Traditional folk artists across Tamil Nadu hit hard during lockdown

The artists say that while businesses may resume after the lockdown, the situation is bleak for people like them.
theru koothu artist
theru koothu artist
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“This lockdown has affected everyone, irrespective of their class, but for artists like us, the scene is different. People might be able to resume their business, at least partially, after three months, but in our case it means we have lost out on an entire year," says Manimaran Magizhini, parai artist and founder of the Buddhar Kalaikuzhu, a folk music and dance troupe with its origins in Vedanthangal near Chennai.

“We were all set to travel to Bangladesh on March 24 for a performance. Now on June 17, we had plans to travel to the United States of America. All opportunities are now lost. We are not sure if it will happen even next year,” he says.

Kalaivanan, a bommalattam artist from Kattankulathur near Chennai, describes the plight of the artists in straightforward words. “We are thozhil murai kalaignargal (artists whose livelihoods depend on their art). Thozhil murai kalaingargal are from humble backgrounds. You will not see the affluent doing such a thing. They might choose other art forms like bharatanatyam,” he points out.

Kalaivanan, who like Manimaran, missed out on an opportunity to travel to Canada this May for a show, adds, “The drawback for us, therefore, is that we can’t change the lives we’ve been leading so far. The lockdown has caused a great dent in our livelihoods.” 

A few hundred kilometres away in Namakkal, which is most known for its therukoothu (street play) artists, Parthiban reflects Kalaivanan’s thoughts. 32-year-old Parthiban, whose troupe is famous for their Madurai Veeran Koothu, says, “Most of us don't have any other means to earn a livelihood. Every other business and livelihood may resume when this ends, but ours will be difficult because we depend on crowds. We are used to performing during the nights and coming back home during the day. In this time, most are not even able to find daily wage work.”

While Parthiban works as an assistant professor at KSR College in Namakkal, teaching a B. Ed course, not every therukoothu artist is in a position like him, he says.

“I’d say in Salem, Namakkal region alone there must be at least 40 kalai kuzhus, each having 10-15 artists in them. Then there are other regions with artists practising different styles - Merkathi paani (north), Therkathi paani (south),” he explains.

In a regular year, Parthiban’s troupe is busy travelling to temple festivals across the Kongu region (Coimbatore, Namakkal, Salem) in Tamil Nadu. We chat a little about the plays they put up - they perform stories from the Ramayanam and Mahabaratham - and he says that beginning from February, their peak season lasts up to May. With the lockdown, these months have been washed out.

According to Manimaran, the situation has been difficult for them for the past couple of years. “Last year, during the Lok Sabha elections, our performances were cut short and there were time restrictions. This year, the entire season is gone. It is not just about performing or bringing food to the plate. Our children are first generation college-goers. I will have to pay their tuition fees,” he says.

Kalaivanan talks about the annual training programme for teachers of the art that they've been unable to conduct this year. “During April and May, we conduct training programmes for teachers. Then when schools begin in June, we have programmes in schools and in public places. Now, all that will not happen,” he says.

‘Not giving up hope’

All artists TNM spoke to have worked and presented new content online that is aimed at giving people hope in this time of a pandemic.

Recently, Kalaivanan worked on a puppet show for children, to raise awareness on the coronavirus and the lockdown. He worked along with the NGO Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG) and took help from his sons to film it. Kalaivanan is available on 9444147373.

Manimaran, on the other hand, has launched a parai isai festival online. Additionally, he and his wife have composed a series of songs on the coronavirus and released it online. “My wife and I have composed 13 songs on Facebook Live called 'Corona Kumbeedu'. We also want to release a booklet online,” he shares.

Their online parai festival on the theme 'Coronavai Vendrisiapom' (We will overcome corona and play music) which began last week, will continue until the end of this month. Manimaran has roped in artists from across the world to be on the panel of judges.

“The young generation is interested in nattupura kalai (rural arts). We want to encourage them now. We’ve announced that the first prize will be Rs 10,000; second prize will be Rs 7,000 and third prize will be Rs 5,000 and also a consolation prize of Rs 2,000. We hope the prize money encourages young artists to join the competition,” he says.  Manimaran hopes that volunteers will contribute towards this event. You can reach out to Buddar Kalai Kuzhu on 7708776653.

Muthuchandran, a thol pavai koothu artist and a Kalaimamani awardee, has made his latest play available on the Thilliyam YouTube channel. It's an awareness show on the importance of wearing masks. Unlike the other traditional artforms, thol pavai koothu does not take up a prominent spot in temple festivals, Muthuchandran says. Their opportunities, consequentially, do not vary according to seasons.

Living in Thirumalapuram village in Kanyakumari district, Muthuchandran says, “Only in the last four years we’ve gained the recognition that we have today. Now the lockdown has taken us back to those days.”

He continues, “We are nadodi people (nomadic tribe). Ours is not a temple festival related art because we are usually travelling from one place to another. For instance, theru koothu artists reside in one village. Until now, we have not dropped our roots anywhere. Only for the last 28 years we have settled down in this village, calling our kin to join us. There are about 37 families in our village right now. Without being able to perform, we now live on the kindness of good-hearted people,” he says.

If you’d like to contribute to Muthuchandran and other thol pavai koothu artists, you can call him on 9842670896 or 9486461879.

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