A cultural exchange programme allows local youths to pursue their love for Indian folk arts right at the source.
Like the bells adorning the ankles of a dancer, culture is almost synonymous with the Indian subcontinent. Yet, there are still many facets of India’s cultural traditions that remain tucked away in their own corners of the vast country.
Take dance, for instance. Mention Indian dance, and most Malaysians are likely to think of either classical forms like bharatanatyam and kuchipudi, or the mishmash of modern and traditional dance in most Indian films.
Both kinds are fairly prominent here, thanks to their close association with Indian culture.
Existing alongside these, however, is their lesser-known cousins, the folk traditions – which, while lacking the formal rules of the classical forms, are no less important in telling the stories of the land and its people.
With each state and even village in India being home to different forms of folk art, keeping the many folk traditions alive is no mean feat, particularly among members of the Indian diaspora.
In Malaysia, for instance, classical Indian artforms like bharatanatyam and carnatic music enjoy much more recognition and growth than their folk counterparts.
Recognising the importance of preserving these traditions, pay-TV network Astro’s Indian language segment initiated Ponggu Tamil last year, a cultural exchange programme aimed at reconnecting Malaysian Indian youths with their folk heritage.
Twelve young people from around the country, selected for their commitment to learning various folk arts of Tamil origin, were sent to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India, for an immersive 16-day learning experience, where they underwent intense training in a specific art, as well as learnt the origins and practices associated with it.
To highlight these artforms even further, the entire experience was documented and will be aired as a reality series on Astro’s new 24-hour Tamil HD channel, Vinmeen HD. The first episode will premiere this Tuesday in conjunction with the Tamil harvest festival of Ponggal.
The three folk traditions selected are each fascinating in their own right: karagattam, an intricate dance performed while balancing a decorated pot of water on the head; oyilattam, a graceful, enthusiastic dance involving rhythmic footwork; and, silambam, a martial art mainly involving a bamboo staff.
What’s more, training the Malaysian students were three skilled practitioners from the nearby Madakulam village, whose families have passed the skills down for several generations.
These trainers consider passing on their knowledge of these arts to a new generation, and that too from a different country, as a real honour, and cherish the opportunity to increase awareness through the TV show.
Karagattam trainer T. Thangapandi, 26, has been performing for 14 years. He says that while the dance has acquired a circus-like reputation over the years (particularly since it is often performed during village fairs), it is a nuanced art that has its roots in religion.
For his students – Loughenesri Letchumanan, 23; Poorani Sinnasamy, 22; Indra Sinnasamy, 18; and Pavithra Sivabalan, 16 – currently learning karagattam at the Sebastiar School of Arts in Perak, this was an opportunity to get to the roots of the dance.
One of the oldest dance forms in Tamil Nadu, karagattam is performed in honour of Mariamman, the South Indian mother goddess of rain.
Balancing an elaborately-decorated pot of water on their heads, the dancers go through a complex sequence of steps that usually also include acrobatic feats of balance.
Given that the pot often weighs up to 5kgs – known as the karagam, it is decorated with flowers, lemons and a green parrot effigy, all sacred to Mariamman – learning to balance it alone takes time.
“Just learning the basics can take up to three months,” Thangapandi explains, pointing out that even the salutory sequence requires the dancers to go through 11 rounds of greetings, which include the Goddess, Mother Earth, their teacher, the musicians, and so forth.
Thangapandi taught them the formal aspects of dance, says Pavithra, something that has been lost in Malaysia due to a lack of knowledgeable practitioners.
“We didn’t know, for example, that karagattam also follows jathi (specific time measures) like bharatanatyam. And while the steps may seem simple at first, once you put them together with the thaalam (rhythmic metre) and raagam (melody pattern) of the music, it becomes really challenging,” she says.
“It is said that karagattam and bharatanatyam were once one, but over time they split off into folk and classical forms. But you can still see the influences, the emphasis on discipline and perfection. The dancer must bring together the steps, the movements, the eyes, the expressions; only then is it karagattam,” says Thangapandi.
