Poongani - The Forgotten Story of a Story Teller Oldest Villupaatu Artiste alive?

in Society / Culture and Arts

Young was the Sun & long were the days, when she rode the winds of time and was a star that the world around her waited to see, smile and applaud. Thin, lithe and feline, she was better known for her voice that dramatized the air around her. Her hands holding the kattai twirled in the air, setting the tempo for most of the evenings when men sat around & surrendering their senses, all consciously. Women braved the rains to watch her till she begged them to go home when the show got over. Effortlessly, she commanded respect and admiration where ever time dispatched her.

Born in Saravanacheri, East of Agastheswaram in Kanniyakumari district as the last of five siblings, she is only third woman exponent after the Lakshmi and Dhanalakshmi pair – the only women before her to practice the Villupattu as a profession, whose live performance in one of the villages inspired Poongani to pursue it. Poongani (in her 80s now) had the temperance, the skill and a competent tutor (Vedhamanikkam Pulavar) to master this art form and soon carved out a unique space for herself with her variations in twirling the kattai (a wooden stick to strike the musical bow). She admits with a tinge of pride that hasn’t deserted her like the others; “I was paid Rs. 20 as my share as I could twirl the kattai while others got only Rs.10,” her smile stretches beyond the thin lines around her lips. It is at moments like these, you could catch a glimpse of the charms that would have set many hearts on fire in her days of prime.

Villupaatu, the art, to her is intrinsic; It is her identity, cultivated with passion. She blurts out that after witnessing a performance for the first time, “I wanted to be there on the stage. I wanted to master that magic of mesmerizing the audience. I couldn’t think beyond it. I was only 10 or 11 at that time. I realized Villupattu was my future …from that very moment! And I held on to it. That was the start of the journey!” In an year or two, she had started performing in temple festivals around and by 14, she had married a co-performer and the couple frequently travelled across the three districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanniyakumari giving live performances.

Long before the advent of Movie/TV/Home theatre culture, live performances at street ends & temple festivals is how this part of the word entertainment was spelt. In the season of Temple ‘kodai’(Festivals) a post-harvest ritual where the produce is given as offering to these deities Poongani brought to life the stories of Sudalaimadan, Mariyamman and Aiyyanar & also Ramayana & Mahabaratha narrated through Villupaattu and never failed top enthrall the audience every time.

She was constantly on the move from one big temple to another, moving her spectators to the verge of tears and taking them to the portals of heaven, through emotional ups & downs of each narrative, lasting three hours and more. Then, men and women braved the rains to watch her live. She lives in one room shack in Ramachandra nager, Kottaram (Kanyakumari) now, rarely visited by any, if at all!

In a time when the average woman’s life was limited to the home & the hearth, and were treated no better than a commodity, she drew a higher pay than the men the accompanied or competed with her in Villupaatu. Her unique space in the tradition of Villupattu took her near and far and to every in the South, where temple festival were celebrated in pomp.

In the far away Southern villages of Tamilnadu, her performances were heard of, talked about, sought after & finally witnessed, experienced with awe. But at every journey, uninvited, fear kept her good company; there was always the threat of being kidnapped by some rich, rogue Zamindar who sought her for a private audience. Now, far from her prime, her control and mastery over the art form still shines through that veil of time as she opens her vocals to dramatize the moment with a flow of words - timed, pitched, scaled and vented to perfection. Her voice has flattened she says, and her lungs have grown weak now. But at her prime, when she sung infront of an overflowing audience, she went all out - mesmerisinsg them!

Poongani has seen many moons hence; Her fortunes rising and falling, waxing & waning every year. Her parents didnt leave much behind nor were there children. And finally when her husband died 30 years ago, she reluctantly had to step back from mainstream singing since it started to turn out to be a male dominated world and for a new widow of her stature, it was a time of reckoning as “human intent was not always pure”. She missed the protection and support her husband provided through her journeys.

Surviving as a single woman in the field turned out to be more tedious then, than she expected, she says. Moreover, many new Villupaatu groups came into being. Thus year after year her singing days shrunk and she finally gave it up when her health needed more attention. Poongani, now subsists on the government’s old-age pension which is roughly around 1000INR. Forgotten, she remains, in this part of the world. Why? “The world has moved on; every day a new star is born!” she says and smiles as if to reaffirm it, as a matter of fact.

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