Eevery now and then you meet people who break down barriers and inspire us to achieve our goals, without excuses. Bhathirappan, 85, from Thekampatti village in the Coimbatore district, is one such person. He is a representative of Tamil Kummi folk art – a mixed form of song and dance and has performed in various forums since 1958.
We are so used to seeing glitzy dance performances that the first thing that will strike you about the art form of Bhathirappan is its simplicity. Without elaborate costumes or makeup, artists only need a good voice. The performers are all dressed in a uniform colored half-sleeved shirt and colorful dhoti. Simple dance moves are accompanied by powerful storytelling, all through song and dance.
Recipient of numerous awards and honors, the latest being the Kalaimani Prize from the Government of Tamil Nadu, he is still an enthusiastic and active artist. He tells the story of his life to The best India.
Belonging to an agrarian family, Bhathirappan tells me that he had to drop out of school after completing his Class 10 exam to help support his family. “We have very small farms, and since it’s our only source of income, I had to be there to help my family,” he says. Life went on, he married and had two children while continuing to work on his land in the village.
In his early twenties, he met a folk artist called Doddana Gouder, whom he considers his guru. He says: “It was thanks to him that I became a folk artist. The first performance we worked on was Harishchandra’s story. We were traveling through cities and playing. We did this for almost three years before working on our next production. While farming was a source of income for him and his family, folk art gave wings to Bhathirappan to follow his passion.
The next stop for Bhathirappan was Mothepalayam, a nearby town where he met Thirumapa Gouder, another supporter of folk art. His troop has learned Valli Thirumanam – the story of Lord Murugan, son of Lord Shiva, marrying Valli. Bhathirappan says this performance is one of their most vital compositions, and they have preserved and performed it until today, for over 40 years.
This performance of Valli Thirumanam is a key art form in Tamil folk art. It is a story that has significant religious and cultural value in the region and is therefore played out in all major festivals and gatherings. The story is played in 34 parts, with over 30 dance moves, the artist must also sing the story while playing at the same time.
As an artist, Bhathirappan says that preserving and ensuring that the form is passed on to future generations is an important responsibility for him. He has taught this to over 150 students over the past 30 years.
Bhathirappan is proud when he mentions that he has performed at various universities, art festivals, temple festivals and gatherings across Tamil Nadu. There are no costumes, make-up or props. It’s a simple art form that requires nothing between performer and audience – not even a stage.
Even a street corner can be turned into a stage. The artists perform in their usual attire, sing, dance and tell the story.
One can hear the passion in Bhathirappan’s voice when he says, “Simplicity is all there is in this art form. Most modern art has been reduced to exhibitionism and glamor. There is more spectacle than art. Folk art is the original art form that emerged centuries ago. It is pure and unadulterated.
He continues: “Folk art was the means by which culture, history, stories and traditions were preserved and passed down from generation to generation. It is an art form that has helped people express happiness, joy, and even sadness – long before the advancement of science and technology.
Stay in tune with the times
While kummi is an art form that has stayed true to its original roots, retaining its hardiness and simplicity through the centuries, Bhathirappan says they have made some changes to modernize their performance.
While it was traditionally the domain of men, Bhathirappan says that they taught this art form to women, and now many female artists can be found performing. Kummi.
Another new element is that their recent performances speak about relevant issues such as environmental protection, morals and social ills.
Bhathirappan says his troop numbers around 15 people across all age groups. They practice each new composition for three months, so that everyone is comfortable with the material. They then practice for the new routine for an hour and a half each day and more as the performance date draws closer.
For having played for all these years and having preserved and protected the kummi As an art form, the government of Tamil Nadu awarded the Kalaimamani Prize to Bhathirappan, 85, on February 20, 2021.
The passion with which Bhathirappan speaks expresses his strong feelings towards this art form. For Bhathirappan, kummi and his practice is a way of life and he derives the greatest happiness from being able to share this art form, which he considers his heritage, with the younger generation.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)