Chennai Sangamam – Namma Ooru Thiruvizha, a cultural event spread across Pongal, the much-celebrated harvest festival in Tamil Nadu, was inaugurated by Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin on the eve of Pongal. Organised by the state government, this event spread across 16 venues in Chennai and showcased the performances of over 600 folk artists and sub-regional food items from across the state. It is another event highlighting the DMK government’s initiative to secularise public spaces. The art forms on display included music and dance that have been part of the Dravidian-Tamil ethos for centuries, including Thappattam, Karakattam, Devarattam, Kaniyan Koothu, Kavadi Aatam, Thodar Nadanam, Amba Paatu, Villupaatu, Sakkaikuchiyattam to name a few that have for long been pushed out of the mainstream.
All these art forms showcased in the Sangamam are part of a localised, and many times subaltern, ethos. For example, Amba Paatu are songs sung by fishermen in the southern coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, while Sakkaikuchiyattam originated from labourers in the vegetable markets of Trichy as a form of entertainment during their free time. Many venues saw performances of Thapaatam and Parayaatam, which make use of the “Thappu”’ and “Parai”, drums and beats that have remained a key part of the Dalit identity and expression in Tamil Nadu for centuries.
The Sangamam also held space for art forms that have evolved out of a deeply devout ethos, such as Kavadi Aatam, a dance performed by devotees of Muruga where men carry the Kavadi, literally translating to burden on their shoulders and dance. Transgender artists from Madurai and Theni too had staged their Karakattam dance performances. These performances, over the course of the Pongal weekend, were held in venues including beaches, playgrounds, parks and even public schools where the barriers to entry were as few as possible. The secularisation of public spaces was also seen in artists being brought in from states including West Bengal, Odisha and Punjab to perform alongside Tamil folk artists.
An important aspect of the initiative is the payment of increased remunerations to the artists who perform in the festival. In an interview, DMK MP Kanimozhi said that artists deserve dignity and one way of ensuring dignity along with providing a good stage and an enthusiastic audience is good remuneration. She also added that the subregional folk artists should be treated with the same respect extended to Bharatanatyam dancers.
The Chennai Sangamam can be seen as an initiative that mainstreams subaltern art forms, thereby foregrounding and enabling subalterns to define the ethos of the composite Dravidian-Tamil identity and the Tamil language. Simply put, celebration involves music, dance and food. And that is precisely how the initiative blends the three towards bringing diverse people, a few of whom express themselves through their art and food while the others invest themselves by consuming the art and food served to them, thereby forging a solidarity marked by syncretism. The event has also involved Carnatic musicians performing on the same stages as the folk artists, showing that all art forms deserve an equal platform, and one is not “purer” or better than the other.
Sangamam had another iteration in the past. Between 2006-2011 when it was organised by a civil society organisation, though Kanimozhi was at the helm and the then Chief Minister Kalaignar Karunanidhi inaugurated it. The first iteration saw many folk artists and independent musicians being springboarded into mainstream media as celebrities. A couple of such musicians include folk singer Anthony Dasan and musician Santhosh Narayanan. While the former rendered his voice to the DMK’s popular election anthem, the latter curated the inaugural event of this year’s Chennai Sangamam, both regarding the above as acts of giving back.
Transforming it into a government initiative now with the State Minister of Tamil Official Language, Tamil Culture and Archaeology, Thangam Thennarasu as the minister in-charge, gives the initiative more legitimacy, and firmly announces the government’s commitment to Dravidian-Tamil ethos firmly rooted in socioeconomic and cultural mobility of the subalterns. This event is not confined to Chennai alone, as the chief minister has announced its expansion to Kanchipuram, Trichy, Coimbatore, Salem, Thanjavur, Madurai and Tirunelveli through a sanction of around Rs 10 crore. Public spaces are seeing reinvigorated activity with events in these spaces packing the calendar.
A contrast can be located in another Sangamam that happened many hundreds of miles away in Varanasi; the Kashi-Tamil Sangamam. Conceived as an initiative aimed at bringing cultural traditions of North and South India together, the Kashi-Tamil Sangamam is put together by multiple union ministries and Government of Uttar Pradesh, and implemented by Indian Institute of Technology Madras and Banaras Hindu University as a part of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations. Spread over a month, the Kashi-Tamil Sangam’s stated objective is to “celebrate the age-old links between Tamil Nadu and Kashi”. Though such exploration is a good idea per se, on-ground reportage of the event shines light on how the event is marked by delegitimisation and subversion of the Dravidian-Tamil ethos.
Drawing from the organisers of the event, a clear effort is undertaken to to produce and reproduce a “Hindu-Tamil” ethos, against a “Dravidian-Tamil” ethos. The Hindu-Tamil ethos has predominantly been one defined by elite caste groups including sections of Brahmins and Chettiyars in the state, which seeks to locate the Tamil identity and Tamil culture as a part of the Hindu past thereby subverting the uniqueness of Tamil and the concomitant differences. In this way, the Dravidian-Tamil element, on social, cultural or political planes is not engaged, but side-stepped by terming it an aberration.
Within the first 15 days of January, Chennai has seen a literary festival organised by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the sprawling Anna Centenary Library, the annual Chennai book fair at the YMCA grounds, the Chennai International Book Fair and now the Chennai Sangamam. Each event represents the consolidation and evolution of the Dravidian-Tamil ethos aimed at forging an intellectual and knowledge society. While the Hindu-Tamil ethos is forged with a flamboyant Kashi-Tamil Sangamam that is a quest for a glorious past, the Chennai Sangamam is eager to be seen as a common person’s counter-hegemonic alliance that foregrounds the present and is keen on the sustenance of an equitable future.
The two episodes compel us to revisit the axiom of unity in diversity and revise it as unity is diversity to ensure coexistence and amity amongst different cultures thereby preserving the idea of India.
Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. He tweets @krvtweets. Vishal Vasanthakumar is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an independent researcher working at the intersection of caste, politics and education. He tweets at @vishalwrites.