Thozhars of traditions

By emphasising the importance of folk arts, the Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu aims to change some age-old perspectives
Along with Thozhamai, Deepan N, the founder of Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu  provides folk dance training to another NGO, five government and government-aided school students, and an open session for everyone in Korukkupet.
Along with Thozhamai, Deepan N, the founder of Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu provides folk dance training to another NGO, five government and government-aided school students, and an open session for everyone in Korukkupet.

CHENNAI: As the clock strikes 8 pm, the kids of Thozhamai, an NGO working for community development focussing on the urban poor, make their way to their cultural centre. As part of the ongoing three-day summer cultural camp, these children attend folk dance classes such as parai, oyilattam, and kaliyalattam, along with needhi nadagam (drama that concentrates on justice), and vilipunarvu paadal (songs that create awareness).

Teaching the art forms to 30-odd students across genders is 33-year-old Deepan N, the founder of Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu (Friends Folk Cultural Crew). Along with Thozhamai, he also provides folk dance training to another NGO, five government and government-aided school students, and an open session for everyone in Korukkupet. “The motive of these camps and teaching the kids is to take our traditional folk arts to the next generation,” shares Deepan.

Art transforms life

Living in Ambedkar Nagar, Korukkupet, Deepan had a difficult childhood. In 2002, he had to drop out of school in class 7 and sought work to support his family. This was also when the houses in the neighbourhood transformed from huts to concrete structures. “Many kids in the locality chose money over education. The labour work usually started in the afternoons and we bunked school for work. Also, we did not attend classes on Saturday because it was wages day,” he recalls.

To earn money, he faced hardships. Sharing an incident, Deepan says, “For a brief time I also worked in a steel industry and endured burns on my stomach.” Usually, iron is combined with various steel scraps, and heated in a vessel at a temperature of 1700 degrees Celsius. The kids are often indulged in this heating and transferring the melted liquid. “We did not have the arm strength to transfer the liquid and many a time burns were caused,” he notes.

In 2005, Deepan and around 25 of his friends were rescued by Arunodhaya, a centre for street and working children from working in such hazardous situations. Under their care, the group learnt traditional folk arts like parai, mayilattam, maankombattam, mattu kombattam, karagattam, poikkaal kudhirai attam and silambattam. A team was formed to raise awareness about social issues like child marriage, child labour, and others through folk arts.  

Beats creating livelihood

The friends then decided to take their art knowledge to generate money and complete their education. They formed the Nanbargal Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu in 2012. The crew organised and performed at events, and with the money raised everyone soon earned a degree. Deepan graduated with a Masters in Commerce.

Turning this into a business, the squad collaborated with other training centres, and kalai kuzhu to learn other folk arts. Once proficient, they performed at international stages. For this year’s Pongal celebrations, the crew presented Carnatic music on parai in Singapore’s Esplanade, a performing arts centre.

Parai is still seen as an instrument used only for death. “The art form itself is looked down upon. The literal meaning of parai is to send a message. We can practice this art form in so many ways but it is reduced to being played only at death,” he says. Parai is often played right from when the dead bodies are brought home till the time they are cremated. “It requires a lot of energy for which the performers consume alcohol. People usually say ‘Thanni adi, parai adi’ (Drink alcohol and beat parai),” he shares, adding that their crew has never performed at deaths because they are against alcohol consumption.

Deepan strongly believes that this narrative has to change and to do so the younger generation plays a crucial role. “We teach people of all age groups and genders. There are married women and young girls in our team who play parai. This breaks a taboo and sets a standard for the art form,” he says. When given proper training and the required tools, traditional arts can reach global standards.

Living a life woven by art forms, Deepan also produces parai instruments. “I use three neem wood sticks and the skin of a slaughtered cow. I make parai and sell them,” he says. These are made at his home or a nearby park or playground where he teaches folk arts to the local kids. Having worked in the steel manufacturing industry, construction sites and as an accountant and registrar for most of his life, Deepan found his peace in traditional art forms. “Our culture is rich in art forms and we should find ways to keep it alive and pass on to generations coming.”

Currently, Deepan is teaching parai to 10 inmates in the Puzhal jail as part of a project led by Sumanasa Foundation, an organisation that supports building art and culture, for an event next month. As a parting note, he requests the general public to include gramiya kalai in family functions, and for the government to organise more events providing spaces for artistes to showcase their talent and develop the art form.

To connect: 9551746614 or @deepan n (friends folk cultural crew) on Facebook.

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