In Chennai, an art festival with a difference

TM Krishna, Carnatic vocalist and writer, talks about a unique socio-cultural initiative which brings different art forms and communities closer

TM Krishna | March 31, 2016


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TM Krishna performing at Elliot’s beach during the festival last year
TM Krishna performing at Elliot’s beach during the festival last year

Urur Olcott Kuppam is the name of a 150-year-old fishing village near Chennai’s Elliot’s beach where the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha – a unique festival of dance and music – is being held for the past two years. ‘Vizha’ means festival in Tamil. This year the Vizha was scheduled for mid-January, but due to the floods that hit Chennai in December 2015, we postponed it to February.

With the horrors of those floods just behind us, we knew that this year’s festival couldn’t be just about bringing diverse people and cultures together. We had to recognise the fact that ‘normal life’ as we knew it, including life in and with the arts, had been disrupted – for some, even devastated. We had to continue to raise artistic and socio-political questions but this time we needed to contextualise all that in the hugely disturbing experience that we had been through. Curiously, the floods had given us a new experience. It had levelled the city’s social inequalities and cultural plinths. Fishermen and conservancy workers had come to the fore, helping ‘high end’ folk, including corporate honchos. And therefore as a thank-you gesture we honoured fishermen, conservancy workers and the youth of the city for their contribution in the rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

As part of the build-up to the festival we held outreach events both on the walkers side of the beach and inside the kuppam (the village). By ‘walkers side’, I mean the ‘upper-class beach side’. Very few of the ‘walkers’ and ‘fresh air inhalers’ venture beyond this section into the fishing village that lies just beyond the walking path. The idea was to create a new interest among people who belong to so many different social addresses. The events on the beach included a jazz-Carnatic fusion concert, a Carnatic recital and within the village we held a street play and a couple of musical walks that reached every bylane of the village.

For the main festival at the Urur-Olcott Kuppam, the stage was set under the open skies on the beach, in front of the Ellaiamman temple. People from diverse social groups thronged the venue – with 800-1,000 people on February 27 and 28. There was Paraiattam (drumming-dancing art form associated with subaltern communities), Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam on the same stage. Artiste Raghu Dixit rocked the audiences with contemporary folk, while children from Kuppam mesmerised everyone with Bharatanatyam and Villupattu (an art form generally not associated with upper-caste communities). The grand finale was an Indie-Blues-Gaana concert by Sean Roldan & Friends with Anthony Das that had everybody on their feet.

The festival had the most eclectic mix of people. A large number of youngsters and older upper-class residents of the city got a chance – almost unprecedented, I would say – to mingle with fisherfolk. Caste and class differences went into hiding – at least for those two days. Kuppam villagers enjoyed the evening along with their ‘neighbours’ from Thiruvalluvar Nagar, who are mainly middle-castes other than Christians and Muslims. Everyone sat together on the same sand, eating from the same bhajji stall. The elite danced to the Paraiattam, rubbing shoulders with people who don’t feature within their radar’s bandwidth. Similarly, fisherfolk had unbridled access to the classical with no psychological or physical steeples obstructing their experience. At the festival all these things happened quite naturally.

The breeze blew away all barriers that govern our lives or maybe they just dissolved into the Bay of Bengal. Misconceptions of people like us who walk on the Elliot’s beach were shattered. Similarly, people of the Kuppam too realised that those on the other side were just as ‘normal’ and ‘damaged’ as them. We succeeded in creating a platform for an unusual conversation and maybe a glimpse of momentary realisation.
A similar festival was held last year in the same village. However, this year there was increased participation from the villagers. They felt for the first time that people from ‘outside’ were coming into their spaces not just happily but with enthusiasm for a shared celebration. Many felt that they now had access to art forms that they had only seen on TV or are known to be performed in high-class auditoriums. They were also happy that the art forms that are part of their lives were being shared with everyone on a level footing.

But this festival is not just about aesthetic conversations. We also undertook an initiative of cleaning the beach as part of the festival. Nowadays beach cleaning has become a fad but people only clean ‘our’ beach, that is, the stretch where urban Chennaiites go for walk. Nobody cares about the stretch beyond that. As part of the Vizha we cleaned the section that was part of the village, including the performance space.

This year as part of the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha one more event was held in the West Mambalam locality. West Mambalam, a predominately middle-class brahmin-oriented area and home to numerous Carnatic musicians, was one of the worst flood-affected areas of the city and the fisherfolk of Chennai had rescued so many living around this suburb. We felt that it would be wonderful if we can bring together the fisherfolk and the brahmin community and use this opportunity to honour the fisherfolk for their selfless efforts. We requested Sri Ram Samaj, a brahmin organisation, to partner with us for this event and they most graciously agreed. On February 20 at Ayodhya Mandapam, ‘temple honours’ were bestowed upon 21 fishermen who represented 400 fishermen from almost 13 coastal villages who had helped in the rescue operations. It was an unusual affair where two communities that sit on diametrically opposite levels in social hierarchy came together showing great respect and love.

On the same day, at Ayodhya Mandapam, a Carnatic concert was held and so was a Villupattu performance by the children of Urur Olcott Kuppam. The Villupattu addressed issues surrounding rampant urban expansion, the destruction of Chennai’s lakes and rampant real estate cronyism that caused the Chennai disaster. The two diverse art forms mingled on the stage that day. Fishermen, who are often ignored, felt happy that they were showered with affection and appreciation.

How it all started
For the past four-five years I have been questioning the problems in the Carnatic power structures, which I believe are heavily elitist and under brahmin control. I have raised these issues in my book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, and in some of my articles. And one day an idea just popped into my head: what if the music season is held in a Kuppam? The thought excited me since such an event will force Carnatic music and its practitioners away from their comfort zone. This will also allow people from other cultural backgrounds access to this art form, I thought! I discussed this idea with Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based social activist. His office is in Urur Olcott Kuppam and he naturally suggested that this festival could be hosted in this village itself, which for years has remained hidden as an unsafe fishing village. The village officials were also excited by the suggestion and soon we embarked on this untrodden path.

However, there were a few things that we had to consider. This was not going to be a so-called classical festival, we had to create a level-playing field for varied art forms, the possibility of equality in social reception. Any art form that comes in contact with diverse people is enriched. So, we were clear that we should have diverse art forms. We wanted to showcase aesthetics that traversed the different classes and castes and in the process the labelled ‘low’ and ‘high’ had to be questioned. We called out for volunteers and soon we were a group of people belonging to different age groups and backgrounds, each coming for their own reasons and therefore keeping our initiative reflective.

The budget for the two-day festival was raised through crowdfunding. All the artists have been gracious to perform for a very nominal fee. Also, the idea was not to have a big festival, but to hold a festival that can take the conversation forward.

By organising the festival in a Kuppam we had, I think I can say truthfully, created a radically different ‘art space’, one that has not happened anywhere else in the country, where the fisherfolk, the middle social segment and the elite sit together and enjoy art.
As to the future plans, I think we should intensify this conversation and extend it to social and environmental matters. Why not dismantle more barriers? That is probably the direction we are looking at rather than saying ‘let’s replicate this model somewhere else’. Personally, as one of the volunteers, I would be more interested in furthering our level of engagement in Urur Olcott Kuppam.
The Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha is now more than an experiment. It has become a metaphor for a cultural and social mutuality.

As told to Shivani Chaturvedi

The article appears in the April 1-15, 2016 issue

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