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This weekend, a beach in the centuries-old fishing village of Urur-Olcott Kuppam in south Chennai, seven kilometres from the posh Besant Nagar, will be converted into a concert venue for the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha. A Carnatic classical music festival, it is an attempt to “push out caste elitism from the existing Carnatic music system” and unite various art forms. The festival, a brainchild of Carnatic classical vocalist TM Krishna, will take place on February 27 and 28 and is open to everyone — from fishermen and their families to people from neighbouring areas who enjoy a thillana or the adavus of Bharatanatyam.
With the Bay of Bengal as the backdrop, a rectangular stretch of land in front of the village temple has been transformed into a performance space, where people will sit on the sand and listen to artistes perform on a small stage. The space is also shared by a local mechanic who mostly keeps his under-repair vehicles here.
Krishna had decided not to be a part of the famous Chennai Music Season last year. He had highlighted its non-inclusive nature that leaves out non-Brahmin musicians and certain art forms that do not fall under the purview of Carnatic classical and Bharatanatayam as the reason for his boycott. The December Music Season in Chennai is almost a century old and draws people and musicians in droves from the world over. The city turns into a hub of dance and music — as pure zaris are bought in the sari shops or fished out from storage boxes especially for the sabhas that sprout in every small cranny of the festival.
Krishna has joined forces with environment activist Nityanand Jairam for the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha. It will feature forms such as Pariyattam, Villupattu, Gaana-Pattu and Kuthu, which are integral to Chennai’s identity but are mostly not included in the December music season. “Why are classical forms a conserve of only certain spaces? It means they only get a certain set of audience; in the case of classical, Brahmins. I thought, suppose we do a festival in a space where these forms are not usually heard. The idea is to break down the hierarchies that exist among the art forms, the artistes and the people who listen to it,” says Krishna about the festival, the first edition of which took place last year and was attended by a large number of fishermen and their families.
“It was interesting to see their interest. Some of the girls began to learn Bharatanatyam. For them, it was also a celebratory event. We checked with the panchayat and they were keen to host the festival. This is not about converting people to like different art forms. This is about access to listen and interact with art forms without inhibition or intimidation of any kind, which means that they also have a right to reject it. There was an informality that came in, which I feel is important,” says Krishna, who, in the run-up to the festival, also held a day-long festival in Mambalam, a middle-class colony in Chennai that was hit badly by the floods in December and is home to a number
“We decided to have temple honours for the fishermen who saved lives on that side of the city and a Carnatic concert by musicians affected by the flood. It was an interesting social conversation,” says Krishna, who, too, sang at the beach as a part of the outreach programme. There was also a Villupattu (musical storytelling usually appreciated among non-Brahmanical audiences) presentation by the children of Urur Olcott kuppam before the Carnatic concert.
The musicians at the festival this weekend include Carnatic classical vocalist Gayathri Venkataraghavan and Vijay Siva, Bharatanatayam dancer Sheejith Krishna, singer Raghu Dixit and blues and funk band Sean Roldan. A Pariyattam performance will open the event on the first day followed by children from the village performing Villuppattu. The festival will also host Gaana-Pattu, a musical art form practised mainly by migrant Dalits. The idea of this festival also comes from loss of livelihood to the fisherman “in the name of development”. “By allowing those spaces to be celebrated in an artistic way, you are also changing the mindset of people,” says Krishna.
With a budget of Rs 4 lakh, the festival has been entirely crowdfunded. Volunteers from the village have opened their houses to the festival team. “We presume people are divided, but even the art forms are divided. The connection happens only if the curation has the right intent and purpose. If people from different strata have access to various art forms, a certain openness comes in. It allows for a conversation among people and art forms, something that we need at this point in time,” says Krishna.