Within a small colony a short ride away from Madurai emerge women, their faces flushed yellow with turmeric, sporting unusually large bindis and pastel housecoats. Outside the houses of Mannapettai, a gaggle of children move their hips in imitation of their elder sisters and cousins. A regular sight.
This scene gives 45-year-old Vijaya a mix of relief and elation. A practitioner of the Karakattam folk art tradition for over 30 years, her voice takes on an inflection of both pride and grief when her recently deceased husband is mentioned in the conversation. âHe was a wonderful dancer who helped me go forth with whatever little we had,â she says.
Karakattam is one of the many artistic traditions that has its roots in tribute to the rain goddess Mariamman. While the form isnât dying per se, and has undergone a fairly unusual amount of change and adaptation, it has definitely received an unsavoury reputation in recent times.
Much like Lavani, the Maharashtrian folk art form that is criticized for its erotic nature, Karakattam, too, has come under fire for its âvulgarityâ. And as with Lavani, it is the artists who are attacked, not the audience that cannot see the difference between an erotic performance and sexual propositioning.
Vijaya with her then performers, now daily wage labourers.
Vijaya, who was initially ready to chase us out, sat us down a minute later to leaf through her picture albums. âItâs a young woman thing now. Audiences once liked curvaceous women well into their 30s, now they prefer pubescent teenagers in short skirts,â she mumbles, as she shows us a picture of her with a pre-politics Vijayakant.
It might have roots linked to the rain goddess, but the form isnât just about worship â it is also about turning caste hegemony on its head. âWhile the men and women who perform Bharatanatyam dance on lofty stages and receive applause from elite society, we dance on the muddy ground in solidarity with those who have been cast out,â she proudly declares, slipping another photograph into a bundle. The week-long Chennai Sangamam Festival, which celebrates traditional, rural art forms that are typically considered âlow artâ by the crowds that throng the December Music Festival, hosts Karakattam performances among others.
Traditionally, the men performing Karakattam, adopted and donned the garb of Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, and even policemen, as a declaration of power and as a way to challenge the forms that are claimed by people of higher castes. But the women were, well, women in skirts and who flashed their midriffs, painted in startlingly bright makeup â frozen in time. For the first time, Vijaya flashes a look of remorse at the photos. âWe were and are always upset about that, maybe we need to change that,â she says.
The anatomy of a Karakattam performance involves a fair amount of gyrating and gleeful banter. Atop a pot filled to the brim with either water or rice, are three tiers of green, white and pink flower arrangements. The figure is finished off with a jarringly green model of a parrot. All of this is balanced on a Karakattam performerâs head while he or she dances. Sometimes a plate of water is kept on his or her feet while they dance. Why a parrot? âItâs nice to top it off with a bird. I feel like a tree whenever I try to maintain balance,â Vijaya says, suppressing a chuckle. When male and female dancers perform together, the woman takes charge and entices the man. âAs we move around, we begin linking our legs together and locking hands, while staring at each other longingly,â explains Vijaya.
The parrot of the Karakattam garb
Other highlights include blowing fire, sticking needles into their eyes and maintaining balance with a bottle on the performerâs back, held parallel to the ground. âIn the middle of all this, we laugh, make fun of the audience sometimes, and deal with some drunk man pulling at a womanâs skirt,â she says. Vijaya once had to intervene and yell at a drunk man, âDonât pull stunts, thatâs our job.â
After the form recently got a slew of bad press, the Madras High Court thought it necessary to order a directive on the âobscenity and vulgarityâ of both Kathakali and Karakattam forms during the aadal paadal (song and dance) events held late into the night. This directive was issued particularly regarding the Aadi festival of the Mahasakthi Mariyamman Temple at Vadaku Ammapettai village in Poolangulathupatti taluk in Tiruchi district, and another Mariyamman temple at Theranipalayam village in Lalgudi taluk in the district. âNo alcohol must be consumed,â the court added.
âIâll tell you, listen, listen. The vulgarity is not because of us. It is because of those who come and watch us. And some other groups of performers,â says Vennila, a more recent performer. Vennila is 25, and has been a performer for the past 9 years. Coyly tagging along is her 13-year-old cousin, who has performed her first dance at a festival two weeks ago.
Agents are a recent presence in the community, dividing the earnings from their performances and taking a major percent of the money as commission. âThey say they want to manage us, make new performers wear clothes smaller than my pallu, and ask them to dance and talk dirty,â Vennila says, adding, âI am not that kind.â Vennila notes that she gets jeered at by drunken crowds if she does not perform like other groups that perform overtly sexual acts. âThere is a difference between being erotic and being sexual. We normally tease men during these performances, we donât you-know-what them,â she says, making explicit hand gestures. The anger in her voice grows â âThese men who go back to families after watching these â I canât even call it art anymore. That is how corrupt the form feels now.â
However, this difference, and much of the rich and varied history of the dance form, is lost on the general populace, judging by the kind of Karakattam videos appearing on the internet. Search for Karakattam on Google and you get little reading on the erotic art form and more links to videos with 'hot', 'sexy' and 'very hot' as keywords.
Vennila says the so-called civilized society has never liked them. They were barely recognized as artists, and when they were, their midriffs and legs earned more scorn than admiration. ââChee, wear a pavadaiâ,â they would say. But at night, the same people would say â "Chee, wear a shorter skirt!â. Kollywood briefly recognized Karakattam â In 1989, a Tamil movie, Karagattakaran featured karakattam dancers as the main characters in the film. The movie went on to become popular particularly for the song composed by Ilayaraja - "Maanguyilae Poonguyile." More recently, the form was recognised in a racy dance film starring Varalakshmi Sarathkumar.
Another part of the judgement says "the programme should be conducted without showing any discrimination based on caste or communities promoting communal harmony." Both Vennila and Vijaya dismiss the statement with a "Hah". "We are here to break this low caste high caste dance barrier. We want to be equal to the Bharatanatyam dancers. Go and give them this order first." Their anger is understandable â for an art form that seeks to question hegemonies, it is impossible to separate it from its politics. Communal harmony is indeed desirable and art is one of the ways in which we achieve it â by creating a mirror to society, even if the reflection it sees is ugly.