Finally, art for all: Here's a glorious festival of music, dance and more, in a part of Chennai considered the city's most squalid
The celebration of art has been extended from traditionally elite environs to North Chennai. All those there will learn from the rich heritage of the city's most underdeveloped part.
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It would not be an exaggeration to say that over the past four years, the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha has emerged as an important aesthetic conversation.
Between the artists who are persons — like anyone else — and between the persons who are also — somewhere within themselves — artists.
This conversation has been in various ‘languages’ — sound, movement, space, mime, colour and image. It has included different ‘subjects’ — human strengths and failings, society’s limitations and judgments — ‘ours’, ‘theirs’, ‘not for me’, ‘not quite for them’. And by addressing, or even simply reminding, us of who and where we are, the Vizha has become a metaphor.
Is the festival the first of its kind?
Most definitely not.
Every monsoon is like every other and yet, sometimes one wants to say, as in Tagore’s song — “When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy. When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.”
It cannot be denied that the initiative has led many to rethink the connections between the political, economic, social and aesthetic. And without a doubt, the festival has spurred new socially forceful collaborations, projects and re-energised those who were active even before its birth.
Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha in Thiruvallur Nagar Community Hall saw performances by students of Kalai Koodam. (Image: Facebook/@chennaikalaitheruvizha) .
For most of the volunteering team — which includes about 15 constant members and many others who came, shared their time and moved on — it has been transformative. Personally, for me, the friendships that were formed have been precious — relationships that I would never have ‘ordinarily’ made on my own. The Vizha has helped, nudged many like me to stop being prisoners of cultural habit.
Just the other day, I was in a mall in Chennai and a young man walked up to me and said: “You are a singer, right?”
I said “Yes” and then he asked, “from the Saravanan group?”
Saravanan — a committed, knowledgeable, blunt and passionate environmental and social activist — hails from one of Chennai’s fishing clusters.
If today, I am so proud to call him a friend, I have to thank the catalyst — the Vizha.
Likewise, Palayan Anna, the emotional, righteous and caring resident of Urur Olcott Kuppam, whose constant call for community unity and happiness is infectious. There are so many others like Chittappa (uncle) whose actual name I do not know because he is Chittappa to all. The bajji (snack) seller, the young girls and boys whom I very rarely meet, but every time I do, there is a conversation to be had.
And this is not just me. You can speak to almost any of us, and we will speak of these bonds. Perhaps, beyond the larger political and social commentary, this is where the bond lies — in these personal movements. And we do hope that even those who have been coming to just witness the festival capture and secure within themselves these treasures.
This year, the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha has transformed into Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha (Art festival on Chennai’s streets).
I would not say that the festival has ‘grown’ — because that word signifies too many thoughtless ideas.
The festival is now extending its conversation to North Chennai.
From the very first year, many art forms that belong to marginalised communities, and had their roots or connections to North Chennai, were part of the festival.
My own engagement with the Poromboku Padal and the problems caused by Ennore Thermal power plant and Kamarajar Port had taken me there. We even presented a concert in Ennore (a suburb of North Chennai) on the ‘banks’ of a bustling road.
Soon, discussions began on the need to celebrate the cultures of North Chennai.
North Chennai is considered by many as the worst place to live in — the civil amenities here are abysmal. Polluting industries, encroaching ports and thermal power plants all around have made North Chennai all that a city should not be. All the filth and rubbish discarded by the “middle-class” and the “elite” is dumped in the Kudungaiyur dump yard.
And let us not forget that the worst hit during the Chennai floods of 2016 were the residents of North Chennai.
North Chennai has also been stereotyped as a place of murder, rape, drugs and hooliganism.
It does not help that we — the privileged — have rarely cared about the people there or their needs.
We wondered if an art festival celebrating the richness and cultural diversity of North Chennai would slowly shift perceptions and lead to connections between North Chennai and the rest of the city. Thus began the possibility of a festival. However, truth be told, all this sounded good conceptually.
But without engaging in a conversation with groups in North Chennai ourselves, we couldn’t be sure if this was a possibility and even needed. Hence, we began discussions with Arunodhaya (an NGO based in North Chennai) and leaders of the fishing villages in Ennore. I still remember vividly the lesson we — the privileged — got from a group of teenagers on democracy, human rights, equality and education in Korukkupet. It was only after four or five refreshing and intense meetings did we decide to go ahead with a Vizha.
Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha is being celebrated across Chennai’s suburbs with a focus on the ‘Cultures of North Chennai’. It is a two-way conversation in which space and aesthetics are subverted and people move in both directions — northward and southward.
Come and celebrate North Chennai — be a part of the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha.
The festival cuts across caste, religious, economic, gender and occupational lines and attempts to be a questioning agent.
This is just a beginning and we do hope that it will change attitudes, and hopefully, even lead to on-the-ground changes in the lives of the people of North Chennai.
Come and be a part of the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. Take the train or bus and come to Korukkupet/Ennore or jump into an auto-rickshaw to hear the sounds of North Chennai in Mylapore. Catch a glimpse of cinema magic and Gana music at Besant Nagar beach — and if you are a ‘classical’ type, watch your art forms metamorphose amongst the people of North Chennai.
Celebrate North Chennai — it has no boundaries.