“Piteous, squalid, vulgar, tawdry and uncouth would be understatements…”

By: Editor’s mail

The debasement or rather, I should say the self-abasement of Tamil culture by its own, self-styled votaries, has always been a cause of some concern to me. The trauma of it all was brought back to me in a most excruciating way when I witnessed a televised documentary of the Bellanwila Esala festival, where amongst the other processions of the tutelary gods, there was also the procession of the God of Kataragama led out.

For a moment I was left in some bewilderment, bordering on stupefaction, by the wild, uncouth movements of the dancers who looked very much like young transvestites than women. One lot kept twirling like tops in a most purposeless and comical way with a pyramid of pots on their heads. Another lot were going to and fro sticking their backs out in the most ungainly and provocative manner, replete with sexual undertones, with what seemed to be peacock feathers stuck on their posteriors and similar counterfeit raiment on their heads and arms.

The music party that brought up the rear took the cake. It consisted of five to six youth dressed in shabby, dust-soiled longs and shirts with sleeves folded up and slippers, playing trumpets and beating drums in a meaningless manner. Their music? My mind went back to my school days. It was the self-same music of the merry-go-round players. The same repetition of a few raucous sounds, the same infantile beat.

Is this, I ask you, Tamil culture? Is this how the Tamil nation resident in Colombo conducts it religious processions? What a sad contrast to the beauty and the grandeur of the Tamil festivals in the Tamil homeland, seasonally commencing with the Nagapooshamy Amman, intermediated by the Sellasannithy and ending with the Nallur Kandasamy kovil!

I am not surprised that many of our Sinhala brethren refer to our cultural manifestations as ‘sakkili.’ Especially in Colombo we have for quite some time been providing them with significant cause to regard us, as deliberately propagated by Lake House (or Fake House as Theja Goonawaredene dubbed it) in the bad old days, as “shit-bucket lifters.” We have nobody but ourselves to blame for this self-inflicted cultural perjorization.

The Nattukottai Chettiars, who have been conducting the Vel festivals for the past many years, and the Brahmin poosaris who sit comfortably in the chariots, must take a fair share of the responsibility for the derogation of the average Sinhala man’s perception of Tamil culture, where its main, collective spectacle, equivalent to the Kandy perahera exhibits neither sanctity nor dignity. Piteous, squalid, vulgar, tawdry and uncouth would be understatements. The ministry of Tamil Cultural Affairs must intervene. It has a bounden duty to do so; otherwise it is not serving its purpose.

Whilst on this subject may I comment on the sad lack of innovation, modernity or contemporeinity on the part of Tamil dance schools? Are we having till kingdom come to watch endlessly the supremely boring episodes of Radha and Krishna frolicking with the gopies and stealing their curd pots on the plains of Braj? How atavistic can you get? Have the traumatic experiences of the past five decades in the socio-political history of the Tamil nation in this country had any impact on the consciences of the makers of these ballets? Are the skins of the choreographers of these schools so thick that they have not softened to the extent of absorbing the reality around them? Are they living in a make believe world of their own selves, or are they, as many Tamils then and now, playing safe?

Let them for a change take time off and go and watch the next Ushagarten concert. There they will learn how beautifully and effectively the strictly classical idiom could be combined and blended with the modern and contemporaneous, where much of the choreography, innovated by Usha Saravanamuttu herself, serves to represent and re-enact reality of the topical present in which we are actually placed.

They would greatly benefit, too, by a visit to the next Chitrasena School concert, which presents us, annually, with dazzling displays of innovativeness of great relevance to the present times, in perfect harmony with all the graceful beauty and masculine dynamism of the classical genres of Sinhala dance – up-country, mid-country and low-country. If Vajira was the Diva of her day, then her daughter Upekka, is rightly asserting her claim to the role of Prima Ballerina today.

The Tamil dance world must wake up from its somnolence, take up the challenge and enter into the spirit of the new age that has dawned for the Tamils of this country.

E. A. V. Naganathan,
Colombo 3

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