Twenty-eight years have passed since Chummar Choondal, the pioneering folklorist of Kerala died. Still, his memory enlivens folklore artists of all hues.

A pall of gloom was glaringly visible among the folklore fraternity on April 5, 1994, when the media flashed the demise of Dr Chummar Choondal. For, he had turned a synonym of the arts of the underdog and the underprivileged. He was their messiah but still one who identified himself with them. Further, he was an ardent fighter for their rights. Only they celebrated his PhD in folklore, the first in Kerala and the first award for Tribal Arts from Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) that catapulted him to the centre stage at the national level. But regrettably, it did not cut ice with the elite class of artists of Kerala and even the media, for that matter. Once as we were seated in the Regional Theatre, he recounted his bitter experience at the office of an English daily. He had gate-crashed into the office to inform them of his national encomium. Not only was the response very cool, but what little the poor lady at the desk had penned about him was insignificant.

Chummar always waxed eloquent whenever asked about the indifference of the powers-that-be towards folklore. Here is an excerpt from my interview with him in 1991:

‘Government myopic towards folklore since 1947’

“The discriminatory attitude of the society towards folklore and the constraints involved in folklore research were highlighted by Dr Chummar Choondal while talking to this writer. While it has been widely accepted that folklore is the precursor of all classical art forms of today, it has been ignored mainly because it belonged to the downtrodden, Dr Chummar said.

Tracing the history of folklore research in the country, he explained that the very branch evolved thanks to the efforts of the Christian missionaries decades ago. But it is a pity that the government and governmental agencies have been myopic towards folklore since independence. The little achievements in the field so far could be attributed to the individuals in their own capacities.

In this connection, Dr Choondal welcomed the decision of the government to institute a folklore academy in the state but suggested that for effective functioning of the institution, it has to be located in central Kerala or more preferably in north Malabar.

A scene from the documentry- Nadodi

Dr Choondal who has authored several books, publications and documentation including film and video recordings of different folk forms over the past 25 years, deplored that the academies in Kerala except the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi have done nothing worth mentioning to encourage folklore.

Even though the preamble to the constitution of Kerala Kalamandalam underscored promotion of folk arts in Kerala, the institution that celebrated its diamond jubilee last year declined to open a department for this discipline.

That not even a Harijan has so far graduated from Kalamandalam only shows the elitist tendencies of the institution over the years.

Elaborating on the hazards in folklore research, he added that the advent of foreigners in the field has made the materials costly for indigenous researchers. But at the same time, we have benefited considerably from their methodology which we are yet to evolve on our own.

The first recipient of Indira Gandhi National Centre of the Arts award, Dr Choondal pointed out that the Government of India refused to accept the UNESCO recommendation to introduce copyright for folk artists. It is high time that the artists were reckoned as ‘co-researchers’ and rewarded duly for the information given by them.

The discrimination meted out to folk artists was acutely felt during the conduct of national festivals when their counterparts of classical arts enjoyed preferential treatment. The electronic media was also discriminatory in terms of remuneration doled out to folk artistes.”

Though his dream about Kerala Folklore Academy materialized (1995) only after his death, Chummar had already instituted one in his home during the 1970s. What surprised any visitor to his home in Chetupuzha those days was that every tree in the compound bore the name of a well-known folklore artiste!

No doubt he was a maverick who lived a Bohemian way of life, but at the same time also an avant-garde folklorist that Kerala could ever boast of. In the folklore festivals, Chummar, the head of the department of Malayalam and Sanskrit in St Thomas’ College, Thrissur, one could spot him among the artists carrying a bobby horse on his shoulders and dancing. Whereas all his successors in this field worked from ivory towers, Chummar lived in the dwellings of the folklore artistes to comprehend their lifestyle. This was in tune with the remarks of the late folklore researcher V M Krishnankutty Menon, son of Appan Thampuran of Cochin Royal family.

Prolific writer

He was a prolific writer on folklore and had to his credit more than a score of books that had caught the attention of folklore researchers abroad. Myriad are the papers he had presented in national seminars. Christian folk art forms like Margamkali and Chavittunatakam owe their revival to Chummar. Even his obit I had penned in Indian Express had a fallout. The day it appeared, an American lady in Vadavathoor, Kottayam rushed to my sister. She was her good neighbour for a long. The lady appeared very much distressed. Asked about it, she told my sister that all her project research came to a standstill since Dr Chummar, her guide, had passed away the other day. She showed her the obit which carried my byline. My sister told the American lady that it was a piece by her brother. There was much consolation to the lady who rang me up then and there. Later, she came down to meet me in Thrissur to discuss how to continue with her research. I have never heard from that crestfallen lady since then.

 C G Prince, a disciple of Choondal, whose exploits in folklore research and documentation are well known, produced a documentary ‘Nadodi’ on his guru. Prince had focused on the demarcating style of Choondal which made the documentary a class of its own. He had successfully captured the researcher’s singular method of collecting data by interacting with folk artists through a series of lively shots. One among them recreated with the help of artiste Koran, an exponent of ‘Thirikkuthira’ (revolving horse) from Alappad in Thrissur district, was really praiseworthy.

G S Paul

GS Paul is an eminent art columnist and critic. He has been writing for national dailies such as The Hindu for more than three decades. Currently, he is the Editorial Advisor of India Art Review.

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