Traditional Tamil music in its present form has undergone remarkable changes since the earliest times, as have its corresponding performing art forms. The Sangam era alone saw over 30 different types of percussion instruments and 40 styles of dance, but today we can only name a few. Musicologists and folklore experts fear that this generation has recognized only a handful of styles of music and dance when performed on various occasions. There are many reasons for this mass extinction, but the most distinctive would be globalization, which poses significant challenges to the survival of traditional forms.
Its brand new line of industries calling for preservation, such as performing arts tools, clothing, jewelry, accessories and finally musical instruments. Many of these items are created for festivals and celebrations as they are passed down from generation to generation. As social and cultural tastes change, festival celebrations that once required elaborate performances have become more austere, reducing the opportunities for artists to express themselves. Young people born in these communities may find the sometimes long apprenticeships necessary to learn a musical instrument or performing art form are forced to look for work in factories or service industries where the work is less demanding and the pay is often better. Many artistic traditions involve “trade secrets” that should not be taught to strangers, but if family or community members are not interested in learning them, the knowledge can disappear as sharing it with strangers violates the tradition.
This is where the Washington DC-based Kombu Performing Arts and Research Center plays a major role in archiving the skills and knowledge of artisans. This group was created by the dynamic duo Vijay Kumar Muthuswamy (Vijay) and Sivasankar Subramanian (Siva) who themselves perform artists for Thaviil and Nadaswaram respectively. So far they have collected many musical instruments such as Pambai, Urumi, Chendai, Thiruchinnam, Kombu, Udukkai, Thamukku, Chinnamelam, Periyamelam, Parai, Thavil and Nadaswaram. In addition to musical instruments, their job is also to obtain costumes and props for performing arts such as Poikkal kuthirai (false-legged horse) dance, Kavadi, Karagam, Mayilattam, Oyilattam, Puliyattam and the list goes on. . These folk dances are performed by people to express their zest for life at every possible event or occasion, such as the coming of the seasons, the birth of a child, weddings, festivals, etc. In the United States, the Kombu team interacts with various Tamil cultural organizations. and encourages them to purchase these artifacts directly from artisans so that they can continue to produce crafts and pass their skills and knowledge on to others, according to Siva.
Raising awareness among the South Indian diaspora would be the first important step towards the resurrection of these art forms. He is very confident that his team achieved this goal until pre-covid. During this time, they toured all over the United States every weekend for carnivals, local galas and various other cultural events. Likewise, the performance of this team won several accolades at the Tamil International Conference held in Chicago and the Periyar International Conference held in Washington DC. According to Siva, this team is the first of its kind in the United States where volunteers from various professional backgrounds join together to come together for a noble cause and Kombu provides such a platform for everyone to achieve this common goal of preserving the world. ‘folk art.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to preserve these art forms, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on both the Kombu team and the Tamil folk art community in India. People who strived to keep the tradition alive are now suffering financial setbacks due to the lack of social events. In early October last year, the Kombu team partnered with international cultural organizations from Singapore, Australia and the UK to launch a major online fundraising campaign. They have partnered with AIMS seva, a non-profit organization, and ValaiTamil Web TV to provide weekly programs to Affirm the livelihoods of performing artists and help unemployed artists. According to Siva, the COVID chaos also provided a huge opportunity to reassess the team’s strategy; this has improved the international visibility of his team and an immense time outside of the weekly performances. He undertook extensive research on old manuscripts while interviewing families and descendants of artists to obtain the measure of various wind instruments. On behalf of the Kombu team, Siva is the author of his findings in a few international magazines and research journals.
The Kombu team understand that this story of renewal does not bear fruit when no younger generation is ready to take on the tradition. Even in this neglected area, there are still practical and cultural challenges, as some of these art forms are still associated with specific communities. Therefore, Siva is hopeful of passing the baton on to the next generation in the United States, as they have more immunity from the differences in caste and religion, which are associated with these art forms.
There is no doubt that preserving the art of performing and its performers is essential and failure to do so erases the multicultural history that serves as a mark for future generations. Because all of the closely related community folk songs and their dance styles serve as a time machine to bridge the past and present, helping us understand how our world – and we – have become. While for the Kombu team, it encourages a sense of belonging and deepens the connection with them.
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