In contrast, the oyilattam seems playful and almost spontaneous. Yet the dancers, Kayalvili Parasuraman, 21, Vasugi Mohan, 25, Nadiah Basheer, 19, and Usharani Tennarasu, 18, (from Pusat Tarian Kebudayaan India) assure us that they end up with blistered feet and aching muscles daily.
Traditionally danced only by men, the rhythmic dance involves dancing in a row to musical accompaniment, with coloured handkerchiefs tied to their fingers adding a festive air.
The dance gets increasingly frenetic as the drumbeats speed up, and performances can often go on for hours.
In recent times, women have also started taking up oyilattam, which translates as “dance of beauty”.
Trainer N. Sethuraman says this is his first time teaching women, and that it was an interesting experience.
“Because they are trained bharatanatyam dancers, I had to approach it differently. I had to move their minds away from the rhythm of carnatic music to that of ours. In truth, you need about a year to learn the dance properly. But I thought, even if I can’t teach them everything, I can show them all the different combinations and variations,” he says.
Learning a dance they had never even heard of was a real challenge, says Kayalvili, adding that the stamina required to keep dancing nearly did them in at first.
“But once the beat of the melam (percussion instrument) and nadaswaram (wind instrument) got into us, it was so enjoyable, we just couldn’t stop!” she says.
Visiting the Ponggu Tamil training sessions in the picturesque Kadambavanam resort, it isn’t difficult to see that there is an intangible energy in the air that spurs the students on – perhaps it is training barefoot on the ochre ground, surrounded by green hills, while the fierce mid-day sun and gentle breeze compete for their attention; or perhaps, it is the feeling of being in Madurai, one of the cradles of Tamil culture, where most of their chosen art forms either originated or thrived.
The training is no child’s play; the 12 students and their Malaysian teachers are housed in the sprawling resort, and all their time goes towards honing their skills, with only meal breaks in-between.
Occasionally, training sessions are interspersed with lectures on folk arts at the nearby Madurai Kamaraj University, and visits to the surrounding villages, where the students experience first-hand how entwined these art forms are with the lives of its people.
In keeping with the folk spirit of the arts, there are no studios or stages for them to rehearse on.
Instead, they learn their steps out in the open, varying from grassy fields to pebble-strewn plains, so that they may learn to perform under any condition, like practitioners have been doing for centuries.
Meanwhile, the trainers take their jobs very seriously, intending to teach their charges as much as they can within the time given – apparently, this even led to a few of the students breaking down in tears when scolded during practice!
Trainer S. Manikandan, 41, who isn’t above giving his students a few hard knocks with his staff if they aren’t up to mark, is a fourth-generation silambam master.
Having honed his skills since he was four, he believes that teaching the martial art requires him to put his whole heart into it.
“We consider this our life, it is my soul. I’m teaching these boys the best practices of what I’ve picked up over the years,” he explains.
His students (K. Anbarasan, 35; R. Nithyananthan, 19; P. Nagarav, 18; S. Prabu, 19) are from the Silambam Korvai club, an offshoot of the Malaysian Silambam Society.
“It is really interesting to come to India to see how silambam began. There is a real connection here between the art and its people, you can’t separate them,” says Nagarav, pointing out that intially, they had a lot of difficulty understanding instructions because the various terms in the sport have evolved differently in Malaysia.
“We are very excited about the new techniques we’ve learnt, and can’t wait to try them out back home,” he says.
This is indeed the kind of enthusiasm the Indian folk arts need to not just survive, but thrive, and to remain relevant.
“Nothing is a greater honour than sowing the seeds of my culture elsewhere,” concludes Manikandan. “I want these arts to flourish everywhere.”
>> Ponggu Tamil premieres Jan 14 at 8pm on Astro Vinmeen HD (Astro Ch 231). Subsequent episodes will be aired every Saturday, 9pm, starting from Jan 18.