S. Muthupechi calmly lists out her troubles. Karagattam, the traditional art form she performs for a living, calls for skill and stamina to dance the whole night. Yet, the performers are often treated shabbily and stigmatised, and have little social security. The 44-year-old has surmounted them all.

As a single woman – her husband died ten years ago – Muthupechi has managed all her living expenses and got her two daughters married with her earnings. But then, Covid-19 struck.

Her voice is laced with anger and anguish when she talks of the coronavirus. “ Pazha pona corona [This wretched corona],” she says, cursing the disease. “There’s no income because there are no public performances. I’m forced to take money from my daughters.”

“The government promised Rs. 2,000 as aid last year," adds Muthupechi. "But we received only Rs. 1,000 in hand. We’ve appealed to the Madurai collector this year, but nothing has come out of it so far.” In April-May 2020, the Tamil Nadu government had announced a special payment of Rs. 1,000 – twice – to artistes registered with the state’s Folk Artistes Welfare Board.

About 1,200 artistes in Madurai district have been struggling without work since the onset of the pandemic, says Madurai Govindaraj, a noted performer and teacher of folk art forms. Nearly 120 performers of Karagattam live in Avaniapuram town, in the Ambedkar Nagar neighbourhood, where I met Muthupechi and some others in May.

A largely rural dance form, Karagattam is staged in temples during religious festivals, at cultural events and social functions like weddings, and during funerals. The artistes are Dalits, belonging to the Adi Dravida castes. They depend on their art for a living.

Karagattam is a group dance performed by both women and men with a heavy decorated pot called karagam balanced on their head. They often perform all night, from 10 p.m. till 3 a.m.

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Karagattam artiste A. Muthulakshmi (left) cooks outside her home in Avaniapuram because t here's no place for a stove inside

Since temple festivals contribute to the bulk of their regular income – and given that they usually take place between February and September – the artistes are forced to make their earnings last for almost a whole year, or take loans to support themselves.

But the pandemic has affected their limited sources of income. Having pawned their jewellery – and literally everything of value in their houses – the artistes are now anxious and worried.

“Karagattam is all I know to do,” says M. Nalluthai, 30. A single mother, she has performed Karagattam for 15 years. “For now, my two children and I are living off the ration rice and lentils. But I don’t know how long we can go on like this. I need 10 days of work every month. Only then can I afford to feed the family and pay the school fees.”

Nalluthai pays Rs. 40,000 a year in fees for her children, who attend a private school. They want her to quit her profession, she says. With a good education, she hoped, they would all have more options. But that was before the pandemic hit. “I am finding it difficult to meet our daily needs now.”

Karagattam dancers earn Rs. 1,500-3,000 (per person) when they perform at a festival. The sum is lower for funerals – where they sing oppari (dirges) – usually Rs. 500-800.

Funerals have been their main source of income in the pandemic, says A. Muthulakshmi, 23. She lives with her parents, both construction workers, in a room of 8 x 8 feet in Ambedkar Nagar. None of them have earned much during the pandemic, and while there was some respite when lockdown restrictions were eased, payments to Karagattam artistes had been reduced. The temple festivals, when they did happen, paid a quarter or a third of the usual rates.

R. Gnanammal, 57, a senior dancer, is depressed by the turn of events. “I feel so frustrated,” she says. “I sometimes wonder if I should take my life…”

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A senior performer and a grandmother of five, R. Gnanammal has trained many younger Karagattam artistes

Both of Gnanammal's sons are dead. She and her two daughters-in-law together run their household, which includes her five grandchildren. She performs even now, with her younger daughter-in-law, while her elder daughter-in-law, a tailor, manages the home in their absence.

Back when festivals and programmes kept them busy, there was little time to even eat, says M. Alagupandi, 35. “And there was work for 120 to 150 days a year.”

Although Alagupandi couldn’t have an education, her children are keen to study, she says. “My daughter is in college. She’s doing her BSc in computer science.” However, online classes are a big drain, she adds. “We are asked to pay the full fees, when we’re struggling for money.”

For T. Nagajyoti, 33, who took up Karagattam because her athai (aunt) was a well-known artiste, the worries are pressing and immediate. She’s been managing on her income since her husband died six years ago. “My children are in Class 9 and 10. I’m finding it hard to feed them,” she says.

Nagajyoti can perform for over 20 days straight during the festival season. Even if she falls ill, she carries on after taking medicines. “Whatever happens, I won’t stop dancing. I love Karagattam,” she says.

The lives of these Karagattam artistes have been turned topsy-turvy by the pandemic. They are waiting for the music, the makeshift stages and the money to fund their dreams.

“Our children want us to quit this work,” says Alagupandi. “We can, but only when they get an education and have good jobs.”

PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

M. Alagupandi with a karagam , the decorated pot that Karagattam artistes balance on their head while performing. She doesn't want her children to follow in her footsteps


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

N. Jayaraman is a 64-year-old musician, who plays the thavil , a barrel drum , during Karagattam performances


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

A. Uma and her husband Nalluraman are both artistes. She performs Karagattam and he plays the parai , a frame drum


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

The artistes' instruments sitting idle in their homes are a depressing reminder that they've been out of work for months during the pandemic


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

M. Nalluthai has gone into debt due to lack of work. She worries her children will have to discontinue their studies if the pandemic continues


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

S. Muthupechi says that respect for Karagattam has waned and artistes aren't treated well anymore. At times, they aren't even provided with changing rooms


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

T. Nagajyoti  started performing when she was 12 years old. A decorated karagam is the main feature of the Karagattam costume


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

Karagattam performer M. Suriyadevi, 29, her husband V. Mahalingam, who plays the parai, weren't able to pay their rent during the pandemic. Suriyadevi had to send their children to her mother’s house for a few months. The family is managing now with a local NGO's help


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

N. Muthupandi poses in his costume. At 50, he plays a clown in dramas, besides performing Karagattam. He fears that his profession will die out if the pandemic lasts longer


PHOTO • M. Palani Kumar

S. Devi, 33, outside her home in Avaniapuram's Ambedkar Nagar neighbourhood. She' has performed Karagattam performer since her childhood


The text of this story has been written by Aparna Karthikeyan in collaboration with the reporter.

M. Palani Kumar

M. Palani Kumar is a 2019 PARI Fellow, and a photographer who documents the lives of the marginalised. He was the cinematographer for ‘Kakoos’, a documentary on manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu by filmmaker Divya Bharathi.

Other stories by M. Palani Kumar