A visit to Valayapatti evokes a mix of feelings in our volunteers. With a scarce water supply, the future of this small village is uncertain. But after meeting some locals, Morten Levinsky Thorsboe and Katharina Irrgang discover a delightful music tradition and the reason this village is now famous in India
As we stepped out of the car, we immediately felt the warmth of Valayapatti, and also the smell. This was without doubt, a village built on agriculture. We also knew from our research that this was the home of some famous Thavil musicians. While we waited to interview some of these musicians, we walked around under the trees and saw a small temple. Several children were watching us intensely and stayed close together, waving and laughing while we took pictures of them.
When we wandered around the temple, we noticed some strange colourful horses. There were around ten of them decorated in colourful costumes. The smaller horses looked like children’s toys, whereas the largest one resembled a great white decaying statue. We came across a woman sitting on the steps of the temple who happened to be the caretaker. She shared with us a great deal, not only about the temple but also about the horses. This was the start of an interesting day of interviews with the villagers.
Valayapatti is a small village in the Virudhunagar district, located south-west of Madurai, 15 kilometres from the city centre. It has a few temples, including the main temple, which is called the Ayyanar temple. The village seems to spread far and wide because of the large meadow areas all around. It feels like a very quiet place with little traffic.
Its population is around 1500 people within 500 families. There are almost the same number of males as females. About 75 percent of the population are able to read and almost everyone is Hindu except for a few people who are Muslim or Christian.
Production and Labour
Around ten years ago, almost every villager in Valayapatti worked in agriculture. At the time, there was a very good water supply, which made it easy to irrigate the fields. Unfortunately the water supply for drinking water is now gone and the closest clean water comes from a dam almost 30 kilometres away. Some people still work in agriculture and farming, but numbers have decreased significantly due to the lack of water combined with an increase in agricultural machinery which replaces the need for human labour.
Nowadays, most of the inhabitants have to go to the big cities to find jobs. Many of them work in Kerala. Some of the inhabitants however, are fortunate to make a living through music. One of them is the internationally renowned Thavil maestro Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam. He recently won the Sangita Kalanidhi award and can be credited for putting Valayapatti on the music map of India and the world.
We were lucky to meet two of the village musicians, R. Karuppaswamy and T.S. Shanmugam, who make a living by playing music. R. Karuppaswamy, 29, has been playing the Thavil for 15 years. He was taught to play by his father. The instrument is frequently used for weddings and festivals, to welcome guests, and in the temples. It consists of a cylindrical shell made from jackfruit. Buffalo skin is stretched across the left and the right side of the shell, fixed with rings made from banyan tree wood. Thavils are made all over India, but R. Karuppaswamy’s Thavil was created in Thiruvarur and Banrutti in Tamil Nadu.
T.S. Shanmugan, 50, has been playing the Nadaswaram for 38 years. He learned to play it in a music school. The instrument is usually played in pairs and accompanied by a pair of Thavils.
Fortunately both musicians played especially for us. We were very impressed by this special sound, which was both loud and festive at the same time. We felt the atmosphere change immediately and felt some very positive vibrations when the two men began to play.
We also spoke to Nagalakshmi, who has been the caretaker of the Ayyanar temple for 40 years. She lives in a house located next to the temple so she can always keep an eye on it. She was planning to extend the temple, but unfortunately, couldn’t succeed in realising her plan, because the owner of the ground on which the temple was built wanted to keep the ground as it is and thus prevented the enlargement.
When we first arrived, we wondered what the colourful horses in front of the temple symbolised. Nagalakshmi gave us the answer: When a person is very sick and apparently incurable, they will go to the temple and pray to the special god Ayyanar. If the person survives, they will endow the temple with a special colourful horse as a thank you for being cured.
When the people in Valayapatti do not work in the fields or at the factories in the nearby cities, they spend their spare time with their families and friends. Just as in any other part of India, family is the most important element in their lives. We also noticed that there seemed to be strong friendships and a mutual appreciation of one another between the different people we met.
“R. Karuppaswamy, 29, has been playing the Thavil for 15 years. He was taught to play by his father. The instrument is frequently used for weddings and festivals, to welcome guests, and in the temples”
The villagers also enjoy celebrating the different Indian festivals such as Pongal or Diwali. Music is of course a key element of these occasions and may be one of the reasons why 150 of the inhabitants play a musical instrument. We were delighted to hear about the musical talents of this village, which centres around the Thavil and the Nadaswaram.
Every city, town or village has its share of problems. In Valayapatti, the first and perhaps biggest concern is the lack of water resources. It is an issue found not only in Valayapatti, but shared by the entire state of Tamil Nadu. Without clean drinking water and water to irrigate the fields, the future of the village is in question.
The second problem pointed out by the people we met was the lack of education. Although around 75 percent of the population of Valayapatti are able to read, they felt more resources were needed to ensure that all children received a good education. Many families would prefer to send their children to private schools but are unable to afford it. There were also concerns over the number of people leaving their homes to find work in the cities and therefore preventing population growth. “The population isn’t growing as fast as in the other cities,” T. S. Shanmugam told us. “This could affect our future.”
When we asked the local people what they thought the future would bring, they weren’t quite sure. “It all depends on the water supply,” T. S. Shanmugam said. If there is water, the villagers will be able to continue farming, earn more money and afford to send their children to good schools. If the living standards are improved, there is a good chance the Thavil music will grow too. However if the water supply isn’t efficient enough, the villagers have to leave their homes to find work in the big cities and perhaps even move away. This could mean the end of the small village. There doesn’t seem to be any immediate solutions, but the fact that the villagers are aware of the problems is the first step to a brighter future.
Once we had finished our interviews and taken several photographs, there were quite a few people who had gathered around us. They all signed up for the next issue of our magazine. This was a poignant end to a perfect day in the pleasant company of the Thavil-loving Valayapatti community.