Tamil Nadu’s folk artists strike new-found resonance amid COVID-19 — a reminder of the role they played in past epidemics

Marginalised and subaltern forms of musical expression, performing arts and literature have historically fulfilled a range of purposes in Tamil Nadu. Under the lockdown, the fate of their proponents remains uncertain

Jehan Nizar July 31, 2020 16:46:09 IST
Tamil Nadu’s folk artists strike new-found resonance amid COVID-19 — a reminder of the role they played in past epidemics

“To appreciate a parai artist is one thing, but to travel with a parai artist on a town bus is a different experience altogether. Many folk art forms were born out of poverty, and those who want to take up these art forms should understand this, otherwise it is destroying art.” Discrimination, says singer-songwriter Arivu of the Chennai-based Tamil indie band The Casteless Collective, takes on many guises — and technology is the latest.

The pandemic may have distracted the world from certain deep-seated issues, but it has done nothing to drown out the beats of Arivu’s three most recent independent releases. Staying true to the band’s distinct style of blending a local music form gaana with contemporary rap, hip hop and rock, Arivu’s tracks are a telling commentary of our times. In 'Vanakkam Virus', he says that casteism and an extremist mindset pose a larger threat than the novel coronavirus, while 'Monkeys with 5G' showcases how technology is readily embraced by the very same people who succumb to an ingrained casteist mindset in the confines of their homes. To listen to Arivu’s work is to receive a humbling initiation into the language of sociopolitical discourse that has long permeated Tamil Nadu’s musical fabric.

V Arisu, retired professor of Tamil at Madras University, says, “Gaana is a byproduct of the migrations that occurred as people moved from villages and rural areas to urban slums and settlements and mixed folk songs with various borrowed cultural and cinematic influences, resulting in a unique genre. It used to be sung exclusively in death houses, and as it gained popularity, gaana singers would be hired to perform at marriages and puberty attainment ceremonies.”

The evolution and mass appeal of this relatively unknown fringe form from North Madras has been chronicled by Chennai-based writer and novelist Tamil Praba. “Gaana emerged after the 1960s. North Madras was organised by the British in such a manner that all their needs were catered to by marginalised people. Help was sought from the Dalit people and the surrounding fishing hamlets, small-scale industries and colonies. The people of these areas possessed political knowledge, and they expressed their oppression through music. They were mostly physical labourers and used gaana as an outlet for their pain after a hard day’s work.”

This context is essential in understanding why both parai and gaana became a part of the resistance lexicon in subaltern and Dalit movements, and the subsequent textual diversity that led to new-age artists championing a range of larger issues in their music, from labour displacement to the improper disposal of waste, with rap-like influences.

Marginalised arts finding a renewed resonance with people in the time of COVID-19 should come as no surprise. Subaltern categories of literature, oral expression and the performing arts have been known to lend a voice to the voiceless. The very premise of gaana after all, as explained by Praba, is that, “it is an unorganised art form that doesn’t need a particular instrument or voice. It is an expression of emotions and doesn’t have any scales, unlike Carnatic music.”

Arivu talks about how community transmission of the virus rattled the existence of the already dispossessed across the country. He says, “Pandemics come rarely, but the caste system and exploitation are ways of life that are more clearly visible now.” He is not alone; many other artists and performers have made humorous and satirical references to preventative measures such as social distancing and incessant hand washing — luxuries available to the rich.

Historically, folk art forms have assumed various roles in Tamil Nadu. The famed drum parai was, in its earliest avatar, used as a communication mechanism to alert people against imminent danger and natural calamities. Arivu delves into the etymological roots of the ancient skin instrument, whose name translates to 'to tell'. Parai artists served as town criers and performative heralds of sorts. The instrument was played to convey news, and, “with time it evolved to include lyrics and vocals, played along with other instruments."

Tamil Nadus folk artists strike newfound resonance amid COVID19  a reminder of the role they played in past epidemics

The parai was, in its earliest avatar, used as a communication mechanism. Wikimedia Commons

It is befitting then that Manimaran, Chennai-based parai artist and founder of one of the state’s most popular folk art troupes, has used his art as a means of debunking COVID-19-related myths through educational songs that he has penned, along with a 30-minute Facebook live programme titled 'Corona Kumbidu' that he hosted with his wife Maghizhini for 45 days of the countrywide lockdown.

Caste, however, has been intrinsically linked to this instrument, and Manimaran throws light on certain aspects, such as the ancient thandora system where, “only people of a particular caste are hired to play the parai when announcements are made”, leading to its rejection by artists such as himself.

