Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha

Art on the street

Print edition : March 01, 2019

A performance at Korukkupet on February 2. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Singer T.M. Krishna performs at the fourth edition of the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha at Elliot's Beach in January 2018. Photo: R. Ravindran

The Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, held recently, sought to take the art forms of north Chennai to other parts of the city in an attempt to democratise them.

In Chennai, a silent revolution is moving music, art, dance and conversations on polity and policy, bringing them out of the air-conditioned auditoriums and boardrooms in a bid to engage people directly. The moving force behind this initiative is T.M. Krishna, who is seen by a section of puritans as the enfant terrible of Carnatic music.

Simply named Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha (Chennai Street Arts Festival), it began as an art festival intended to cater to people outside closed performance spaces and has now grown to include conversations on a wide variety of subjects.

“A movie, Vada Chennai, has been released. Show me one person from Harbour to Ennore [in north Chennai] who has any resemblance to anyone in the movie,” a resident of north Chennai challenged a panel of speakers in an open dialogue organised by Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha in a hall in Mylapore in central Chennai in end January.

The director Pa. Ranjith, who was on the panel, agreed with him: “What you are saying is correct. You would have watched many movies, some of which have a village setting as a background. The question that needs to be asked is if everyone in a village is good. There might be one good person. Now he becomes a symbol of the entire village. In a slum setting in a city, one person might be a bad element. But does he represent everyone? No. Still, he becomes the symbol of that slum.” According to him, this happens because of the manner in which movies are projected.

The discussion continued on different aspects of life in north Chennai and on the stereotypical notions about the entire area. Many of the points raised have no answers or solutions, but the initiative helped many people who lived in other parts of the city get a glimpse of how reality and perception differed from one another and how a powerful medium, in this case cinema, projected an altered perception of reality.

Several conversations

Several such conversations and collaborations in the field of the performance arts form a hallmark of the Theru Vizha, which has done a lot to break stereotypes in the few years that it has been in existence. The conversation is a sequel to the efforts in bringing art forms that have not traditionally been performed in an auditorium setting into these spaces. This was in response to the criticism as to why traditional or folk art forms were not being allowed into the hallowed portals of “sabhas”.

In fact, this criticism arose about five years ago, soon after the first public performance of classical music in the first year of the Urur Olcott Kuppam Festival in Besant Nagar. The question was now that the classical music form had been brought to a fishing hamlet when would the maligned art forms get a space in a sabha to perform? Showcasing some of the traditional and folk performances in an auditorium in Mylapore was part of this effort to break the class distinction in art forms.

But not all sections of society welcome such initiatives. The team that put together the event believes that experiencing the art form will slowly remove preconceived notions of the art.

Once there is a debate about the art form, the conversation will move into the dominance of caste, the hegemony of culture and the tyranny of identity. The team thinks that it is also time to have a dialogue-starter branded something like “Mylaporeil Vada Chennai” (north Chennai in Mylapore).

In the last leg of the festival, the focus was on north Chennai. On February 1, residents of Driver’s Colony in Korukkupet, a suburb in north Chennai, witnessed a Bharatanatyam performance by the students of Chathurlakshana School of Fine Arts. Breaking the rigid confines imposed by the manner in which the art form had been performed, the students danced to the “Poramboke” song of T.M. Krishna. [The song begins with the word “poramboke”, which is used to denote a wastrel.] It did not matter that the stage was set in a narrow lane on an elevated platform. Vehicles whizzed past, drivers honked and commuters wondered whether it was yet another meeting of a political party. But many of the people occupying the chairs at the Theru Vizha did not care: they cheered aloud and whistled in approval.

The Theru Vizha, which began as Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha five years ago, is more about the democratisation of art and conversation than about the purity of art. Hence, it is common to hear the wind messing up the acoustics and the blaring horns from vehicles plying past, and even exprience the occasional interruptions because of unforeseen factors. After bringing classical music and dance to the fishing village of Urur Kuppam in south Chennai and taking folk performances to concert halls, in this edition the festival expanded its horizon to fishing villages in Korukkupet and Kasimedu in north Chennai, a move that necessitated the change of name.

Photographic exhibition

The vizha began on January 13, with a photographic exploration of the Korukkupet market. Over the next few days, art forms of north Chennai travelled to Mylapore, a stage show was performed in Besant Nagar in south Chennai, and a Paraiattam was staged in Besant Nagar before the show moved back to Korukkupet and Ennore in north Chennai.

Asked how the vizha evolved to be what it is today, Krishna said it had had its own organic growth. “We never thought of building or expansion or anything of the sort. So, after about three-four years at Urur Olcott Kuppam, we were discussing other spaces such as Chemmencherry [south of Chennai, an area where the Tamil Nadu government bundled off all slum dwellers]. We had also done work with Ennore with the ‘Poromboke’ song. So Ennore was also there in the back of our mind. The exploration was to see what kind of creative engagements can happen,” Krishna said.

The stereotypical notions about north Chennai were another reason for the vizha to move to this space. The initial path was set by the conversations that the team had with the people of Korukkupet and Ennore on democracy, rights, education, freedom, expression, and self-assertion. “Then we began thinking: what kind of conversations do we want to build? It is two things. One was to re-establish north Chennai as a cultural space with so many hues and so many different cultures. We do not realise that Vysarpadi [a suburb of Chennai] is not the same as Royapuram, Royapuram is not Korukkupet, Korukkupet is not Tondiarpet. All these discussions came in. And also what were the things that people were celebrating there. What are the art forms featured [there]? Also what art forms are not featured there? So, the conversations were twofold: one was asserting cultural diversity of the space, and two, what are the art forms that people there want to have a glimpse of,” Krishna said.

Korukkupet also has Tamil settlers from Myanmar. So the vizha had stalls selling food that was a modification of the cuisine that people had brought along from Myanmar.

Where does the vizha go from here and who gets to make that decision? “We never thought in terms of where it goes,” said Krishna. “Usually, it has bounced from one space to another, one thing to another. So, I don’t know. We need to think this through. It is usually a collective decision…. This whole thing is volunteer-driven. But one thing is certain. Any engagement needs to have meaning and continuity. It is not just about doing an event,” he said.

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