Learning folk art is no joke. And that too preserving a dying art at the age of 85, requires a lot of passion and dedication. Eighty five- year-old Bhathirappan from Thekampatti village in Coimbatore district, is one such person. He is an exponent of the Tamil folk art Kummi – a mixed form of song and dance and has been performing at various forums since 1958. Not only that, today he is a recipient of many awards and accolades.
This art form is not like the regular art forms. It is unconventional as it has no elaborate costumes or make-up. Moreover, the performers require is a good throw of their voice. Usually, the artists in Kummi are all clad in a uniform coloured half-sleeved shirt and a coloured dhoti. Simple dance moves are accompanied by powerful storytelling. This entire performance is in the form of a song.
Bhathirappan, who comes from an agrarian family, began his journey into this art form after finishing his class 10 exams. The circumstances around forced him to quit his studies and he had to he had to help support his family on a war-footing.
“We have very tiny farm holdings, and this is our main source of income, so I had to be there to aid my family.” Said Bhathirappan. Later, he married and had two children after that, and he continued to labour on his land in the community.
In his early twenties, he met Doddana Gouder, a folk performer whom he considers his master. “It was because of him that I became a folk artist,” he explains. The narrative of Harishchandra was the first performance we worked on. We would perform in different towns. We did that for nearly three years before moving on to the next project.” While farming was his and his family’s primary source of income.
Bhathirappan’s next journey was Mothepalayam, a nearby town where he met Thirumapa Gouder, another supporter of folk art. Valli Thirumanam – the storey of Lord Murugan, the son of Lord Shiva, marrying Valli – was taught to his troupe. This performance, according to Bhathirappan, is one of their most important works, which they have been maintaining and playing for over 40 years.
Valli Thirumanam, or Valli Thirumanam performance, is a prominent art form in Tamil folk art. It is a religious and culturally significant storey in the region, and it is played at all major festivals and gatherings. The storey is told in 34 segments and includes over 30 dance routines. The artist must also sing the storey while performing.
“I don’t consider teaching 150 students over a span of 30 years as an achievement. What is of utmost importance is ensuring that the form is passed on to future generations is an important responsibility for me.” says Bhathrappan
Bhathirappan is proud to say that he has performed at universities, art festivals, temple festivals, and other gatherings all over Tamil Nadu. There are no props, costumes, or make-up. It’s a simple art form that doesn’t even require a stage between the artist and the audience.
“This art style is all about simplicity. The majority of modern art has been reduced to showmanship and glitz. There’s a lot more to the show than just paintings. Folk art is the oldest kind of art, dating back centuries. It is unadulterated and pure.” Says Bhathirappan passionately
He strongly feels that Folk art served as a vehicle for preserving and passing along culture, history, storytelling, and custom from generation to generation. It’s an art form that aided humans in expressing delight, excitement, and even despair long before science and technology.
Bringing in a lot of respect for women through this art form, Bhathirappan believes in women empowerment and thus breaks tradition While kummi has remained faithful to its original roots over the years, maintaining its rusticity and simplicity, Bhathirappan claims that they have made some alterations to modernise their performance.
While originally the domain of men, Bhathirappan claims that this art form has been taught to women, and that many female artists now perform Kummi.
Another new element is that their recent performances speak about relevant issues like environmental protection, morals, and social ills.
“Our troupe has around 15 people across all age groups. They practice every new composition for three months, so that all of them are comfortable with the material. They then practice for the new routine for an hour-and-a-half every day and more so as the performance date comes closer.” says the proud teacher.
Even during lockdown, he has been training unendingly to others For all his sincere efforts , Tamilnadu Government has conferred the Kalaimamani Award on 85year-old Bhathirappan on 20 February 2021.
Kummi and its practise are a way of life for Bhathirappan, and he is ecstatic to be able to pass on this art form, which he considers his heritage, to the next generation.
(The writer is founder of Powerful Teachers, an organisation for the senior citizens)