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COVID-19: Contemporary artistes help folk performers across Tamil Nadu through the second wave


Contemporary performers, students and patrons step up to help folk artistes across Tamil Nadu, breaking barriers between artistic fraternities

Fire stunts, horse riding scenes and rebellious movement make Madurai Veeran Koothu a herculean performance to pull off. The lesser-known artform, which comes under the umbrella of therukoothu, follows the story of the underdog — an oppressed shoemaker’s son who rose through the ranks, only to be killed — and is performed with fiery wooden spokes.

For 30 years, Dharmapuri Ramakrishnan lived and breathed as Madurai Veeran on stages across Tamil Nadu. It has been more than a year since he saw a stage. Earlier, when he did not have a show, he would cook for weddings. That, too, is not an option anymore.

As a result of the ongoing pandemic, community-based, folk artistes who perform for weddings, funerals and temple festivals are staring at a seemingly endless period of unemployment. Since most of these forms are physical in nature, making them difficult to translate virtually, artistes are unlikely to be hired for many months to come. These are also communities who also lack resources to pivot online.

Across the country, their contemporaries are leading energetic movements to fuel creative crowdfunding campaigns. Anahad’s Together Louder Stronger, an online event on September 26 will feature over 20 artistes — Shaan, Jonita Gandhi, Benny Dayal, When Chai Met Toast to name a few — performing from home to support folk groups. The campaign has already raised ₹45 lakhs. Similiarly, Artkhoj and RK Foundations’ All for Folk initiative encourages patrons to book folk artists for online sessions and get-togethers.

In Tamil Nadu, artist and activist R Kaleeswaran, who has been working with folk artists for 25 years, says he has personally seen how badly they fared last lockdown. “It is only getting worse. Many artistes have lost their lives to COVID as well,” adds Kaleeswaran, who is founder of Alternative Media Centre, a non-profit organisation in Chennai that works with 50,000 folk artistes.

The months of April, May, June and July are especially crucial as everyone, from parai artists to theatre actors, get booked for temple festivals, weddings and community events.“These are the months when they receive income. And it is with this income that they run the next four months,” he says.

A vibrant community

There are about seven lakh folk artistes across Tamil Nadu. Though there are around 75 groups and associations of artistes, only 38,850 of these performers have been registered with the Government of Tamil Nadu. In 2020, as a special assistance aid, each registered artiste was given ₹2,000 by the Tamil Nadu Folk Artistes Welfare Board. But many do not fall under this purview.

Last year, with the help of cinema personalities like actors Surya, Samudira Kani, director Karthik Subburaj and many others, Kaleeswaran was able to raise close to ₹45 lakhs. Back then and now, the backbone of Kaleeswaran’s team of volunteers has been a group of 200 students from Loyola College who understand the performers’ needs, prepare care packages and distribute funds. This time around, the crew has also partnered with Revamp by Aaval, an initiative by Chennai-based curator Priyanka Ulaganathan who is connecting with contemporary artists, patrons and audiences via social media.

An illustration of the artform, ‘poi kaal kuthirai’, by Priya

An illustration of the artform, ‘poi kaal kuthirai’, by Priya
 
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

“In the first lockdown, there was a lot of help pouring in, but this time it’s not the same since no one expected the second wave,“ says Priyanka, who has amplified the campaign by pulling in fellow artists’ works as well. “We decided to give an art print in return for anyone who contributes. This is not a ‘buying’ structure. Patrons can choose whether or not to take a print.” This is their first fundraiser, and they have raised raised ₹2 lakhs already, she says.

Beyond State lines

While Kaleeshawaran’s project tries to reach performers in all 38 districts of Tamil Nadu, Chennai-based artiste and music producer Tenma, Shreya Nagarajan Singh and gaana singer Muthu, hope to look at Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as well, through their Funds For Folk campaign.

Another pan-India effort comes from Chennai-based Sumanasa Foundation, that has been crowdfunding since March 2020. To bolster the campaign, the foundation conducted an online performing arts festival — Margazhi Manch, last December. They have distributed ₹ 1.05 crore to over 3,227 artistes representing over 250 art forms.

A group of ‘parai’ artistes preparing the percussive drum

A group of ‘parai’ artistes preparing the percussive drum  
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

Funds for Folk campaign plans to cater to 1,000 artistes, whom the team has worked with extensively. Tenma says, “The most annoying part is that people always assert their parambariyam (tradition) but when the time comes to really get out there and help, there aren’t many channels.” Hailing from starkly different artistic backgrounds has helped Tenma, Shreya and Muthu to do intersectional work.

To that end, there also seems to be a movement among young, contemporary performers who wish to mobilise. Tenma believes this is a by-product of the generation addressing its roots, while on a search for its own identity.

After an audit to understand the specific needs, they put together funds, utilities and care packages. “We will do one rollout within the next couple of weeks, and one more in another month. We see this status quo continuing for a while,” adds Shreya. Three days in, they have already raised over ₹6 lakhs.

“We want to be an informal support system. That’s what this structure lacks,” Shreya says. Kaleeshwaran echoes this sentiment. “We are perhaps one of the few States that have a department dedicated to folk arts in the Government. I wish to see it being active now more than ever.”

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