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The art-form of Karakattam and the predicament of its artists

Karakattam is a folk art performed at festivals, conferences, roadshows and primarily at Mariamman festivals. It is one of many creative traditions that owe its existence to Mariamman, the rain goddess

KarakattamAlthough it has roots in the rain goddess, the form is about more than just worship – it is also about reversing the caste dominance.

By Pooja Unnikrishnan

The Kerala Nattukala Kshema Sabha (KNKS), an outfit that works for the promotion of local artforms in the state, has demanded that Karakattam (also known as Kumbakkali in certain parts) be recognised as the agricultural art form of Kerala.

Karakattam is a folk art performed at festivals, conferences, roadshows and primarily at Mariamman festivals. It is one of many creative traditions that owe its existence to Mariamman, the rain goddess. While the art form isn’t dying as such, it has undergone an exceptional degree of change and adaptation in recent years.

“Karakattam and agriculture have a link. It is because, in Kerala after Makarakkoythu (harvest season), the Mariamman pooja is in the Medam month and Mariamman is considered as the goddess of rain. And that’s why we want Karakattam to be recognised as the agricultural art form of Kerala,” says Jayakrishnan, chief coordinator of the KNKS.

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Although it has roots in the rain goddess, the form is about more than just worship – it is also about reversing the caste dominance. “For us, Karakattam isn’t just dancing to some beats, it’s our tribute to Amma. While men and women who perform Bharatanatyam on tall stages and receive applause from the elite class, we dance on the muddy ground,” says Babu Raj, 50, a practitioner of Karakattam folk art tradition for over 40 years.

He adds, “Even though Karakattam is mostly famous in Tamil Nadu, it’s performed in different parts of Kerala as well. In Palakkad itself, there are more than 50 people who practice Karakattam and our performances start from the month of December and go on till May. But post-Covid, our lives have never been the same. There are no performances due to government restrictions and we are struggling to meet our daily needs.”

Babu says that Karakattam performances are characterised by a lot of swaying and joyous banter.

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“It requires a lot of practice and dedication. Three tiers of flower arrangements of different colors sit on top of a container filled to the brim with either water, rice, or soil. All of this is balanced on the head of a Karakattam dancer while he or she dances.” says Babu. Other highlights include blowing fire, inserting needles into their eyes, and keeping balance while holding a bottle parallel to the ground on the performer’s back. “We joke, make fun of the audience and sometimes have to deal with drunk men. But in spite of all this, we put on a smile on our faces and try our best to entertain our audience.”

But many Karakattam artists like Babu are not getting the recognition in Kerala like in TN.

Babu says, “There are many of us and we are here to overcome the dancing barrier by conducting the program without discrimination and encouraging communal harmony. We want to be on the same level as dancers of other art forms. And we have hope that once the demand of Kerala Nattukala Kshema Sabha is agreed upon, we all will be treated equally.”

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(Pooja Unnikrishnan is an intern with indianexpress.com, based in Palakkad.)

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First published on: 22-02-2022 at 19:30 IST
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