Guest post by NITYANAND JAYARAMAN
On 15-16 January, 2015, a much talked about festival of dance and music, that intends and promises to be different, is to be held in Chennai. The Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha means different things to different people. But for those who do not know what Urur Olcott Kuppam is or what the Tamil phrase Margazhi Vizha means, the Vizha may have no significance. These answers to FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) is for such people, and for those who know what it means and have sent many bouquets and a few brickbats my way for being engaged in the organising of this Vizha. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect a consensus within the group of organisers. However, the process of organising, the event and post-event engagements are itself likely to provide a platform for discussing such views and counterviews.
What is Urur Olcott Kuppam?
Urur Olcott Kuppam is a centuries-old fishing village in South Chennai. By rights, the Kuppam ought to be the landmark for Besant Nagar as in — “You know Besant Nagar, that newly settled neighbourhood near Urur Olcott Kuppam?” But that’s not how it is. Besant Nagar’s residents are predominantly upper class, upper caste. Urur Kuppam’s are predominantly from the fisher community of Pattinavar. The hip and happening Besant Nagar is well-known; the kuppam is invisible. The injustice doesn’t stop with geography. Dominant history also begins where dominant geography begins – with Besant Nagar. Ask Besant Nagar residents what existed 40 years ago in this area, and people are likely to say “Nothing” or “Nothing but the beach.” It’s as if the fishing villages did not exist before the government decided to carve residential plots for middle and high-income people out of sand dunes carpeted with cashew, palmyra, casuarina and screwpine.
What is Margazhi Vizha?
The tamil phrase Margazhi Vizha means “festival” or Vizha in the tamil calendar month of Margazhi that runs from mid-December to mid-January. Margazhi Vizha is cool for a number of reasons. For a start, the phrase has two tamil words with “zh” — pronounced as a retroflex sound – in it. Try saying “la” by curling the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and rolling it from back to front without touching the palate. That’s what “zh” sounds like. Now try Margazhi Vizha. Cool, isn’t it?
The festival is also cool because this is the only time when Chennai is cool. This coastal city’s infamous hot and humid weather takes a brief break in December and January. That is one of the reasons why the city packs most of its fun music and dance events into these two months.
When I say cool, I speak as a Chennaiite – relatively. Temperatures range from a maximum of 28 degree celsius to a chill 22. Let’s not have any Bengalureans turning up their noses at our December weather. If you manage to get past your traffic-jammed city, we invite you to come down to Chennai, to the beach near Urur Olcott Kuppam (it’s called Besant Nagar beach) early in the morning. You will see loads of people wearing monkey caps and chinese ear muffs. God promise! Our elders say the Pani (the tamil word that doubles for “snow”and “dew”) that falls in Margazhi is injurious to health. In Chennai, there is really no snow; only dew. So what? We madrasis take our cold weather seriously. We actually hype up the cool. I guess that makes us Madrasis in Margazhi hyper-cool.
Now that you know Urur Olcott Kuppam and can roll your tongue around your palate like quicksilver swilling in a bowl, I think you’re ready to know what the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha is. There are more margazhi vizhas happening in the city than you can shake a silk saree at. But this is not one of those. This is different for good reasons, I think. But to know how this is different, you first have to know what it is different from.
Chennai hosts more than 2000 performances of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam just in the two cool months wrapped around the Margazhi. This is a good thing. But Margazhi performances are restricted to Carnatic and Bharatanatyam and art forms that are declared to be “classical.” Over the years, arts and artists have confined themselves to elite ghettos which is what the sabhas have become. With all this comes the inescapable caste trap. In the words of T. M. Krishna, Carnatic vocalist, and the mind behind the idea of a different kind of festival:
Most of our really great musicians are Brahmins. If I have to learn music, I have to go to a Brahmin. . .I can’t look away from the fact that [Carnatic] music is the preserve mostly of Brahmins.
