No, it's not just Carnatic: Busting myths about Chennai’s Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha

There are four problematic stereotypes about the Vizha that need to be dismantled, writes activist and volunteer Nityanand Jayaraman.
No, it's not just Carnatic: Busting myths about Chennai’s Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha
No, it's not just Carnatic: Busting myths about Chennai’s Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha

As the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha – the arts festival in a Chennai fishing village – enters its fourth year, the dominant media narrative that the festival is about taking Carnatic music out of the sabhas into the “slums” is changing, albeit slowly. What the Vizha seeks to do goes against established frameworks that people use for processing information and making sense of the world around them.

Carnatic performed in a sabha by a silk saree-clad woman and gaana songs performed by a clutch of unwashed youth beneath a railway bridge both invoke dominant frames that attach high to high, and low to low. By not disturbing the order of things in our minds, this kind of information is accepted without question. Information presented that is contrary to established frames is simply disregarded or treated as an aberration, unless it invokes other powerful frames.

The Carnatic vocalist can take her music out of the sabha to the space under the railway bridge. This challenges the dominant frame that tries to imprison the Carnatic within the sabha. But it does nothing to question the notion that the railway bridge is a “lowly” place; neither does it challenge the inequality accorded to the two art forms or the relative worth or their respective practitioners. You can have good gaana singers and bad, just as you may have good Carnatic vocalists and tone-deaf ones. But gaana and Carnatic which are equal as artistic expressions, are not treated equally by society.

If the Vizha claims to equalise arts, artists, audiences and spaces, it has to challenge, dismantle and replace certain problematic dominant frames. 

Problematic Perception #1: The Vizha is about taking the lofty Carnatic to the “lowly” masses.

This perception has an equally problematic counter-perception, one that is often voiced by otherwise progressive-minded people: that the Vizha is thrusting the elitist Carnatic on unsuspecting “masses” -- the fisherfolk in this instance.

The first perception confers a loftiness to Carnatic, a lowliness to the “masses”. It makes it appear as though organisers are doing the “masses” a favour by exposing them to the sacred music despite the listeners' lack of worth. It also assumes that the Vizha is only about Carnatic and everything else is an add-on.

The problematic perception and its counter perception ignore the fact that the status of Carnatic – as elitist or lofty -- is a social construct. As an aesthetic, the Carnatic may be different from the amba-p-paattu (working songs) of the fisherfolk, but neither is above the other. Holders of both perceptions ignore the declaration by Vizha organisers that the festival is about bringing different art forms to the same stage, taking art forms out of their traditional spaces and opening up spaces associated only with certain kinds of uses as venues for performances that are new to them. The mission of the festival is to equalise arts by celebrating the aesthetic while chipping down the “high” status appropriated by some art forms and building it in others that have been denied it.

Both perceptions assume that the “masses” have no agency. In their justified distaste for elitism of the artform, articulators of the latter perception assume the patronising role of protectors of the fisherfolk.

Problematic Perception #2: The village is a venue.

Two years ago, three villagers wrote an evocative response in Tamil taking down the stereotypical portrayal of their village as a slum or at best a venue for the Vizha. A translated version of that response is worth a read.

The original Tamil can be read here:

A few excerpts from the fisherfolk's response is worthy of reproduction. They wrote:

“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.”

“They fail to appreciate that Kuppam residents are not merely the audience but also the organisers.”

“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.”

Problematic Perception #3: The Vizha is about music and dance. The villagers are merely the audience.

When the fisher administration of the Kuppam agreed to host the Vizha, their logic was simple:

The Vizha would visibilise the village, and that would yield tangible benefits.

Urur Olcott Kuppam, a centuries-old fishing village, is known to few. But Besant Nagar, which grew around the historical village a mere 50 years ago, is world famous. Not even the daily beach walkers that walk up and down the promenade pause to think what may lie beyond the Dindigul Thalapakatti Biryani restaurant – another prominent landmark that came up less than 10 years ago. R. Sundaramurthy, a village elder explains that this invisibility is a vulnerability. It allows for negative stereotypes to grow and fester, and for systemic discrimination in the deployment of government schemes to go unchallenged.

