In a small house held by withering walls and fading structures, lives Poongani amma, the oldest living villupaattu performer in the country. She is now in the limelight after Lady Kash, an award-winning rapper from Singapore made a song titled ‘Villupaattu’ in honour of Poongani amma.
Living in the Kottaram village of Kanyakumari district, Poongani amma is an 84 year old villupaattu performer with more than 50 years of experience in the art form. Sitting amidst strewn clothes and long-forgotten utensils, Poongani amma’s fragile figure belies her calm strength and confidence.
Poongani, fondly known as Poongani amma, started practising the art form at the age of 10. During her visit to one of the temple festivals in her village, she saw a pair of twin sisters- Lakshmi and Dhanalakshmi- wield the ‘veesukol’ with such grace and panache that Poongani amma immediately took to the art form. She was only the third woman ever to perform villupaattu after the twin sisters. As a tribute to her legacy, Lady Kash dedicated the song ‘Villupaattu’ to Poongani amma. The video has already clocked more than 5 lakh views.
Poongani amma (extreme right) in her young days.
Villupaattu is literally translated to ‘bow song’ and is a form of musical story-telling using the bow as the primary instrument. It’s an indigenous art form practised mostly in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. “Villupaattu used to be all the rage during my days. When a villupaattu performance was held, people from all the neighbouring villages flocked to the venue to see the performance. It was considered a sacred performance as it was seen as the very act of invoking God,” says Poongani amma. Her performances were usually made up of the popular folklore like the Mahabharatha, Ramanayana and also the local folklore of Goddess Shakthi popularly known as ‘amman’.
During her heydays, Poongani amma was a much sought after villupaattu performer in the state. “I have given more than a thousand performances in my lifetime. Many powerful people like the Zamindars requested private performances. Those were all very thrilling days. Why, sometimes after an especially enthralling performance, people won’t even let me walk my way back. They would insist on carrying me,” says Poongani amma in a very matter of fact manner.
While age and time have withered her looks, it has left Poongani amma’s spirit intact. Poongani amma says she used to get very excited about dressing up before each performance. “I used to wear fine clothes and jewellery for my performances. Sometimes, the young men in the crowd would get so excited that they’d start hooting and whistling on my arrival,” she says. Recalling one such bizarre incident, she talks about how once a bunch of overzealous youngsters tried to whisk her away from the stage only for her to be rescued by the villagers.
When asked if there was any gender discrimination during her time, she was rather puzzled by the question. “Why would there be any gender inequality? I always commanded my troupe and my troupe members were all men. I even earned double the salary they did. When they got 10 rupees for a performance, I got 20. That was just the way things were. Nobody saw me differently because I was a woman,” says Poongani amma.
Poongani amma (Image courtesy: AKASHIK)
Poongani amma gave her last performance at the age of seventy. “With the effects of old age setting in, I decided to stop performing. The decision wasn’t a matter of choice. It was a matter of necessity. With no one to support me, I had to retire to a life of mere existence,” says Poongani amma, the lone survivor of her family. With no one to take care of her, Poongani amma is now solely dependent on the government’s meagre pension of 1000 rupees a month to take care of her needs.
Now almost 15 years since her last performance, Poongani amma sits in faded clothes with no trace of her former glory. While she once cruised around in cars sent by the powerful people who invited her to watch her performances, she is now confined to a house which does little to hide its glaring traces of poverty and neglect. Poongani amma has not received any State Honour (Kalaimamani award) usually bestowed upon such artists, citing lack of record of her performances. When asked if this bothered her, she nonchalantly refuses it. “We don’t really perform in the hope of getting a Kalaimamani award. We perform it out of the love for the art. Any award, if it comes my way, then good. If not, it’s not my loss,” she says.
Villupaattu has now become a dwindling art form with very few practitioners in the state. When asked if this decline worries her, Poongani amma says with a wistful smile, “It’s okay. Even the young artists these days are making good music. Let them do whatever they like. If that’s the kind of music they like, who am I to stop them? Everyone should do whatever makes them happy.”
Watch Lady Kash's video here: