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.