Artists, dance troupes make hay in Tamil Nadu poll gambol
With little work throughout the year artists and dance troupes in Tamil Nadu make steady money mainly during the elections
Ramu stands in front of a blank white wall, paint brush in hand, contemplating the words penciled in - “AIADMK – Full”. He then moves over to where his paints are kept, picks out the green paint and with a thin brush he expertly traces the outline of the AIADMK’s (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) two-leaf symbol and proceeds with the detailing. It is the middle of the afternoon, the heat is blazing and he still has another five houses in the Melirippu village in Cuddalore before he moves on to the next village.
Like Ramu, a number of artists across Tamil Nadu have been finding work this election season painting houses with different party symbols. For the people of Tamil Nadu, their political ideology is a way of life. With very little work through the year, however, artists are forced to forget party preferences in their pursuit of a livelihood.
Ramu and his family are DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party members in Villupuram. Although he helped with the party’s campaign for the past three elections, he still continues to go from village to village painting party symbols on walls across Tamil Nadu. “This is the only work I get, and I am grateful. This is not the time to think of my political leanings,” he says as he finishes up the AIADMK symbol, and starts on PMK’s (Pattali Makkal Katchi) mango symbol on another wall in the same house.
“I have been an artist for over 20 years now, but now the only work I find is during the elections, when the parties want me to paint their symbols on the walls,” he says. He belongs to an artists’ association, which is how he gets contracts to paint party symbols during the elections.
In another part of the Cuddalore district, Jayakumar, who is a VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) block secretary has a similar job and echoes Ramu’s sentiment. He has been painting AIADMK, DMK and PMK symbols across the district. “As a VCK cadre, it goes against the grain for me to paint the PMK symbol, but considering this is the only work I get, I cannot be fussy,” he explains. Over the years, there have been several clashes between the cadres of the pro-Vanniyar PMK and those from the Dalit-centric VCK.
Until a decade ago, artists like Jayakumar and Ramu used to have flourishing businesses. Movie theatres would hire these artists to paint their posters and cutouts. “Earlier, I used to paint posters of Rajinikanth, and Kamal Hassan. Everyone appreciated my art, and people would even offer prayers to these cutouts,” said Mathimohan, another artist who also belongs to the VCK.
Now, there is very little work for artists throughout the year. “Most people prefer digital banners to our artwork because it is cheaper, faster to make, and is less labour intensive. For us, this has meant taking up any job we get. Most artists now work as house painters,” Masilamani, an artist from Cuddalore said.
Painters are not the only professionals who seem to only find work during the elections. Azhagu Sundari, from the Vetri Namathe troupe, has been a dancer all her life. Her parents, and even her grandparents, used to entertain people at temple festivals across the state. But with work now scarce, their troupe mainly performs only in political rallies.
Often Azhagu dresses up like MGR, and she says it is a hit with the crowd. “Most people who are AIADMK followers are ardent fans of MGR, and so seeing someone like him on stage drives them crazy,” she says.
Other members of her troupe also attend political rallies of other parties. “They dress up like Kalaignar, or even PMK’s Ramadoss, as a way to get the crowd warmed up before the speeches,” Azhagu says.
In the past few years, political rallies have become the only steady income for the troupe. Before the Madras High Court banned ‘record’ dances, deeming them obscene, many members of the troupe had a steady year-round income dancing in temple festivals and other public functions. “Many temple officials are now wary of calling us for their festivals because they are not sure if our dancing will be obscene. This is our only livelihood, so we perform where we can,” she said.
“We have now formed an association to try and break the stereotype that dancers are prostitutes, and that our art form is obscene,” she explains. “There have been some instances where men who attend our shows during the temple festivals have attempted to sexually harass us. We are still trying to keep our profession pure, and if we hear of any dancers who are behaving in an obscene or vulgar manner, people from our association report them to the police,” she adds.
While these artistes have found steady income in the past couple of months, once the election fever dies down they are unsure of their financial situation. “Whichever party comes to power, we still will not have a livelihood. Until there is some way for us to find steady income, we will continue to live from election to election,” Masilamani says.
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