The energizing beats of the thappam drum, the colourful costumes of the karagattam (folk dance) performers and the appetizing smell of freshly fried savoury paniyarams would engulf the beaches and streets of Chennai every January. But somewhere along the way, the beats faded and the paniyarams disappeared.
When DMK MP Kanimozhi proposed an open-air Tamil cultural festival in 2006, celebrating the art forms prevalent in the state, the ruling DMK government eagerly took it up. The festival unveiled its first edition in 2007.
Titled â€˜Chennai Sangamamâ€™, the festival employed scores of practitioners of different arts â€” music, traditional dance, street theatre and so on. Generally held around the time of Pongal, the event was a week-long celebration of Tamil culture and tradition. Organised by Kanimozhi and Tamil Maiyam founder Gaspar Raj, the festival lasted for six seasons, before coming to an end in 2013, citing political interruptions.
While the reason behind the curtain-fall on the festival is still unclear, organizers of the festival blame the bi-polar political scene in the state. Time and again weâ€™ve seen ventures being shot down by alternate regimes, simply for being products of the previous government. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Chennai Sangamam should fall prey to this.
Meanwhile, it has also been suggested that the festival may have suffered from the fallout of the 2G spectrum scam in 2011, as a result of the associations of the organisers.
The Chennai Sangamam was a â€˜sangamamâ€™ in the real sense of the word, a confluence of myriad folk forms. And the festival did not stop there; the later editions had interesting western performances as well. All in all, it was a celebration of art in all its glory, with no boundaries whatsoever.
Moreover, for many artistes, the Chennai Sangamam was the only platform where they could showcase their proficiency in their chosen art forms. In conversation with a thapparai (drum) artiste, I discovered that the Chennai Sangamam had even changed peopleâ€™s perception of certain art forms, opening up new opportunities and avenues for these artistes.
Apart from serving as a platform for performance, the Chennai Sangamam also brought back many dying forms of art like Villupattu (or bow song) and Mayilattam (or peacock dance) to the forefront. Traditionally performed at village festivals, these art forms found an audience among urbane locals as people looked on in awe. In fact, it was almost like the entire city had stumbled into a big village festival, with streets and parks packed with people eating from roadside stalls selling traditional food like kuzhi paniyarams.
Ever since the Chennai Sangamam ceased to exist, the culture scene in the city has simmered down in many ways. Sure, we have the world-famous Margazhi Festival that celebrates music and dance in December every year, but there is no cultural space to showcase the local folk flavor of the state. The Margazhi Festival has become largely synonymous with only Carnatic Music and Bharatanatyam, over the years.
The city needs a Chennai Sangamam to bring to the forefront what have always been integral elements of Tamil culture. Leading Carnatic musician TM Krishna has been working on this front, taking Carnatic music away from its traditional spaces and organizing concerts to bring local folk cultures into the open, through his festival â€˜Svanubhavaâ€™.
However, this is not as substantial a platform as the Chennai Sangamam once was. While a venture like â€˜Svanubhavaâ€™ is a commendable effort on its own, something more needs to be done to open up culture spaces in the city.
And after all, besides the Chennai Sangamam, where else could you see a Kanchi pattu-clad Carnatic singer and a lungi-clad parai artiste share the same stage as they engaged in a duet, setting off each otherâ€™s beats? Chennai definitely needs its Sangamam back.