Kalaimamani awards: Parai artistes allege discrimination and ‘modern untouchability'

Parai artistes are unhappy with the government for not recognising the art form enough.
Kalaimamani awards: Parai artistes allege discrimination and ‘modern untouchability'
Kalaimamani awards: Parai artistes allege discrimination and ‘modern untouchability'

The Kalaimamani awards have almost always remained synonymous with controversy. The latest one – announced for the years 2011 to 2018 – has kicked up a fresh row. Announced after a gap of 8 years, the awards must have left folk artistes on cloud nine – being perhaps the only recognition that comes their way.

The folk artistes are recognised by the government by way of district level awards like Kalaimani, Kalaisudarmani, Kalaivalarmani, Kalainanmani and Kalaimudhumani. Kalaimamani is the State level recognition for them. Sources say the district level awards have also not been given away for the past few years. So, the latest announcement of the awards has come as a breath of fresh air for the folk artisets who have otherwise remained invisible.

However, parai artistes have expressed resentment over the little recognition of their art form in the latest list. They allege that the art form has once again been neglected in the selection of awards, betraying a ‘willful discrimination and modern untouchability.’

Leading the chorus is Manimaran – the acclaimed parai artist who runs Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu. Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu had almost singularly worked to put parai on the mainstream map by conducting regular classes on the folk art form and holding annual camps. Over the last decade or so, parai has emerged from being relegated as an instrument solely for the Dalits and meant for funerals, to become an art form for the annihilation of caste.

Besides Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu, many other art groups and initiatives like the Casteless Collective by director Pa Ranjith have contributed to this transformation of parai. But Manimaran alleges that parai still finds it difficult to break the glass ceiling of government awards.

“For the first time, a parai artiste has indeed been conferred a Kalaimamani award. Panaiyur Raja from Madurai has won for the year 2017 and while this is certainly historic, we are not able to fully rejoice for two reasons," he says.

Panaiyur Raja is the only artiste among a bunch of talented, deserving parai proponents to get the award. Also, he has been awarded in the category of Kombu Thappattai art form, 'markedly different from the Thappu that he performs.’

“Kombu is something like a woodwind instrument, not what Raja performs,” says Manimaran.

Raja, when contacted, sought to brush it aside as ‘administrative error and that the government has promised to set it right.’

At 49, Raja has been playing the parai for over three decades, making him one of the finest artistes in Tamil Nadu.

“He certainly is a fine artiste and deserves the award, but there are also many others like MSV Thangavel from Dindugul, Velu from Madurai, my own teacher Azhagarsamy, John Peter etc. I think along with Raja, many others should have been awarded the Kalaimamani,” Manimaran reasons.

He also points out how awardees from other categories are often in large numbers.

“Of the 201 awardees announced recently, 51 are from films. 20 from music, and 13 Bharatanatyam artistes. So it is not that our demand is misplaced. Parai is no longer the instrument of ignominy. It is no longer associated with a particular caste. There are people from across all castes who wish to learn parai and become performers. It can no longer be an act of tokenism to recognise parai artistes. By doing so, the government is only exhibiting a modern form of untouchability,” he alleges.

Refuting arguments that parai artistes need to apply for Kalaimamani awards, Manimaran says not all awardees are selected on the basis of the applications.

“How many of those who have won the awards recently would have actually applied? How do you expect the invisible parai artists performing in some village to understand these nuances?” he asks.

Writer Ilaiyabharathi, who also served as member secretary of Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram (in charge of Kalaimamani awards) from 2006 to 2011 tends to agree: “It was a mistake and it should be rectified. Parai has found a new lease of life in the last few years and it should be duly recognised by the government. It will be good for the government to come forward and recognise [arai artists too in large numbers just as it does for other art forms” he says.

Manimaran feels it is still not too late. “The government can still add some names from not just parai but those art forms that have not been recognised in this list. It is never too late to recognise talent.”

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature, and cinema.

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