made of logs tied together – the English word catamaran is derived from this) with its sails unfurled? Who do you think put that up? Slum children? No. It was five elderly fishermen with calloused hands from years of work at sea. The vizha opened us to the pride we ought to be taking in our own artistry.
Did you notice the smaller stage beside the large stage on the sands – the concrete platform outside one villager's house? The balcony and the walls of that house, too, were part of the decoration. You still think we had no role to play and nothing to offer in organising this festival?
The walls of our temple were painted by youngsters from various parts of Chennai. Cars belonging to customers of the local mechanic had to be cleared to make room for the main stage. That meant the mechanic and his workers had to forego their earnings for four days – and this they did willingly and happily. This requires an acknowledgement and consensus of intent. This requires community. We are not the ones that are being taught. We are trying to teach others what it is to be a community. As we see it, Carnatic music is merely incidental and not central to the plot.
This community that we refer to doesn’t only comprise our villagers. The Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha is unlike our village thiruvizha, a religious festival. To organise a festival where different art forms and people from all walks of life and sections of society are present requires the participation of people outside the village too.
Residents of Thiruvalluvar Nagar nearby also worked with our youth to see that the festival went off smoothly. Volunteers by the dozen – from children to elders – from various parts of Chennai (Besant Nagar in particular)and some even some foreigners pitched in and worked with us, teaching us and learning from us.
The children of our village – whom you disparagingly refer to as "slum children" – practiced and performed several Bharatanayam pieces. They were trained by a teenager from Besant Nagar. More than the dance, it is the relationship between these children that ought to be celebrated and it is the vizha that ought to be thanked for creating this opportunity.
The performance by a choir of children from marginalised communities moved the audience to tears. So, it was so much more than taking Carnatic music to the slums, or a few slum children.
People are entitled to cynicism, and we are no exceptions – cynicism comes easily to us too. However, festivals are times when we set aside this cynicism and allow ourselves to dream and celebrate the possibilities of a wonderful future. We request the media to allow us that moment, and to join us if they can.
The authors are residents of Urur Olcott Kuppam and office-bearers of the Fisher Cooperative Society. They are also volunteer organisers of the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha.
English translation by Nityanand Jayaraman.