CHENNAI: Folk art enthusiasts from Madurai may fondly remember ‘Rukmini’, a legendary villupaatu (bow song) performer who stopped public performance 25 years ago. Villupaatu enthusiasts from Tenkasi also speak of a trend-setting ‘Poomani’ who had stopped playing around the same time as Rukmini. Now, if they take one look at 80-year-old Poongani twirling the kattai in her inimitable style, they’d know they are all the same person.
CE had a chat with Poongani who was in the city to participate in the Visual and Theatre Communication Festival at the University of Madras. She was seated in the front row, and was seen laughing and clapping with child-like enthusiasm as the students staged a play, Karuvadu. “It has been more than 20 years since I played and I don’t have the energy anymore. I’m here today only because of Prof Ravindran (HoD of Journalism and Communication),” she said in Tamil with a faint Malayalam accent. Poongani was born in Kottaram, Kanniyakumari, to a father who sold pathaneer (an unfermented beverage from palmyra trees), and a mother who sold karupatti vellam (palm jaggery). She began learning Villupaatu from Veda Manickam Pulavar when she was 11, when he came home to teach her brother. Her admirers claim that she was only the second woman exponent to have made it this far. “It was only after seeing her play that the girls in our village were inspired to learn the art,” said 75-year-old T Muthusamy, who is also a Villupaatu exponent.
When her name was announced, Poongani climbed the stage with a four-legged walker. But as she sat on the stool, pulled her hair back and inspected the mike, she struck the bow with the energy of a 20-year-old, singing the legend of Sudalaimadan, the son of Shiva and Parvathy, who loved meat. When it was not striking the bow, the kattai would twirl like a dancer, held high in her arms. The song flowed for 90 minutes, and the kattai twirled and struck like it had never stopped in 20 years.
When Ravindran and his colleagues were informed that she did not receive the Kalaimamani Award, they decided to present her with the Om Muthu Mari Award instead. “When I visited her in January to give her the award, I was shocked. She’s one of the State’s biggest assets and she was lying on a broken cot,” he rued.
After her husband died (he used to play the kudam in the troupe where she was the exponent), she has been living alone. She has no children. Her only income is `1,000 she gets each month under the government’s destitute assistance schemes. “This could be her last public performance; she might not want to go through the strain again once she goes back home,” he avered.