Tuesday 12 August 2014

Artisans Along The Nila

Gopalan Ettan is a potter.  Just like his father and his grandfather before him he spends his days at his wheel shaping clay brought from the Nila’s banks into bowls and water jugs to sell.  There are still plenty of potters along the banks of the Nila; small family-run cottage industries that survive despite of the factory production lines.  But when the last of this old generation of potters dies, there may be no one left to continue the craft. 
Gopalan takes a lump of clay and begins to knead it expertly while his wife sits on the ground sifting through sand to remove stones.  Gopalan’s son perches on the wall beside his father playing with his mobile phone.  He doesn’t aspire to be a potter.  Who can blame him when he now has the chance to be anything he wants.  The breaking down of the caste system has made it possible for this to happen.  The problem is that for anyone who did want to become a potter, there is simply no recognition for the work.

Making pottery has generally been a low-caste job and as such, is looked down upon.  It’s no wonder Gopalan’s children aren’t interested in carrying on the family tradition when it garners little respect.  Interestingly tourism, could in its way, provide a solution.  Bringing tourists to watch the potters at work could instigate recognition of the importance of this craft and the skill of its artisans.

Gopalan throws the clay onto the hand-propelled wheel and expertly begins to shape it.   Like anyone who’s been practising a craft for a lifetime he moves with ease, completely at home at the wheel.  His thin sinewy arms deftly move around the clay forming it quickly and efficiently into a water jug.  He puts it aside and immediately begins work on another lump. 

As I leave I am told that the word ‘kusavan’ in Malayalam means creator but is also used to describe a potter.  I’m not at all surprised.  This is an ancient and important trade and I hope Gopalan isn’t one of potteries last master artisans.
Note: A blast from the past. This article was written in 2009 by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder

Just Another Roadside Attraction

The workmen walk along the road dressed in crisp blue shirts tucked into colourful lungis.  I love the fact that here you see men proudly wearing sarongs of dazzling floral displays of fuchsia-pinks, aqua-blue and lemon.   You never know what you’re going to see next while driving down the street here.
Elephants plod down the street led by their mahoots, tiny temples spew out ear-piercing tinny music from massive speakers, crumbling red-tiled bungalows slump in half-decay at the roadside.  It’s impossible to be bored by Kerala’s daily road-side entertainment.   

We stop to watch a road-side festival procession for Vela: all clashing cymbals and banging drums provided by a tiny but enthusiastic orchestra.  A massive gaudy effigy sits beside the players waiting to be heaved upward onto the shoulders of an army of devotees to the nearest temple. 

A rickshaw passes by with a sparkling tinsel creation mushrooming out of its roof.  It looks like a Dr Who dalek who decided to dress up for the night.  Then it’s an entire invasion of daleks as a whole platoon of rickshaws bearing this weird cargo begin to whizz by, another then another, turning the rural roads into a surreal sci-fi tribute show.

Driving along in the evening I come across a more modern distraction.  A van we are stuck behind has converted its rear into a TV screen which plays a flickering succession of glossy, gauche advertisements.   All the cars behind putter along at a snail’s pace to bathe in the shimmering glow of the mobile TV. 

Just when you think there are enough diversions on the roads here, they go and create one more.
Note: A blast from the past. This article was written by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder.

Snapshots From Along a River: The Snake Worshippers

The picture is slowly taking shape: two massive entwined serpents which cover the courtyard.  The little girl beside me looks out from heavily kohl-rimmed eyes, entranced by the strange colourfully swirling shapes emerging upon her courtyard. 
Bent over in concentration, a woman and three men are drawing on the floor.  Beside them are bowls of coloured powder: black, white, green and red made from ground up charcoal, rice powder, leaves and turmeric.   The picture is known as a Kalamezhuth and is drawn in praise of the serpent gods.
The Pulluva community are traditional snake-worshippers.  There is none of our western perception of snake charmers here.  No cobras hiding in baskets in Indiana Jones’ style dramas.  This ceremony is performed to bring health and well-being to a household and the only snake included is the one being drawn on the ground.

An oil lamp is lit.  The Pulluva sit to one side of the drawing and pick up their instruments.  The youngest boy stands to one side carrying a lit flame.  The music is eerie and haunting and slow and seems to exist without needing a steady beat to make it flow.  It’s like an orchestra unleashed from a conductor, a jangling jam-session with no rhythm. 

The music becomes wilder and the young boy with the fire begins a willowy sinuous dance, running the licking flames over his body.  We all hold our breath as he moves panther-like around the drawing with hypnotic eyes.  Slapping the flame continuously over himself like a man possessed.  The air is brushed with the smell of his singed skin as he leaps and dances in front of us wielding the flame. 
And suddenly it is all over.  The music croaks and groans to an unexpected end.  The boy stands still.  The woman puts down her instrument and picks up a broom of twigs.  She bends down before the drawing and sweeps it into a Jackson Pollock swirl of colour.  The intoxicating atmosphere is broken.  The little girl next to me giggles.  The fire-wielding boy puts his t-shirt back on and chats happily to one of the family.  I sit there startled and wonder if that all just actually happened or if I just made it all up.

Note: A blast from the past. This article was written in 2009 by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder.

Snapshots From Along a River - Vayali Folklore Group

There’s at least a dozen kids all sitting on the floor in front of me.  They are wriggling about torn between curiosity and shyness.  Furtive glances and whispers are exchanged before the boldest one is half pushed by the others to come over.  All neat pig-tails and shining eyes she stands in front of me.  “What is your name?”  She finally blurts out.  “Jess,” I answer, “what’s yours?”  But she’s already collapsing into a fit of shrieks and giggles and is darting back to the safety of her friends on the floor. 
They eye me up with trepidation but I’m only an entree for the real entertainment tonight.  The Vayali folklore group began in 2003 when a group of young local people set out to preserve the indigenous traditions of song, dance and drama in the region.  With little more than bags of enthusiasm they have succeeded in launching a revival of folkloric culture and bringing back to life the songs of their ancestors.

Dancers weighed down with huge silver anklets and elaborate headdresses of peacock feathers shake and convulse in front of me as the choir sways to the beat and sings stories of old.  These oral traditions may tell of the battles of Hindu gods on the surface but behind it all is the story of daily life in the paddy fields, of harvests and celebration. 

Local families have squeezed into the small courtyard to watch; parents, children and teenagers clapping along to the rhythm of the drums and swaying to the beat.  Dancers disguised with thick make-up and masks stalk sneeringly in front of the children who recoil screaming and then cry out for more.  There’s a tangible feeling of community here, an inclusive connection between performer and audience that is rarely seen elsewhere.

And suddenly the children are up dancing, spontaneously lifted by the beat to join in.  The musicians thump their drums faster in response and the singers pick up the change and flow with it, raising lilting voices to a quicker pulse.  The dancers begin to grab more people and I am thrown into the whirlpool of the stage with them dancing around and round till it’s all a blur.  It’s like one of those mid-90’s warehouse raves before drugs and health and safety precautions sprayed cold water on the enterprise. 

The music stops, we all collapse back into our seats trying to catch our breath and laughing at the same time.

Note: A blast from the past. This article was written by Jessica Lee in 2009 after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder.

Snapshots from along a river

Today is the opening day of the Kalyani Para music centre and the atmosphere around me is electric. Sweaty cameramen from Malayalam TV jostle for good vantage points while assembled villagers excitedly take their seats.  Dedicated to the memory of his father, a famous temple devotional singer, Hari Govindan is setting up this centre so that the Nila’s music continues on and to make sure that the caste system will never be an obstacle to being able to perform. 
Despite the public demise of the caste system, it still can be used as a barrier in real life.  The right to perform inside temples at festivals has often been reserved for musicians from a high-caste leaving other talented performers without a platform to be heard.

The talented musicians of the Mannan caste were among those not allowed to perform.  Unable to find an audience, The Blue Yonder and Hari conspired to bring an audience to them; taking tourists to hear the unique music of the Nila played by these musical masters. 

Tourists who heard them came back raving and those who had once banned them from playing began wondering what they were missing out on.  Now the original musicians of those first tourist performances are in such popular demand at temples that new players have to be found for the tourists. 

The Nila’s musical traditions revolve mainly around percussion.  There’s the Mizhaeu: recognised as the oldest theatre drum in the world, the Maddalam: which weighs a whopping 30 kilos, and the Idakka: a bizarre contraption decorated with colourful pompoms and the world’s only drum that can produce every note on the scale.  

This morning the air is alive with the pounding vibrations of these instruments as the musicians skilfully beat out their songs.   Music here has a history as long as the river itself and these traditions are thankfully in no danger of disappearing anytime soon.

Note: A blast from the past. This article was written by Jessica Lee after winning a travel assignment organised in partnership with World Nomads, Footprint Handbook to India and The Blue Yonder.