The role and importance of folk performing arts

The folk performing arts have been traditionally used as vehicles of communication. The communication needs in Indian schools are much greater today, when established methods of teaching are being questioned and are often found inadequate. While the mass media has been constantly expanding, the traditional performing arts, which have always played an important role in communication, have been neglected. The technique and form of these rural arts can be effectively used to give students an opportunity to understand various methods of communication.

Folk performing arts are tools of a special nature derived from the fact that they are nurtured from oral and functional sources. In a total perspective, traditional folk media provide channels for expressing the socio-ritual, moral and emotional needs of the society or societies to which they especially belong. Further, no communication can exist fully in a cultural vacuum. Cultural norms and attitudes of people are sensitive material and they act as a vital force. No one can afford to ignore them in planning communication strategies.

Socio-anthropologists believe that the dominant characteristics of traditional folk media persist, they never die. But in the process of their transmission, most of the contents of these media get blurred and sometimes even the media forms fail to sustain their rubric. So long as the contents satisfy psychological and social needs, they are carried forward by the people themselves. If the media forms are found to be vital enough to survive the onslaughts of the modern age, the people on their own make provision to put fresh contents in them. While the epic stories are used, there is enough provision in the form itself for spot improvisation with comments on contemporary life or for health messages, for instance, thus making them relevant and topical.

Forms of indigenous performing arts

The Alha of the popular ballad forms of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh has survived since ages, both in content and structure. Knowing fully the intense association of the style with the masses, several folk poets conveniently poured in new words to address people in the rural parts of the country. Even political parties and sales promotion agencies use these reciters to get across their messages. Its utilization has thus widened its impact, even across the cultural regions where it has traditionally survived. There are similar examples from other lingual areas.

The folklore phenomenon represents an act of communication by employing verbal-musical and visual folk art forms, transmitted to a society or group of societies from one generation to another. They are indigenous modes and came to be integrated in the course of time into the complex body of sociocultural behaviors of the people to which they belong. The components of traditional media therefore co-exist with rituals and ceremonial functions aswell. Consider the variety of forms:

  • Traditional folk theatre or rural dramatic forms, including tribal mimes and dance dramas
  • Puppetry
  • Oral literature cum musical forms, folk musical styles, ballads, harikatha, Kabigan, story telling etc.
  • Fairs and festivals including social, ritual and ceremonial gatherings
  • Folk dances
  • Ritual symbols, traditional designs and miscellaneous motifs
  • Sound signals and speech surrogates

The bare fact that despite the availability of modern means of communication, the traditional folk media continue to exist, makes it all the more important for educationists to test their validity.

Performing arts as tools of communication

In ethno-linguistic groups and peasant societies, communication behavior is not always formal. In their social functions and festivities messages are disseminated by oral poetry, legends, ballads, mime, puppetry and other dramatic verse plays. Dancing helps as a means of informal communication in many tribal and agricultural communities. Singing inspires them in their day-to-day work and very often promotes coordination in manual work. Their traditional folk 45 singing, akin to speech, serves as a mode of specialized communication. Their age-old songs infuse all activities from cradle to grave. In unlettered communities, this is how the communication is channelised through the different genres of folklore. It is claimed that folk culture has its own wide network of communication and does not depend solely on the great tradition for the transmission of its elements. These are local and live and able to establish direct rapport with the audience as they antecede the mass media. They are flexible to accommodate new themes.

When I viewed the classical dance and its architecture and the folk forms and their dynamism, I felt this is something we have left out of our school system but they belong there. It was also essential to build a bridge between school and village and the traditional performing arts are a perfect tool. In the following paragraphs I give an account of the various ways in which I have been able to take traditional performing arts to schools over the years.

Where indigenous dance forms and schools meet

Assembly demonstrations in various schools, after making a study of the forms and selecting moments in the theatre that were best suited to a school audience, was the first step in the building of the bridge. It is essential to convey the ‘Wow!’ factor to children—the way the traditional forms are dynamic, how they solve the problems of time and space, how they constantly relate contemporary events to the epics, how elastic they are and how techniques such as using a cloth curtain in many ways are ultra-modern in their concept. Most important was the need to get the students to appreciate the context in which these are performed in the village. The ripple effect in the school was a project on the village the artists came from.