The task of purveying news to the common people has been traditionally served by vernacular literature. Chennai-based historian and writer Nivedita Louis explains how the most distinctive attribute of ancient Gujili literature was that it relayed news to people, who could not read, through the rather unusual medium of songbooks. Women would go to marketplaces carrying these books in baskets over their heads, while men would wait for a crowd to gather and sing verses from them. They reached every corner of the state and were not time-bound. “The period between the 1850s and 1940s was when Gujili literature emerged and major historical events – from the first train that ran in the Madras Presidency to the first exhibition flight taking off – were chronicled.”

Parallels can be drawn between Gujili and modern-day gaana in that both are often subject to literary criticism and not seen as possessing much musical merit. Written in a colloquial dialect, with no strict adherence to grammatical conventions or musical scales, the driving intent of Gujili was to strike a connect with people. Gaana, too, according to senior cinema musician S Chandrashekharan, “doesn’t have a raga – it goes by its own rules and places more importance on subject matter.”

Sampath Kumar, a senior journalist and former producer of music and documentaries with Doordarshan, reminds us that people have turned to folk music and accompanying rituals during epidemics of the past, to appease the gods. “In the ancient days, villages of southern Tamil Nadu had statues of gods such as Ayyanar, Karuppu Sami and Madurai Veeran, who were the heroes of folk tales, to safeguard them. The belief was that these idols came to life and went around the village on horseback, guarding the village against evil spirits and diseases such as cholera, plague and small pox (which had a dedicated Mariyamman deity).” As a token of thanksgiving to the gods, villagers hosted a festival from May to June where handmade terracotta horses would be taken out in a procession and placed in the temple of the village god. During this period, folk songs called kummi – featuring lyrics in praise of the gods – were performed with a dance by the ladies of the village who moved in a circle while clapping their hands.

Tamil Nadus folk artists strike newfound resonance amid COVID19  a reminder of the role they played in past epidemics

The udukku would be sounded by the village pujari during festivals to invoke the gods. Wikimedia Commons

Kumar also speaks about a percussion instrument called the udukku, which would be sounded by the village pujari during festivals to invoke the gods. It was believed that these gods entered the bodies of the priests, inciting the people to fervently request that they be spared from famine and diseases such as smallpox, in return for a sacrifice.

Folklore historian AK Perumal draws attention to Sindhu paadalgal, a form of poetry that now stands as an informal record of the bouts of cholera, plague and smallpox that gripped regions such as Theni, Madurai, Erode and Coimbatore between the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. These poems, he says, should be regarded as an important source of history as they chronicle facts and statistics regarding the deaths that occurred during these periods, which have been expunged from official records by the British.

Seeking solace in music during difficult times is instinctive for people, and folk artists have rallied together to provide comfort to them across various calamities. Manimaran says, “Touching the parai and playing it should not just be regarded as a mere instrument. It is akin to touching another person.” As much as he would like to share his art without a cost — as he did through Facebook — he states, “If this situation continues, artists will die and so will the art.” He suggests the formation of a government-supported online platform that allows artists to host classes online.

While artists such as Arivu remain upbeat about the pandemic proving to be an unexpected equaliser in that it opens up the field to “a new wave of performing and presenting art through home-recorded videos”, he acknowledges that it may alienate a larger section of folk artists whose livelihoods are dependent on temple festivals and village gatherings and do not have access to the internet.

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna reminds us that, “the digital world is not some magical wand that’s going to change the way things operate. A lot of these art forms belong to certain geographical regions and landscapes, and lockdowns have meant that these artists, many of whom double up as agricultural workers and daily wagers, cannot move from village to village. Upper castes who control appreciation of art forms have not necessarily changed their tastes and I’m scared the overemphasis on digital is going to make the chasm worse.”

The reality of the “new normal” and what it entails for preservers of some of Tamil Nadu’s oldest folk art traditions is still rather uncertain. Krishna sums things up perfectly when he says, “Most art that comes from the marginalised world has a strong social and political resonance. Reality is at the forefront with all its complexities and ugliness, and it’s not just something that’s comforting. Manimaran has done a lot to this effect, as have gaana singers and rap artists, and as always, they have done it with far more power while questioning all that’s going on. Marginalised voices question authority and the ideals of democracy, and that’s why they are so important.”

Jehan Nizar is an independent lifestyle features writer and food blogger

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