Friday, March 28, 2008

Celebrating Folk Art

It seemed like a long time ago when time was still timeless, I had an affliction of color and sound. My mind for the first time, was registering the overwhelming play of bright colors and engrossing sounds of yearly festival at the temple in our neighborhood. Even the color of candies which the seasonal peddlers stacked upon their makeshift stalls added an ethereal sheen on the phantasmal vision unfolded in front of my eyes.

The soothsayer song in praise of snake deities, loud and stout looking actors on stage enacting extra-terrestrial battles from Ramayana and Mahabharata , the balloon man with his mobile paraphernalia - those were the early connectors to the heritage of the land and expressions of a world order that defied the onslaught of time as long as they did.

It was much later when I began to notice earthier and rather primordial forms of folk art such as Ayyappan Paattu, songs in praise of Dravidian gods (Muthappan, Vishnumaya) along the sidelines of flashier performing arts. In them, deep down I could sense a sort of cathartic realization of individual and collective dreams and fears which otherwise would have never ever made it out of the subconscious domain or exploded into something sinister and dark.
The national festival of Kerala - Onam was borne out of a folk legend and an occasion to celebrate all sorts of folk arts - ritualistic and secular (such as Tiger dance, Kummatti Kali etc). More than its significance as an age-old tradition, Onam brought up a grand setting for people to celebrate life and revel in others' joy.

Some of the shapes and forms I have seen in the traditional settings of Kerala were intense enough to let go on my growing apprehensions of the general lack of development and modernity in the state's social life. The richness of the folk art easily filled the wide gaps of general deprivation and the prevalence of snobbery among the audience and practitioners of classical arts. Often I have marveled at the striking similarity of Theyyam and Kathakali in their costumes and how Theyyam invariably breaks into bouts of cries as opposed to the finesse of aural and literary tradition of Kathakali. The social dynamic at work here was too stark to pass up.

The dialectics in folk art has been cleverly adopted and manipulated by political strategists, especially the communists who engrained their ideology in seemingly innocuous and subtle variations of folk music practiced and enjoyed by workers in the fields. Later on popular poets used the structure and sounds of folk music to lend an exciting latitude of folk imagery and unexpected dimension to their art. Listening to such poems in their native languages like Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali etc have become a unique experience. Translating them would not have made any sense at all.

However the most impressive of all folk arts has always been music. The rhythm and sounds of folk music have a rare ability to cut through the carefully manicured fences of culture and language. The aspirations of common folks rising in unison resonate naturally with their ilk around the world and touch hearts in a unique way - whether it is a group of Moravian gypsies assembled in a tavern, a Texan singing Americana, a Baul singer walking down the beaten fields or a bunch of farmers somehwere in a nondescript islet in Kuttanad, rhapsodizing the season of harvest and pleasures of simple unhurried life of yore.

Living in a time when Hypermodernity and globalization are often confused and utterly inadequate terms to describe human and to a great extend mother earth’s conditions, folk art may be able to offer much needed healing for our electrocuted humanity. Although we will never return to the refuge of rural and agrarian setting, there can be only simple solutions for our complicated problems.

I remember reading Milan Kundera as he spent an entire chapter to discuss folk music and modern society. He spoke about men being weary under the weight of their own ego and mistrust of their identity:

...and I felt happy within these songs, in which sorrow is not reckless, laughter is not crooked, love is not ridiculous and hate is not apprehensive, where people love with their bodies and souls, where they draw knives or sabres in hatred, dance in joy, throw themselves into the Danube in despair, where, for that matter, love is still love and pain is still pain, where the original emotion is not yet devoid of itself and where values are still unravaged; and it seemed to me that within these songs I was at home, that I had my roots in there. That their world was my primal point of reference... (from Joke)

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Some of the most evocative use of audio and visual expositions of folk arts have been employed in popular and offbeat Indian movies - Aravindan's Kummatty comes to my mind. The entire film was based on a folk tale with a rousing treat of folk music. Nokkukuthi (scarecrow) was another experimental effort based on M. Govindan's poem depicting a ballad. Other folk arts like the popular Theyyam, Kalam paattu have always had their place in popular movies. Mani Kaul did a documentary on Rajasthani puppetry and a film Duvidha, based on a folk tale.

Info on Kummatti here

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