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Subbu Arumugam’s passing away has made it appropriate to recall artiste Poongani who was once a metonym for Villupattu, one of the age-old folk art forms inherited from the feudalistic society and now a forgotten legend.

Performing arts such as Villupattu, Kaniyan dance (unique to the community called ‘Kaniyan’, one of the marginalized communities) used to be part of temple festivals called ‘Kodai’ in Tamil, mainly patronized by farmers in the post-harvest summer season. The southern districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari were used to such extravaganzas that would entertain the people, mostly farming families, from the evening to the late night, sometimes into the dawn.

Poongani, the woman Villupattu artiste, was a buzzword among the harvest-weary agricultural workers. Her notes and body movement in sync with the bow instrument enthralled them. Her songs and music would flood into the rural hearts like a deluge of freshwater invading parched lands.

Villupattu is based on what looked like a composite idiophone. The instrument consisted of a long, tightly stringed bow placed on a vertical measure brimming with paddy (nirainaazhi in Tamil), bronze bells hanging from it, a terracotta pot and sticks shaking with jingles.

The main performer would essay the role of a conductor in a musical composition, wielding, swinging and swaying a stick against the background of rustic rhythms tripping from ‘udukkai’ and from the tongues of sidekicks on the stage.

Poongani would spin a narrative out of folk tales involving the fold deities such as Sudalaimadan, Isakki Amman and so on – a narrative interspersed with folk songs and background music from bells, pots and jingles

Poongani would spin a narrative out of folk tales involving folk deities such as Sudalaimadan, Isakki Amman and so on – a narrative interspersed with folk songs and background music from bells, pots and jingles. Then the rural audience comprising men, women, children, and the elderly would plunge into her mesmeric way of story-telling and eagerly wait for the magic moment when her constantly swirling stick would graze past her neck.  The hours would get filled with her stentorian voice, eloquent flow of words and jarring notes so the night would look as though frozen. By the time the audience, hardly sleeping a wink, broke free from Poongani’s Villupatttu spell, the day would break.

Long a male bastion, the Villupattu art scene stood in awe as Poongani stormed it, breaking to pieces several barriers.  For instance, she demolished the age-old taboo on women visiting places of worship through her performances.  She would sing the lines, chuckles lighting up her face, “If I sing, saying ‘come, dance on the pile of sand’, even the god lying unconscious would rise up and dance.”

Also Read: Subbu Arumugam: He made temple art popular with secular themes

Such was the power of her art dripping with daring words, overbearing voice and folk music.  But ironically in her real life, she found herself confronted with several male chauvinists who went all out to stop her from scaling new heights in her career.  She bore all the pains with fortitude. Edged out of her profession at some  point of time, she spent the latter part of her life in bitterness, poverty and uncertainties which are typical of the most downtrodden and destitute women in Indian society.

Way back in 2009, London documentary film-maker Mark Cureaux and I visited Poongani who had been bed-ridden for two years in her hut in the village Kottaram near Kanyakumari. Though we were not previously acquainted, she welcomed us with a warm smile, surprised at the pains we had taken to go all the way to meet her.
On our request, she sang for half an hour a song that used to mark the climax of a folk tale in her heyday. Her signature style was intact though it was 32 years since she had walked out on the profession.

Long a male bastion, the Villupattu art scene stood in awe as Poongali stormed it, breaking to pieces several myths of a highly conservative male chauvinistic society

Enamored of her inimitable singing style, Cureaux later made an exclusive film on her life and career.

Launching her career in Villupattu at age 12, Poongani over the years cultivated a large fan base in villages across Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts.  She was the most-sought-after artiste in the olden days and the highest paid artiste at that.

Also Read: Three ragas from the nagaswaram couple

Popular Villisai exponent Ilanthavila Muthusamy said, “I used to get a remuneration of Rs 15 per concert in the 1970s, but Poongani was paid Rs.150. And there was a competition among the organizers to book her.”

Poongani died at age 86, sinking into oblivion. The voice that aroused hopes in an agricultural generation, the voice that instilled a sense of certainty in the farmers’ minds ravaged by vagaries of nature and ruling class and the voice that stirred waves of happiness in the rural economy-oriented society… the voice finally faded into the horizon of hopelessness, uncertainty and unhappiness – in a society of shrinking agriculture and vanishing folk arts!


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