A wave of palpable excitement sweeps a busy street at Sellur in Madurai as Stella readies to make that grand entry. The small crowd, consisting mostly of young men and women, are momentarily taken aback when she soon appears, her make-up as Kali intact, in red sari and six pairs of hands. Carrying a brass plate with a burning camphor in one hand and a bunch of neem leaves in the other, Stella carefully negotiates her dance steps, yet not compromising on the fury of movements and expressions typical of Kali.
Stellaâ€™s performance is part of the festival of the Goddess Amman temple in Sellur on the occasion of Aadi (the Tamil month from mid-July to mid-August) considered important for goddess worship. Tamil writer and professor Perundevi says the culture of celebrating Aadi festivals for goddesses also has its roots in myths around Renuka, Mariyamman and Draupadi.
â€śRenuka, the chaste wife of sage Jamadagni, lit a funeral pyre and entered it after her husband was killed by Karthaviryarjuna. But as she entered the fire, Perumal ordered Varuna (the rain god) to quench the fire and she was left unharmed. Since all her clothes were destroyed by the fire, she plucked some margosa leaves and covered herself with them. As she was walking, vannar (washermen) who were washing clothes saw her burns and gave her a piece of white cloth stained with turmeric. That is why yellow cloth is a favourite of Mariyamman. Vannar women gave her gruel mixed with curd,â€ť Perundevi says.
Another myth, according to Perundevi, is associated with Draupadi, â€śSince she had suffered enormously, Draupadi prayed that the month of Aadi be celebrated in her memory, and her prayers were granted.â€ť
Stella performing Kali Aatam
For Stella, Aadi is perhaps the best of months in terms of offers to perform at festivals. The 30-year-old is from Cuddalore in northern Tamil Nadu and this is her seventh year performing folk art. Stella, along with 25-year-old Suji from Virudhachalam in Cuddalore district, specialises in a folk art form called Kali Aatam (Dance of Kali.) The duo decided to carve a fresh identity for themselves with folk art after coming out as transgender women.
â€śWe still live with our families. They have been extremely supportive. But as transgender women we really wanted to do something to assert our identity,â€ť Stella says.
Suji, who will soon join Stella to enact a piece from the iconic Thiruvilaiyadal movie, points out how traditional folk art dances like Kali Aatam and Karuppasamy Aatam have little patronage in the mainstream space. â€śOur idea is not just about our identity, we wanted to rekindle public interest in these art forms. We think it is our duty to do so,â€ť she says.
They have not been formally trained in dance but Stella and Suji can electrify the atmosphere with their raw energy and coordinated dance movements. They are part of Cuddalore-based Siva Sakthi Kalai Kuzhu, which they claim is a 40-year-old troupe run by a Muslim woman named Sadhullah Khan.
â€śThere are as many as 15 transgender women in the troupe,â€ť Stella says.
Suji and Stella
The troupe performs a wide range of folk dances including Kali Aatam and types of Kali Aatam including Pacha Kali Aatam (Kali in green), Pavala Kali Aatam (Kali in red), and Siva Kali Aatam (competition between Siva and Kali), Karuppasamy Aatam (dance based on the local deity Karuppasamy), Siva Sakthi Aatam (Siva and Sakthiâ€™s dance of harmony), etc. The performances are not just restricted to temples; sometimes the troupe is invited to perform for the arrival of seasons, wedding and childbirth, though that has now become rare.
â€śFolk art is intertwined with rural life,â€ť says Stella, adding, â€śYou cannot imagine a celebration without a folk performance, though yes it is not so anymore.â€ť
The troupe travels across Tamil Nadu to give performances.
In Madurai, Stella and Suji have come to perform for Thanga Thaai Kalai Kuzhu run by 54-year-old Muthu Pandi. The duoâ€™s performances â€“ Stellaâ€™s solo Kali Aatam and the Thiruvilaiyadal piece with Suji â€“ have been the highlight of the over two-hour long recital at the temple.
Within minutes, Stella transforms from Kali into Shiva, and the two enact the famous tiff between Dakshayani and Shiva before performing a dance together.
Piece from Thiruvilaiyadal
â€śI have worked with them for seven years now,â€ť says Muthu Pandi, adding, â€śThey are extremely professional and talented.â€ť Muthu Pandi, a talented singer himself, has been running the troupe for the last two decades. â€śMy mother Thanga Thaai was a folk singer, it is in her name that I run this troupe,â€ť he explains.
Muthu Pandi charges Rs 30,000-35,000 for a performance. Stella and Suji are paid Rs 2,000 per day and that includes their travel from Cuddalore and Vridhachchalam. â€śI have to pay other artistes also, but not so much. We donâ€™t see profits, but we love doing this,â€ť he says.
Typically, Muthu Pandi does hundred shows a year across Tamil Nadu. Stella says except for months like Margazhi (mid-December to mid-January, generally considered inauspicious), they get work round the year. Aadi may be over, but Stella and Suji are readying for their next performance with Muthu Pandi for Krishna Jayanthi in Ramanathapuram. â€śExcept Margazhi we are busy all the other months, and busier in Aadi,â€ť says Muthu Pandi.
â€śIt is not just about work,â€ť says Suji, putting on her anklets as she gets ready to perform as Parvathi. â€śWe know we are performing on the streets, but we are doing something so meaningful. We are telling people about folk art forms that they have forgotten. Our life has a beautiful purpose and we love it,â€ť Suji says.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.