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Art For Empowerment

Art For Empowerment

Ever since independence, the government and the non-governmental organizations are involved in empowering Indian women by adopting various strategies. The educational and economic status of Indian women has improved vastly as a result of the interventions by the government and other agencies. Women have entered many professions which were the monopoly of men. At the same time, one wonders why the highly educated women of Kerala protest against a Supreme Court verdict, which reasserts women’s equal right to worship at Sabarimala temple.  But the dalit women of Sakthi Folk Art Centre, Dindigul, though not highly educated, have proved by their involvement in the social process what genuine empowerment is.

On November 17, I had the opportunity to watch one hour folk dance, music and street play presented by the Dailt girls of Sakthi Folk Art Centre Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. While mesmerizing the audience with their thrilling performance they could powerfully communicate their anger against discrimination, oppression and exploitation of women. Condemnation of caste based discriminations, need for harmony among the followers of different faiths, and the urgency of caring for our common home, the earth, were the other messages conveyed brilliantly through the one hour cultural banquet.

“Let the untruthful caste system be destroyed and equality prevail!”, “To eradicate the existing slavery within the humanity, we should first change the concept that women are slaves”, “A woman is a full circle, within her is the power to create, nurture and transform”, “Our inactivity will make even the spider spin its web around us.  Arise! And come forward, even the volcano will give way”. These are a few powerful messages that I could carry with me after witnessing the enthralling cultural programme by the Dalit girls.

From my interaction with Sr. Chandra ICM, the initiator of the Sakthi Folk Art group, I came to know that the group has enchanted, motivated and educated a variety of audience though their more than 2500 presentations not only in Tamil Nadu, but also in different parts of India and abroad. The group has already presented 6 performances in the USA, 5 in South Korea and 28 in Japan. For the dalit women who are discriminated on the basis of caste, gender and class in their own villages this is not a mean achievement. The recognition and admiration received from different groups in India and abroad have definitely enhanced their self-confidence and determination to fight against caste and gender discriminations.

The programmes of Sakthi are mostly presented in the villages, particularly among the dalits in view of conscientizing them about the need for transformation in their lives. Performance of paraiyattam (dance to the tune of drum beating), which is traditionally performed by dalit men, is itself a great boost to the dalit women to break many restrictions imposed on them by their own caste and other castes. The folk dances and songs presented by the Sakthi team challenge the hierarchical and patriarchal system of oppression that negates the identity of dalits and their humanity.

The idea of starting a cultural troupe to promote the dalit art forms in view of bringing about change in the society, originated when Sr. Chandra ICM and her companions started living among the dalits of Ganeshpuram village in Dindigul district. Sr. Chandra who has a natural talent for dance could observe different art forms in the dalit community. One among them was paraiyattam that was performed only by dalit men during the festivals within the dalit community. It was also performed by dalit men on the occasion of funerals of high castes for which they were paid a pittance. As the dalit experienced low status in the society, their art forms were also devalued. Sr. Chandra could see great possibility in these art forms. “Why not I use these art forms to empower the dalit women”, she asked herself.  The result was her decision to learn paraiyattam in spite of the reluctance of dalit men to teach her the dance.

Once she learned paraiyattam she could improve it with her natural talent for music and dance. Sr. Rachel Oommen ICM in her book, ‘ Sakthi Folk Art Centre’ has described in the following words the contribution Sr. Chandra in developing paraiyattam. “During the process of experimenting with various steps and beats in Parai performance, she began to choreograph the Parai and came out with her own version of paraiyattam, very different from the ones practiced in Dindigul district. She used paraiyattam not as an isolated dance performance but as part of the multi-genre programme that she produced on particular themes”. She motivated a few dalit girls to join her in creating awareness among the villagers on various social issues through folk dances and songs. This was the beginning of Sakthi Folk Art Centre in 1993 in a rented building. Gradually the centre evolved into a powerful medium for holistic empowerment of dalit girls and women and through them the transformation of the society.

At present Sakthi has its own building and the facilities needed for the training 50 girls at a time. Every year Sakthi selects 20 dalit dropout girls from different villages for the training in folk art and songs. They get the opportunity to get trained in various types of folk dances like Parai, Kummi, Oyilattam, Kuchiattam, Vedarattam, Devarattam, Chillattam, Kolattam, Karahattam, Kazhialattam, Seviattam, Silambam, Mayilattam and Kuravan Kurathaiattam etc. Along with the training in dance and music, they are prepared to write examination in class VIII or X. Those girls who want to continue their studies remain at Sakthi and join the Sakthi Folk Art group. Some of these girls have completed graduation and continued to work in the folk art group until their marriage.

In view of making them capable of earning their livelihood they are trained in different skills like tailoring, terracotta, food preservation, woollen work, basket making and basic computer applications. The girls are also given sessions on health and hygiene, sex education, human rights, village administration (Panchayati Raj) and leadership and communication skills. Since 2010 Sakthi is recognized as ‘Sakthi Folk Art Community College’ by Mother Theresa Women’s University, Kodaikanal with four skill trainings: Folk Arts and Crafts, Computer Applications, Tailoring and Performing Folk Arts.  Sr. Felci ICM (MSC B Ed.) is the principal of Community College and active partner of Sr. Chandra in the unique mission of empowering dalit women though folk art. About 500 dalit girls have been trained by Sakthi from its inception.

According to Sr. Chandra, almost all girls function as change agents in the society when they go back to their villages after the training. They work in various capacities as village animators, workers in ICDS centres, school teachers, owners of petty business etc. Two of them have started their own folk dance team to create awareness among the people on various social issues. Irrespective of the occupation they have chosen, they have the capacity to resist any form of discrimination based on caste and gender and they question discriminatory practices. They are sources of courage and inspiration for other women to come out of their bondage and assert their rights as human beings. All those who have been trained in Sakthi come together once a year on the foundation day of Sakthi for sharing their experiences and take courage and inspiration from one another. This is also an occasion for the facilitators of Sakthi to get feedback from the ex-trainees regarding the long term impact of the training in the life of dalit women.

One of the impacts of Sakthi at a wider level is acceptance and recognition of dalit art forms as other classical dances. “Due to our efforts, the traditional folk art forms of our dalit people have gained respect and equality with any classical or other popular dances. Today these dances can be performed to any audience in any part of the world and command respect and appreciation”, says Sr. Chandra.

One of the lessons that all social workers can learn from Sr. Chandra and her team is that empowerment is multi-dimensional and socio-cultural empowerment is equally important as educational and economic empowerment.  Social workers and social work organizations should do social analysis prior to their interventions in order to identify the social and cultural barriers that prevent the holistic empowerment of the underprivileged and the interventions are to be planned accordingly. Identifying the power of dalit art forms and making use of them for breaking the socio-cultural barriers along with using the tool of education is the uniqueness of the approach Sakthi to the empowerment of dalit women.

The document on evangelization by Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi speaks about “evangelization of cultures”. Transforming an art form like paraiyattam that was considered inferior to other dances, into a respectable one and using it for enhancing the power of dalit women is an excellent example for evangelization of cultures. True evangelization requires study of the social, cultural, economic and political background of the people to be evangelized and entering into dialogue with the people so that inhuman and anti-human elements could be transformed in the light of the values and teachings of Jesus. The ICM sisters have shown a way through ‘Sakthi’ how evangelization can be carried out effectively in a multi-cultural, multi-caste and multi-religious country like India.


(Published on 26th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 48)