Devarattam is an abstract dance form performed by the Kambala Nayakkar community. The community with its unique ways of living has a fascinating history. They are Telugu-speaking Tamilians and Kannadigas. The form they dance in is called Devarattam when it is offered to Jakkamma (a form of Shakti) who is the village guardian deity. She is represented by a stone under a tree outside the village and her abode is surrounded by thorn bushes. It is a sacred Kavvu and no one is allowed to cut the foliage in her abode. Devarattam is a non-lyrical form danced to the beat of the Devadundubhi. When I saw it in 1984, I was struck by the abstraction it had achieved and the fact of it being a non-lyrical form and a men’s dance. I was delighted to bring it to the schools for boys to be trained in. Boys 46 feel dance is only for girls, as the only physical movement available to them at school is the dry drill. The vocal syllables of the beats of Devadundubhi serve to make a vocalization which will make pronounciation and reading easier. Rhythmic recitation gives a rhythm and grace to the body. I am happy that more than 10, 000 children have now learnt Devarattam, but only after they got an exposure to the form from the dancers from the Kodangipatti village, 80 kms from Madurai, and had a face-to-face interaction with them about their village. The work continues. There are abstract forms available in every nook and corner of our country. What is needed is a passionate interpretation of these for educational purposes. It is important to use local performing forms to build bridges with the local culture.

Folk theatre and some of its forms

For many people, drama is something that happens on a stage, a stage that separates the performers from the audience and establishes the performers as skilled craftsmen. This presentation of imagined acts on a stage is simply one facet of dramatic activity, and although it is perhaps the most generally accepted view of what drama is, it is not the only one. It is this misconception in many people’s minds, that drama is only a presentation on a stage and thus the sole property of skilled and talented individuals, that has created blocks for individuals seeking to achieve their full creative potential. In some cases it even prevents their imagination from coming into play at all. It is against this often selfimposed wall that professionals in the fields of developmental drama, personal creativity, and drama therapy have been chipping away for more than two decades.

Therukoothu is a traditional performing art form popular in the northern regions of Tamilnadu. It is a powerful form which is ballad, opera and ballet combined in one. Its origin is traced back to the sixteenth century. The content of the plays enacted in this form are mythological in nature. The treatment of the stories however is contemporary.

Therukoothu is commissioned by a village in thanksgiving for a good harvest or in prayer for rain and for temple rituals and social life cycle rituals. The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are depicted in different stages along with rituals where the villagers who were audiences for the overnight performance become participants. Therukoothu is drama, spectacle, ritual and an essential part of the life cycle. It has high literary textual dialogues and songs and also contemporary expressions in the linking of current time to the period of the epic. There is a constant movement between periods and time in the performance of the ritual and the drama.

There are many more aspects of the Koothu like the manner in which the Koothu characters introduce themselves, the role of the Kattiakaran who links the different 47 periods of the play and performance, drawing parallels to contemporary situations and the dramatic solutions to the problems of depicting time and space.

The first time I saw Therukoothu, I was awestruck. Innumerable ideas for classroom use came up. First of course was giving an assembly demonstration with explanations about history and context and an idea about the ambience of the village and then the use of the curtain cloth. The repeated questioning of the character who has just entered by the Kattiakaran gave me an idea for creating a similar dramatic moment in the classroom. I asked my students in class 7 studying cold and warm currents to take on the roles of these currents. They were made to stand behind a hand-held curtain and announce that the cold current was about to enter. The screen was removed and the current introduced herself in a creative manner. The class asked her questions—how are you formed? Where do you normally live? What are your effects? I have done this for historical characters, the subject of a poem, the right angle, a perpendicular line, etc. In addition, drama is a very useful tool to help children learn effective communication. For example, they learn better language use, body control and good social skills.

The few examples I have outlined only give a flavour of the vast treasure of indigenous culture available to us. Apart from bringing new ideas and techniques into the classroom, this treasure makes possible a subtle imbibing of another way of life. It is through education, more than anything, that we can bring the young into direct contact with village life and awaken in them a respect andfeeling for the traditional arts.

‘Education’ suggests not only that what develops in someone is valuable but also that it involves the development of knowledge and understanding. Whatever else an educated person is he is one who has some understanding of something. He is not just a person who has know-how or a knack. There is also the suggestion that this understanding should not be narrowly specialized. This led me to suggest that the saying that ‘education is the whole man’ is a conceptual truth in that being educated is incompatible with being narrowly specialized.

[R. S. Peters Nietzsche]