Most singers are brahmins. Most of the patrons are either brahmins or belong to other upper castes – Mudaliars, Chettiars and Pillaimars. The cooks in the wonderful canteens inside the sabhas are most likely brahmins. Most of the audience, some of whom come only to taste the food, is brahmin. The Tamil that is spoken, when English is not, is brahmin.
Music and arts are capable of bridging across cultures and civilisations and liberating us from artificial divisions of caste and race. Why should the liberator be trapped between artificial walls and made to adhere to man-made hierarchies of high- and low-brow, classical and non? This needs to be challenged. “’Classical’ as used in common parlance is purely a social hierarchical construction with no relation to the idea of ‘art aesthetics,’” says T.M. Krishna.
The unquestioning ghettoisation of Carnatic music comes with a tacit declaration that “classic” art forms are practised by superior people for the elite and more discerning members of society in spaces that are exclusive by design or default, and that other art forms are crude and are practised by the crude for the crude in the spaces that the inferior inhabit.
Google the search string “Chennai music” or “Chennai culture” or “Chennai arts and culture” and unless you know Chennai, you will leave thinking that Chennaiites speak to each other in Carnatic ragas as they walk to and from sabhas with thakka-dhimi steps. Other performing arts like parai-attam, villu-paattu, gaana-paattu, kuthu, silambu-attam[i] which are as integral to Chennai’s identity as Carnatic and Bharatanatyam are invisible – like how Besant Nagar is visible and Urur Olcott Kuppam is not.
The sabhas have been instrumental in sustaining and rejuvenating Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam and its artists. For that, I am thankful. But that this sustenance has been restricted to a thin layer of society or a few art forms cannot be seen as a mere coincidence. The arts and artists need to be liberated from their enclosures and benefit from the responses of Chennai’s diverse communities. It is time that the arts and artists take their place along with other art forms in the city, rather than an assumed place above or below any others.
So what’s different about the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha?
The intent is different. The intent is to use music and arts as a means to heal social relations. Many people see this as an effort to take Carnatic to the fisherfolk — to offer poor deprived fisherfolk an opportunity to savour the exquisite. That is not the case. Rather, this is an opportunity for the exquisite to benefit from interaction with an audience different from what it is used to. It is an opportunity for the exquisite to perform alongside other exquisites – for Villu-paattu to usher Carnatic in, or for Parai-attam to set the beat for Bharatanatyam. This will only make our already rich art forms, and our obviously talented artists shine brighter. Purity and immutability will kill the arts.
The Venue is different. The festival will be held in the open, on the Urur Olcott Kuppam beach, in front of the village temple. The venue is not exclusive and is accessible to all, including dogs and goats. The rectangular stretch of sand and rubble in front of the temple is not a dedicated auditorium. It is an open public space. And like all open public spaces, it is available separately and sometimes simultaneously for all non-conflicting uses. The performance area is where the local auto mechanic parks broken and under-repair vehicles. All vehicles bar two – that have been spray painted and will be used as decoration for the space – will be removed for the duration of the festival. The place where the audience sits on the ground is where children play. The area where chairs will be placed for the elderly is a public thoroughfare that will be closed for the occasion. Two house owners have allowed the video crew to mount two cameras on their balconies. Another house owner has offered his wall as a canvas for a Margazhi Vizha motif. Artistic wings that frame the performance space are on loan for free from a local school. The sea in the backdrop is real. The boats and kattumarams (log rafts) that offer their romantic lines to the aesthetics of the space are not props but real fishing crafts that form the backbone of this village’s economy.
