The festival didn’t showcase artwork alone: for the book lovers, there were also stalls featuring books from Tamil and English literature.
The archway to the entrance of St Ebbas Girls Higher Secondary School, Mylapore, bears the names of greats such as BR Ambedkar, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and Bhagat Singh. It’s the first thing one sees of Vaanam Arts Festival a three-day cultural initiative curated by Pa Ranjith. The festival was conceived and nurtured with an idea to highlight the social contradictions that plague society — caste discrimination, gender bias and other issues — via theatre, music and dance.
A few steps into the ground, a giant structure made of recycled cardboard — resembling BR Ambedkar to the T — is hoisted. People mill about it, clicking selfies, as rhythmic beats of drums — being happily pounded upon by grinning children and adults — provide a background score.
A few paces ahead, numerous paintings lie scattered through the grounds. Pencil sketches, colourful oils, watercolours. Artists — some self-taught, others educated in the Fine Arts — gather under the sky to parade their talent. A few enterprising souls sketch the faces of willing participants. Statues of unsung Dalit heroes and heroines abound, sculpted by the alumni of various Government Fine Arts colleges in Tamil Nadu, and led by G Chandrasekaran, principal, Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai.
With the plastic ban coming into force, a massive elephant almost six feet in height made of plastic, stands alone. Children loiter near it, and try to lift its trunk.
A few steps away stands a giant cardboard art structure, resembling a temple entrance. Look closely and you’ll notice a child standing, hand out-stretched… you can almost hear the plea! The piece drives home the point about temple entry restrictions, an issue we still experience.
Another artwork rests against a tree, separate and alone. It has children’s clothes pinned to the board, but the clothes and the board are decorated with red hand prints which says everything about the state of children’s rights and the violence they undergo.
A few paces away, a huge wall dominates the space — it is replete with paintings and posters about issues we currently face. Stark black-and-white photographs vie for attention, along with quirky but hard-hitting cartoons, about the #MeToo movement, Kashmir, women rights… To the left of this wall are water colour portraits of Karl Marx, Ambedkar, Periyar, with the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. It does not dominate the space like other works, but the message is hard to ignore.
A podium at the heart of the ground bears the bust of 26 unsung heroes and heroines of various Dalit struggles. It is displayed in a semi-circle and invites people to read, linger and take photos. Those featured include Tirunelveli Ponnusamy, who fought for temple entry; Vanjinagaram Kandan, who worked for the right of Dalit people to access water; Veerammal, belonging to Tiruchi, who constructed a school for Dalit girls; and Pandian who sought the right to refuse to play the parai (drum) when demanded by dominant castes.
While 25 of them were native to Tamil Nadu, a foreigner also made it to the list — James HA Tremenheere. Tremenheere was the Chinglepet Collector in the 1890s. He had assigned 12 lakh acres to the oppressed classes of the Madras Presidency.
The festival didn’t showcase artwork alone: for the book lovers, there were also stalls featuring books from Tamil and English literature. Topics ranged from capitalism to women’s rights and, the histories of various greats who protested biases and discrimination.
The evenings were dedicated to dance shows, theatre, parai performances, poetry readings, workshops on public speaking for young adults and bommalattam(puppetry) for children. It also served as a platform for aspiring musicians. A collection of selected short stories and poetry will be published by Neelam Cultural Centre at a later date.