Art to the rescue of folk arts in Tamil Nadu

Wielding the brush and splashing colours on their canvas, contemporary artists are saving the roots of folk arts in the state.

Published: 15th May 2021 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th May 2021 12:00 AM   |  A+A-

Bommalattam performance

Bommalattam performance

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Kalaimamani Kollangudi Karuppayi, a Tamil folk singer, has been bedridden with a broken leg for the past one year. With zero income and family support, she spent all of 2020 fighting for financial assistance from the government; the struggle continues. This is the plight of one of Tamil Nadu’s popular legends in the traditional folk art scene.

Since the first pandemic-induced lockdown, 29 folk artistes have died of hunger and poverty. More than thousands have lost their means of livelihood and 960 veteran artistes are on the verge of dying owing to health ailments, says R Kaleeswaran, founder, Alternative Media Centre, a non-profit organisation that supports the education of children of 400 folk artistes of Tamil Nadu and works with around 50,000 folk artistes in promoting their art.

For a community that thrives on live performances at temples and festivals, the ban of events following the COVID-19 crisis has left a majority of them jobless. There has been no monetary aid from the government apart from Rs 2,000 that was given by the Tamil Nadu Folk Artistes Welfare Board as special assistance in 2020. Caught in the second wave, nothing seems to have changed.

Art for a cause

Stepping up to offer financial support to folk artistes, Revamp by Aaval (a community space that celebrates diversity and humanity), run by artist Priyanka Ulaganathan, has joined hands with Alternative Media Centre to amplify the cause. As part of the relief work, Priyanka has collaborated with a few artists who’ve offered to share their artworks to raise funds.

"Every day, artists are coming forward to contribute. As you read this, there’s a folk artiste in dire financial distress. You can donate Rs 1,000 to get an A3 print of your favourite artwork from the ones displayed or Rs 500 for postcards. The money will reach the needy and be used for artiste allowance, ration and medical expenses. This art circulation practice is not just for collecting funds but also to show the solidarity and long-term involvement that you will have with the folk artistes of Tamil Nadu," she assures. You can get either a hard copy or digital version. Prints can be shipped internationally for donations of more than Rs 3,000. 

Besides this, there’s a team of unsung heroes from Loyola College’s Art and Culture department as part of Loyola Students Support Servicesunder the guidance of their professor Kaleeswaran, which has been pitching in to help artistes in rural and semi-urban areas.

"I've also been teaching students and interacting with folk artistes for the last 30 years. Over time, I’ve established contacts in all districts. Last year, we were able to raise Rs 46 lakh. A few good Samaritans offered help. But how long can we do this as individuals, if the government does not step up?" rues Kaleeswaran.

The team has raised over Rs 3.5 lakh this year. "People have no qualms about contributing money for Kumbhabhishekham but not for a dying folk artiste. We’ve been dragged down to that level,
he adds. 

A fight for rights

Kaleeswaran is also disappointed with the negligence of the government towards the folk art fraternity. "Just because these artforms are practised by people from suppressed communities, they cannot be ignored, right? There are only 38,000 members who are registered under the Tamil Nadu Folk Artistes Welfare Board. What about the rest? How will Rs 2,000 suffice to run a family, and some of the artistes have still not received that meagre amount," he says.

"An artiste, during the peak season of six months, where there are festivals, earns Rs 10,000 as an individual and Rs 30,000 as a troupe. This is the savings for the rest of the year for all expenses. Some have even sold their equipment and properties for money. While folk artistes top on creativity, their managerial skills are poor," he adds.

A majority of the struggling folk artistes have been pushed to the brink of selling their self-respect for the sake of survival. "The phone won’t stop ringing. Every second, a senior artiste is asking for money. This is the only occupation they know. If that’s not going to help them then the art will fade away. Youngsters are afraid to take up their family profession for this reason. These art forms are traditions of the state and deserve respect. Without documenting and preserving them, we are already talking about revival," he points out. 

Kaleeswaran feels that the situation can only be improved by the collaborative effort of the Department of Art and Culture, Department of Tourism and other related bodies. "Every district must have a representative for the folk art community in the region. Artistes must be actively involved in the decision-making process and that’s the only way forward," he sums up.

"We have lots to learn from our fellow states who respect their performing folk art forms, recognise them and give them equal opportunities. Surveys say that of the 1,024 artforms in Tamil Nadu, barely 20 of them are in practice. At this rate, the future seems bleak. It's high time we work towards preserving these traditions for the next generation," he adds. Until then, we can all pitch in to save our art and artistes.

Help the artistes

To get a print copy of the artwork, share a receipt of payment with 9345372520
To contribute, GPay: 9789849501 (or)

Account details:

Name: Prem Kumar
Account number: 273801000005071
IFSC code: IOBA0002738
Indian Overseas Bank


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