The organisers and the manner in which the festival is organised are different. The village is not merely a venue but also the host of the festival. The Urur Kuppam and Olcott Kuppam village administrations, the women and youth are co-organisers sharing responsibility with other art enthusiasts, rasikas and art-illiterate volunteers like myself to make this festival real. There are no rich patrons, no corporate sponsors, no media partners. The artists are performing for free, but we’re offering an honorarium. The grand budget of Rs. 1.5 lakhs for the two-day festival was raised through crowd funding; many offers of money had to be turned down because we had achieved our budget within 10 days of starting the campaign. People from all walks of life – fishermen, beach stall vendors, mechanics, office-goers, writers, singers, students – and from various parts of Chennai met about eight times in the last two months. No professional event manager can replicate the volunteer energy that’s driving this effort.
The Audience is different – This is not a Carnatic concert or a classical performance for a different audience at a different venue. This is a multi-genre festival for a heterogenous audience. This is not vengeance for the sabhas’ exclusivity. We hope that the Mamis and mamas will come to the vizha to experience the arts they savour in a completely new environment and to enjoy many other art forms. To make sure they aren’t alone or bored or leave with a distorted view of our diverse world, we have also invited thambis and Aayaas, and Annachis and Aachhis and Bais.[ii] Importantly, the organisers are also the audience. We like having fun too.
A friend suggested to me that if our intent was to challenge the elitism and the exclusivity of the sabha culture, we should consider storming the sabhas.
I don’t see the Vizha as an alternative or a confrontation to sabhas. Rather, I see it as operating in and invoking a separate frame – of what a celebration could look like if it were conscious of the need to heal historical fractures in society. To me, the festival is also a critique of the corporate patronage that seems to contaminate every exercise of civil society – from marathons, to concerts, to clean-up drives, campus festivals and kindergarten lemon-and-spoon races. If there is a challenge, that challenge is to the notion of the classical and all the other associated baggage. The Kuppam Vizha is an invitation for people — sabha-goers or otherwise – to come to a beautiful setting by the beach and under the stars for an evening of music, poetry and dance. It is not a call to reject the sabhas, but for artists, organisers and audiences to realize other possibilities.
Is this Poverty Tourism, where you bring rich, elite audiences to an impoverished village?
With at least 30 percent of our population living below an impossibly low poverty line, walking out of your house to the beach could be described poverty tourism. The answer to this question, though, is that this event is meant to be quite the reverse of poverty tourism. Places at the edge of dominant geographies are poorly understood, and described only using untested stereotypes.
The last time Chennai learnt that the city is dotted with fishing villages is when something bad happened – when the tsunami struck 10 years ago. This time, we hope Chennai will learn that the city is dotted with fishing villages because something good is happening – like a Margazhi festival.
Most residents of Besant Nagar do not even know that the Kuppam is a village. It is described as a slum. Other related stereotypes abound – that it is dirty; that the residents are uniformly poor; that crime rates are high; that all men are drunkards and wife beaters; that the place is dangerous; that the people are worthy of disdain, or at best pity (as when the tsunami struck) but never respect.
To an outsider, a fishing village may seem impoverished. But walk along the Urur Kuppam beach with veteran fisherman Palayan from that village, and have him reel out the kinds of nets, craft and gear stored under the open sky on the beach. There are close to 20 boats that are currently used for fishing and an equal number that is lying idle on the Urur Olcott villages. Each boat costs Rs. 1.5 lakhs. With nets, engines and communal gear like the shore seine taken into account, the total value of the movable assets will not be less than Rs. 3 crores, Palayan asserts. This is a village of hunters, who brave the ocean to bring back affordable protein for the rich and the poor.
Through the process of organising, many volunteers visited the fishing village for the first time. They got to interact with human beings not stereotypes. This is a redeeming experience for both parties. Contrary to the stereotype that such villages are dens of crime, you will find fewer paranoid souls, fewer locked gates and closed doors in the village. The fact that more than Rs. 3 crores of property is left out in the open on the beach unlocked is a challenge to this stereotype.
Even the humblest of homes is cleaned, its frontyard sprinkled with water and decorated with festive kolams. If the stretch along the Urur Kuppam beach seems ugly and dirty, it is because it has not been cleaned. Only one person with a tricycle is responsible for cleaning the garbage generated by 3000 households in Urur Olcott Kuppam and Thiruvalluvar Nagar. If the same labour investment were deputed for 3000 households in Besant Nagar, we’d be up to our well-fed backsides in our own trash within two days.
