Oyilattam – Folk Arts in Tamil Nadu

Oyilattam AudienceIn 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.

Unheard Voices, Untold Stories

Kodimalar is from the NGO Arogya Agam in Tamil Nadu

This is one of three articles I wrote while volunteering at the Times of Madurai (now the Madurai Messenger) in 2010, when I was eighteen.

A group of transgender women share some aspects of their journey from a once hounded community to improved acceptance in society that now “listens” to and responds to their consistent demands to be treated with dignity and respect. It is, however, their empathy for women’s issues and their ability to reach out to society that is most impressive — just look at what they have achieved for others when given just half the chance.

The welfare of transgenders or ‘Thirunangai’ in Tamil Nadu is an issue around which people are very active at the moment. Recent laws and new rights have meant the lives of many people have improved dramatically from years of being ostracised and cast aside to a recognised, socially important and happier community. At Arogya Agam, a Theni based NGO, residents Kodimalar, Sembaruthi, Eleya and Kanda spoke about being part of a marginalised community now poised on the cusp of change.


Cast Out

Kodimalar, who went by a different name then, realised at thirteen that she wanted to become a woman. She wanted to wear women’s clothes and says she was only interested in boys. When she told her family this, she was forced to leave.

Kodimalar had a difficult early life. “I was treated badly, not invited to functions, for example family weddings, so I decided to go away from my home and mingle with others who were like me,” she recalls. At that time, around twenty five years ago, that meant going and living with people on the edge of society. They earned money by dancing in front of corpses at funerals, begging in shops and by sex work. “We would travel around together and men would call on us. There was no awareness of diseases, like HIV/AIDS and others so we would catch them. We were refused treatment at hospitals, so some transgender people died.” Verbal and physical abuse towards transgender women was rife but seldom if ever punished by police; instead it would make the situation worse. There was no legal protection, or none was enforced.


The Start of Government SupportIn the last twenty years, this has started to change, with new organisations and self help groups springing up. In Tamil Nadu Arogya Agam created a programme which enabled transgenders to form small self help groups and then began initiatives whereby they could receive training or start small businesses, to create new ways of earning money. There were ten living there at first, but now that number has grown into ten separate communities. There was a focus on individual talents; now the transgender women work in cooking, handicrafts, toy making, as beauticians, tailors, clerks, computer operators and members of a folklore troupe, much of the training supplied by Women’s Development groups.

‘Transgender Day’

In 2004 there was collaboration with another organisation to create the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI), a foundation which now has branches all over Tamil Nadu and over 5000 members, and works to prevent the spread of the disease and to educate about it. Four years ago on January 18th, many members of this group gathered in Chennai to petition the authorities for a special day for transgenders, as after all there were days dedicated to women and to children. They were told that as this was the day they had gathered, January 18th could be their day, and they have celebrated this every year since by going out and doing things for communities. Trees have been planted in the past, as well as over 3000 people pledging to donate their eyes to the blind. This year they staged a play to educate about tuberculosis, and next year will donate to a poor village near their home and pay for a free feast for all the inhabitants.

Affirmative Action

“When the government got to hear about these activities, a welfare plan started,” says Kodimalar. Transgender is a recognised status on education admission forms, and better education about the spread of diseases has resulted in less stigma surrounding them. Also, crucially, the transgender population here has the support of the police, with special training programmes being brought in to teach police how to behave towards and protect them. The introduction of housing entitlements and separate ID cards for transgenders has also meant that in the case of the women interviewed, some families have been more welcoming of them; more ready to accept the choices they have made.
Beyond Stereotypes

The portrayal of transgender women in the media, too, has changed, which has meant there is less stereotyping going on. “Before we were very negative, always the joker, the clown”, said Sembaruthi of the characters transgenders have previously been shown to be in films. “Groups petitioned against this in court, and now directors always avoid doing it.” Transgenders are now being given real roles in cinema; characters with depth and emotion and this inevitably impacts perception of them in the real world.

The transgenders at Arogya Agam now visit schools to teach about awareness, something that is important to them because they themselves experienced bullying and teasing, and still do today. By teaching at schools they educate children about their lifestyle. Kodimalar recalls a school where she noticed one of the boys was acting very much like her, who approached her after the class and asked advice. “He gained confidence, and I gave him special training,” she says.

What still needs to change?

The transgender women at Arogya Agam still face mockery from people in the street; although their activities in recent years have gone a long way in improving their status. They say they require more funding from the government – they are now given free surgery to change their gender, showing just how far support has come, but it does not cover everything that the transgenders would like it to. A simpler request is for allocated seats on buses, as given to women.

When asked how they feel nowadays when these changes are taking place, the transgender women say they are happy.  “We used to be so scared,” Eleya said, “When we went into the women’s toilet we would be beaten. There is freedom now.” The past undoubtedly held a lot of suffering. There are trained counsellors at Arogya Agam, who Kodimalar says are very important when new transgenders come to the NGO, often from red light areas in big cities.

Reaching out to others

Kodimalar feels strongly about the fact that the young women in her village are too often not completing their education due to being married very young. Women’s rights are an important issue for them. But this shows, as do their other activities, that despite their own suffering the transgender community is doing a huge amount to help other people – minority groups and those in need; even the environment. Because they do not feel “useful”, in Kodimalar’s words, because they cannot continue their families by having children, she and her colleagues pledge to donate their organs when they die. It is clear this community should not feel they have to remain hiding—just look at what those at Arogya Agam have achieved for others when given just half the chance.