Journeying from the tiny tribal hamlets of Wayanad, all the way to Thrissur, seven students of the Kattunayakan community, a primitive tribe, won grade A in the folk song competition and several hearts at the 58th State Kerala Kalolsavam.
Posing shyly for photographs, the group of seven, from the Rajiv Gandhi Model Residential School in Noolpuzha, Sultan Bathery, had glowing faces as they celebrated their achievement at the State Kalolsavam.
The four girls and three boys, wearing the traditional dress of the Kattunayakans, performed a tribal song along with a few folk songs at the fest.
â€śYears ago, an old lady from a tribal village in Maathunga sang me a song. Maachiyouwa â€“ as she is known in the village â€“ is a living, breathing repository of tribal literature. I learnt the song and taught them to my students,â€ť said Vasu, a teacher at their school, who also helped train the students for the competition.
Interestingly, the winning song is in the Kattunayakansâ€™ language â€“ Nayaka Maathu â€“ which bears more resemblance to Kannada than Malayalam.
The students â€“ Athira, Rahul, Mithun, Unnimaya, Manusha, Vishnu and Nithya â€“ all study in the same school, the only government school out of 19 in the state that solely caters to this Kattunayakan tribe.
Kattunayakans â€“ an ancient tribe of south India
Known as the kings of the jungle, Kattunayakans are found in the Wayanad, Kozhikode and Malappuram districts in the state. The interior forests of Nilambur area of Malappuram is home to the community in Kerala. Known as â€śKeralaâ€™s Africa,â€ť the tribe members were spotted naked in the forests even in the 1950s.
Though listed as a tribe in Kerala, the Kattunayakans are spread all over Kerala Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Living as honey collectors and hunter-gatherers, the tribe is said to have originated from the Blue Mountains or Nilgiris. With the region getting divided into states, the community too was split into three.
These worshippers of sun, snakes, mud and stone have now embraced the ways of the modern world, with most of them moving to villages bordering the forests, accepting Hinduism and speaking the common tongue of Malayalam.
â€śThe Kattunayakans worship their ancestors, known as â€śEthaneâ€ť in their language. Ancestry worship has huge significance in their culture. However, most of them have long given up these beliefs. Some of them, mostly from the extremely backward colonies, have even embraced Pentecostalism,â€ť said Vasu.
Making ends meet
â€śEarlier, the community used to be honey collectors and hunter-gatherers. They would collect medicinal produce and gooseberries from the forests and sell them. Most of these livelihoods have now perished with the forest department clamping down on them,â€ť said Vasu.
Now, the tribes collect a special fungus called â€śKalpaatamâ€ť growing in the forest trees and sell them at the â€śPattiga Varga Sangamâ€ť or Tribal Association. Some are engaged as mahouts and also collect firewood from the forest. Many of them have even migrated to Kodagu, in Karnataka, to work in the ginger farms of wealthy plantation owners.
Today, many female members of the tribe are engaged in Kudumbashree jobs and have a stable income. However, there are many more in the interior colonies of Wayanad, Nilambur and other regions who live in acute poverty. Most houses have thatched roofs and clay floors, and lack toilets.
Many of the forest-related livelihoods perished as the Kerala government imposed restrictions on the tribeâ€™s forest activities.
A model residential school
The teacher, or â€śVasu mashâ€ť as he is known in his school, has been engaged in promoting tribal welfare and culture for more than a decade now.
The residential school of 498 students from the community has classes from 1 to 12, with Malayalam as the medium of instruction.
â€śWe could have got more students on the stage, but unfortunately the folk song entry was restricted to seven participants,â€ť said Vasu.
Most children in the school come from families where the parents still have no land for themselves. The children go home for 10 days, twice a year, for Christmas and Onam, and sometimes some of them donâ€™t come back, according to Vasu.
â€śUnlike most other schools we donâ€™t conduct an entrance exam for the tribal kids. Preference is given to those children coming from broken families, those who have alcoholic fathers, families still living inside the forests, students without parents, etc.,â€ť he said.
However, as the school takes care of all the needs of their students, including three meals a day, food and clothing, the dropout rates have dwindled to 5%, he added.
What is more inspiring is that the students who won the competition braved many odds to come and get an education.
â€śMithun, one of the winners at the Kalolsavam, recently lost an aunt after she was trampled by an elephant. Rahulâ€™s mother passed away some time ago due to an illness,â€ť he said.
The sweet victory at the Kalolsavam helped them temporarily forget their personal stories of sadness.