Are you not playing into the hands of the Hindutva-vadis whose ultimate goal is to sanskritise all cultures?
This is a difficult question. The simple answer to that is that it is not my intent to propagate any cultures of communal dominance or oppression. Rather, the intent is to the contrary. Whether the decision is good or not, only time will tell. But it is a decision that I took after much thought. And it is a decision that I will stand by and learn from. If the proposal for such a festival had come to me from any Carnatic musician other than T.M. Krishna, I would have hesitated and perhaps not ventured this far. If the initial reaction to the proposal from my friend K. Saravanan – who is from Urur Kuppam – had been cold and hesitant, I would perhaps not have ventured this far. I did not see the Vizha proposal as a means to “impose” Carnatic music on unsuspecting fisherfolk for two reasons. I do not see good music and dance as an imposition, but a delight. The fact that it is happening on the beach in open air means people can walk in and out depending on which sounds they find agreeable, and which not. Second, the fisherfolk are not unsuspecting. Neither is the fishing community a society that has remained insulated from various influences, problematic or otherwise, including urbanisation, sanskritisation and consumerisation. I have a feeling that Carnatic music will be imposed upon at least as much as it imposes. Besides, it is not just Carnatic music that will be on display. Here, the effort is to de-caste and de-class the classical.
Why is it being held in Urur Olcott Kuppam, which is near an elite residential area? Why not in Vyasarpadi which is a working class neighbourhoods located amidst other similar low-income areas?
Vyasarpadi is as good a location as any, and multi-genre festivals should be held there too. However, the audience would be exclusive by default. It offers no opportunity for the education of the sabha-goers, as they would not venture that far away from their world, just as the villagers from Urur Olcott Kuppam are unlikely to venture into Narada Gana Sabha of their own free volition. Urur Olcott Kuppam, on the other hand, is conveniently located. It takes little or no extra effort to get that slice of population to the Kuppam to enjoy some paraiaattam and villuppattu. And vice-versa with Carnatic.
There were other reasons too:
- the village administration’s enthusiastic response to hosting the event;
- my own relationship with the village through my friend Saravanan who is from that village;
- and the fact that Saravanan, I and two other friends have been working closely with Chennai’s fishing communities to assert their claims to coastal lands and thwart the threat of eviction as a consequence of gentrification.
To me, this festival has never been just about music and dance, but about the possibilities that music and dance offered, and the opportunity of working together with a number of keen minds on an effort that brings people together in an act of celebration.
I was born in a brahmin family. I offer no apologies for that. I enjoy music but am not a music afficionado. I can barely tell a thala from a raga. I offer my apologies for that. I’m agnostic and averse to organised religion of any kind, including consumerism and capitalism. I am part of a voluntary anti-corporate collective that invites youngsters to explore social issues. The collective is open to people of diverse ideologies as long as they are not hate-based or intentionally exclusive. It is a damning indictment of our ghettoised educational system that I discovered caste only in my mid-20s as a roving journalist covering coastal and fishery-related issues in India. To my mind, the amount of introspection the Vizha has led me to engage in is proof that some if not all objectives of the festival are valid.
Parai-attam is an art form where performers dance holding drums made of stretched cow-skin. Villu-paattu is a form of musical story-telling using a curved bow with bells as the key musical instrument. Kuthu is a vigorous dance form and Gaana Paattu a form of singing accompanied by percussion using locally available items such as match-boxes, buckets or sometimes the parai. Both of the latter have their origins in working class Chennai.
[ii] These are respectful appellations used to refer to people from different communities. Bai, for instance, is used to refer to Muslims; aachi to refer to elderly women from the Chettiar community; elderly fisher women are referred to as aaya and so on.