In a small whitewashed building in the village of Ayyur, Tamil Nadu, I watch, cornered, as the Oyilattam troupe bustle about applying sparkling make-up to their faces and adorning themselves with colourful, decorated clothing. Red sashes are fastened around waists. The dancers are all male, and a group of five or so trainees, boys of ten to thirteen, prepare elaborate headdresses for the older ones. Outside, village children, curious of the novelty taking place in the darkened room, try to sneak through the door and peer in through the windows, continually swatted away by our host.
‘Oyilattam’ in Tamil means ‘dance of beauty or grace’. Armed with only this knowledge, and with little idea of what to expect, I had arrived to witness the traditional performance during Sandana Koodu, a festival celebrating the harmonisation of Muslim and Hindu religions. As well as a glimpse into the folk culture of Tamil Nadu – folk arts, for me, always having a unique ability to conjure up the soul of a place – I was to be shown the ability of such arts to transcend the social barriers that can, and have, come from differences in religion and caste.
A. Kannan, 36, P. Sekar, 25, and S. Balaji, 23, are the ninth generation of their family to dance the Oyilattam dance, continuing a tradition which has lasted for four hundred and fifty years. They are accomplished enough to start performing as young as thirteen. The dance is Hindu, but performed to all, regardless of religion or caste, and has a wide appeal. The dancers tell me that these festivals are a symbol of unity and of bringing people together through shared enjoyment.
As the sun sets late in the day, we take our places in the village’s square, where neon light displays are already glowing. The Oyilattam dance is performed on the floor, with the audience forming a circle. The dancers take rhythmic steps, standing in two rows, and as the drum beats faster, the dancers speed up, twirling cloths in their hands in honour of two Hindu gods – on the left, green for Vishnu, and on the right, red for the goddess Amman. The dance is introduced by song, and later joined by cymbals, bass drums and wind instruments. Everyone has stopped what they are doing and are gathered around to watch, children lining the edge of the dancing space having to be shooed away at intervals as they shuffle dangerously close to stamping feet.
Folk artists across Tamil Nadu have tribal origins – previous generations lived in the mountains and came down into villages to earn money, their traditional occupation being hunting. Dance, at this time, was used as an escape; a way of relaxing at the end of a hard day’s work. It makes sense, therefore, that Oyilattam is in fact a dance about agriculture, the moves representing different stages of the farming year – the first being the act of throwing the seeds and planting, another of harvesting and of tying the harvest, the accompanying songs narrating. As was traditionally the case, men and women can perform Oyilattam, and the dance is also often adapted to form a means of telling a tale, usually the ancient Tamil epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, stories central to Tamil and wider Hindu culture.
In modern times we think of folk arts as a declining form of entertainment, but folk dance is increasingly being used to create new employment opportunities in Southern India. The Tamil Nadu Tourism Department and a variety of non-governmental organisations such as Tamil Maiyam are actively supporting traditional folk arts. University courses in traditional arts and folklore are springing up, bringing awareness of this aspect of Tamil culture to younger generations. Because of this, the Oyilattam dancers are confident their traditions are not dying out. Instead, they are increasing in popularity and gaining in status, viewed now on an equal level with Bharatha Natyam, the most popular and widely performed classic dance of the region.
Tamil folk dance is alive and well, and is enjoyed by all levels of society and all ages. People are in touch with their history and their ancient culture here, and it seems there is hope this will be maintained for years to come. Traditional arts are not performed for nostalgia, but can still be current. This sort of entertainment has a unique authenticity and immediacy, and the atmosphere and excitement of the festival in Ayyur was due to the a continuation of years of tradition. Anyone in Tamil Nadu for a visit should definitely seek out some traditional dance and folk traditions for an experience truly rooted in local culture, past and present.
This article was originally published online and in print at the Madurai Messenger (www.maduraimessenger.org) in March 2010.