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In search of the lost arts

R Kaleeswaran of Chennai has been working for the last three decades to revive the folk forms of Tamil Nadu

Published: 08th August 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2021 11:24 AM   |  A+A-

R Kaleeswaran with folk performers

There’s a moment where you have to choose whether to be silent or stand up: Malala Yousafzai.
As individuals, we’ve all encountered such moments. But it’s what we do about them that sets us apart. Take, for instance, R Kaleeswaran, the founder of Alternative Media Centre, an NGO for the welfare of folk artists, and part-time coordinator at the Art and Literature unit of Loyola College, Chennai.

A native of Melachathiram in Paramakudi, Tamil Nadu, Kaleeswaran has been constantly working towards empowering the rural folk artist community of Tamil Nadu. A folk art performer himself, his inspiration was his father, a theatre artist. Today, the son is the force behind Veedhi Viruthu Vizha, a two-day festival in which 10,000 folk artists from all parts of the state come to perform. “We have been celebrating this for the past eight years. We also offer financial assistance to struggling and veteran artists,” he says.

Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Kaleeswaran studied to be an engineer. He also stayed in touch with his roots through friends in Tamil Nadu Science Forum and Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers’ Association. He has trained many students in the arts and participates in several programmes and panel discussions to raise awareness on the state of the community today.

In the 1980s when Qudsia Gandhi, the then IAS officer of Sivagangai, pioneered the literacy mission—Arivoli Iyakkam—Kaleeswaran was appointed the district cultural coordinator of the programme. “Our mandate was to improve the literacy rate by spreading awareness through street plays and folk art. I got the opportunity to collaborate with many veteran folk artists. This exposed me to the harsh realities of their lives,” he shares. He began to document the different folk art forms of Tamil Nadu as part of his project for Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti.

By 1990, he had moved to Chennai and became a part of Loyola College as part-time coordinator at the Art and Literature unit. “I was deputed, once again by Gandhi who was then in Chennai, to head awareness campaigns by Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. Through street plays, we brought down the dropout rate in rural areas and villages, and educated women about cervical and breast cancer.

One of my biggest achievements was to design the Puliraja ku Aids Varuma campaign for raising awareness on AIDS,” he elaborates, adding, “There are over 1,024 folk art forms in Tamil Nadu, of which only 50 are being practised now.” He talks of Theru koothu, comprising eyal (poetry), isai (music), and naadakam (drama); besides puliyattam (tiger dance) and karakattam (pot dance) that are still being practiced. There are also lesser-known dance forms such as bommalattam (puppet show), pambattam (snake dance) and more.

The pandemic brought with it its own share of difficulties for the already struggling folk artist community. Kaleeswaran stepped up with a bunch of students and volunteers to raise funds. “I have resource persons in all districts to ensure groceries and financial aid reaches the right hands. Some Good Samaritans and celebrities helped raise around Rs 46 lakh in the first lockdown and Rs 11 lakh in the second lockdown,” he says. He also took the initiative of inviting elderly folk artists to teach the lost art forms to students at Loyola College every week. Times may be tough, but the arts can be the saviour.

Way Forward
✥ Elected representatives should put forth the community’s demands to the government

✥ Various folk artists’ associations in the state should unite to fight for their rights

✥  The Department of Art and Culture of Tamil Nadu should ensure funds are utilised properly

✥  Universities should invite folk artists to give guest lectures on diverse topics

✥  To contribute, call: 9094799688



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