A sea of stories

As Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha nears, fisherpersons leaf through the pages of history and narrate fables of Urur Olcott Kuppam, and its inexplicable relation to the ocean
The upcoming Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha on February 23 is themed Vazhum Kadalkarai, Vazhvu Valikum Kadalkarai (Living ocean, life-giving ocean).
The upcoming Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha on February 23 is themed Vazhum Kadalkarai, Vazhvu Valikum Kadalkarai (Living ocean, life-giving ocean).

CHENNAI : Knotted hair-like rope, 32 ropes together, It goes underground and comes out, a net.” — a proverb from Urur Olcott Kuppam, told to us by K Saravanan

Armed with nets, fisherpersons navigate the rocky waves in search of fish varieties like mathis or nethili. In the past, as fisher S Palayam, says, nets were woven by a community, using one km-long rope. “When we get into the water to start fishing, we sing the ambaa paatu, which gives us a sense of bravery, discipline, strength, and energy. I can’t explain how it happens. There are times when there is no food but the net is our god, and it is our livelihood, “ he adds, on a blazing Saturday morning at Urur Olcott Kuppam.

The nets, baits, and boats of the village harbour stories of the ocean, and livelihood. “There are several species inside the ocean; insects, fish like mathi or prawns. Only if the environment, sea, and waterbodies are good, we can catch fish and sell,” says Saravanan K, fisher, activist, and former panchayat head.

In the spirit of bringing people together and celebrating art, the upcoming Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha on February 23 is themed Vazhum Kadalkarai, Vazhvu Valikum Kadalkarai (Living ocean, life-giving ocean). To spotlight the Chennai’s coast and fishing communities, the vizha returns after a gap of six years and “is a call for healthy, inclusive beaches where leisure and recreation co-exist with ecology and livelihoods,” says a press release. The vizha will bring music including parai aatam from students of Avvai Home, and ambaa paatu from Palayam.

Oral histories, Urur Olcott

If you watch the MGR-starrer Padagotti, you may catch a glimpse of the shores of Urur Olcott Kuppam and a colourful temple. But as part of events leading up to the vizha, at the ‘Our Village, Our Stories, Our Memories: A Living Histories Walk’, we catch more than a mere glimpse. Apart from the snaking lanes dotted with colourful houses, cats and canines snoozing in the sun, and intricate kolams, Urur Olcott Kuppam has a history spanning 200 years.

If we rewind time, the area had 40 houses, a kovil, a military base that doubled as a football ground, and a fear-inducing forest of the yellow thazhampoo bushes. “While leaving the village or offering something to god, people first dip in the seawater. This has been our practice for generations,” says Sundaramoothy, the treasurer of the administraion.

Against the backdrop of a temple, which is under construction, with sunlight streaming inside, we hear the story of Ellaiamman Devi. “While searching for a catch, a fisherperson caught a stone in their net. They threw it back into the sea. The next day, the same stone was tangled in the net again. The third time this happened, he realised it was special and then later got a large catch,” says Sundaramoorthy, adding that residents then worshiped goddess Ellaiamman.

Stories of deities and folk tales still travel through the village lanes — for instance, many houses entrances are dotted by diety Desamma, who is meant to look after pregnant women. “There exists comradery between turtles and fishermen. We call the turtles as Kutti Amma Devi. If it gets caught in the net, we cut them loxose they won’t come to fish, but will ask for forgiveness,” says Saravanan.

Knowing nature

Palayam gives us a lesson on the sea, the language of predicting rough ocean passed on through the generations. “Today, it will not rain. It is because the current obstructs the wind blowing from south to north, and the clouds. By 6.10 pm, the wind will slightly move westwards,” says Palayam. Touching the grainy, damp sand, he adds, “In the next three hours, it would dry out.” The knowledge and magic of predicting weather belongs to the fishing community. Each weather phenomenon has a name — from thenndi vallam (south to north winds), olini (powerful current), vanni vallam (north to south). “Each of the nine winds has a different impact on the sea. In the Bay of Bengal, they have a unique role and arrive in their own time. During the monsoon, one kind can bring thunder, clouds, lighting, and rain,” he says.

Vizha wisdom

Synonymous with spring potatoes, panju mittai and select restaurant chains, Besant Nagar is often the go-to area for tourists exploring the city, and residents looking for a fun night out. “But, Dindigul Thalappakatti becomes an invisible wall that separates the village from a new Besant Nagar, a culturally dominant idea. There have been perceptions of people and negative connotations associated with the village, because of class and caste. This also becomes a stage to display the culture of their village from ambaa paatu to other folks arts that usually don’t get reception,” says Archanaa Sekar, a volunteer with the vizha. She adds the fest aims to pin this fishing village on the map.

Over the years, this festival has travelled to overlooked parts of the city and occupied public spaces. Now, returning to its place of origin, Archanaa says, “This comes at a time when the pandemic meant no celebrations, but it also points to the fact that unless we keep putting them on the map, they stay out of focus. They want to see what they’ve accomplished with the temple.” When asked about the choice of location, Archanaa recalls, “Palayam anna told me, like with people, arts, with gods, there are more dominant gods. Ellaiamman is a powerful god and we want her to be as popular as other gods in the city.”

The Vizha will be held on February 23.

6 pm, in front of Sridevi Ellaiamman Temple, Urur Olcott Kuppam.

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