“When Besant Nagar was being laid out, I was in the village administration. I watched in amazement how the underground sewage lines were being laid even before the houses came up. And then here we are, 50 years later with our sewage flowing through open channels into horrible cesspools on our once-beautiful beaches. Are we invisible?” asks R. Sundaramurthy, a village elder. “People who come to our village think we are dirty people because there is sewage on our beach. But what are we to do?” The village administration had tired of petitioning the authorities for an extension of the sewage pipeline to truly make it a Swachh village.

In 2017, as part of the Vizha, a Living History walking tour was organised. The creatively curated tour celebrated the history of the fishing village, gently reminding visitors that Urur Olcott Kuppam was already more than 150 years old when Besant Nagar was being conceived, that many of the prominent land marks were once waterbodies, cashew groves, screw pine thickets and sand dunes used by the villagers.

One exhibit in the tour was a blown-up clipping of a Tamil newspaper article from the mid-1990s, written by Sundaramurthy highlighting the double-standards between the clean-looking Besant Nagar and Urur Olcott Kuppam with its overflowing shit-choked drains.

Many VIPs were invited to the Living History walk. One such visitor was a recently retired senior bureaucrat from Tamil Nadu's administration. After the Vizha, the villagers approached her for help and advice with their long-pending demand for underground drainage connection. She not only advised, but also referred them to the officials at Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board. When the fisher leaders met the officials, their village needed no introduction. The Vizha had done the job of making the village visible. Within a month of the meeting, an underground drainage project for the village was approved. Within four months, a sum of Rs 92.5 lakhs was sanctioned. Now, the contract has been awarded and work is set to commence after the Vizha concludes on February 11.

That is the story of how villagers used Carnatic to help solve their Kuppam's crap problem.

Problematic Perception #4: Chennai Culture = Carnatic, Bharatanatyam, silk sarees and filter coffee

This conflation of ‘Tambrahm’ culture with Chennai or even all things Tamil is predominantly an outsider's perception. When UNESCO announced Chennai's inclusion in the list of Creative Cities, one newspaper ran a story with a prominently placed photograph of the Music Academy. The Vizha aims to showcase not just the rich diversity of arts but also of how culture should be viewed and shaped in the city to make the urban an equal, inclusive and healthy space.

This year's edition had a hugely popular celebration of the fish market as a cultural space. Designed to dismantle the popular perception that associated fish markets with filth and foul-language, the well-attended event framed the fish market with fun and tasty events in the foreground. Youth from the Parkour Circle performed a choreographed collection of movements to demonstrate the beauty of Parkour – a physical “training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training.”

A storytelling session by village elders aided by a plaster of paris model of Besant Nagar before it became Besant Nagar evoked nostalgia to gently tell people the stories of this region's original inhabitants. Muthulakshmi's Fish Recipes taught people how to make thimilai puttu – a spiced preparation of minced electric ray fish, and told them of the fish's medicinal properties. All in all, people spent two hours in the fish market. Elders from Besant Nagar were seen chatting with the fisher elders reminiscing about the good old days.

The Vizha is by no means the only space or event that is pushing boundaries, redefining cultures. In January, well-known film director Pa. Ranjith brought together a number of gaana artists, including Chennai's only woman gaana singer, with a well-known Tamil rock artist in a production called “The Casteless Collective.” The Collective sang songs about discrimination, resistance and assertion to a packed playground of exuberant listeners. Leading up to and immediately after the Pongal festival, Chennai witnessed numerous performances of traditional Tamil dance and music forms.

The Vizha belongs to this family of social interventions that believes and presents Chennai as a multicultural city.

(Nityanand is a writer and social activist, and a volunteer for the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha.)

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