Published: 22nd October 2018
Meet the students from a Wayanad school whose song in Naikka Maathu rocked the Kerala Youth Fest
MR Vasu, a teacher in a tribal school in Wayanad, talks about his students who won an A grade in folk song at the Kerala State Youth Festival this year
For the Kattunaikkars, the forest is their home. They spend their time climbing trees, enjoying breaths of fresh air, befriending the wildlife and taking baths under the pristine waterfalls. Life for them is innocent and pure, devoid of all that maligns the world outside. So, this year in January, when seven of them got on stage at the Kerala State Youth Festival, naturally they were tense, for all they knew was that one folk song that they'd heard from their mothers and grandmothers all through their life. The song spoke of the forest and its beauty and all that these seven students from Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Model Residential Higher Secondary School, Wayanad wanted to do was let the outside world hear it.
But their song had been reproduced many times before, mostly with an added flavour of Malayalam, so, convincing the judges solely with their performance seemed like a challenge for the seven and for their teacher MR Vasu, the school's Malayalam teacher who coordinated the performance. And honestly, who isn't impressed by the beauty of the wild? When the results were out, the students and their mentor were ecstatic as they'd won an A grade in the folk song category, which was a first in the school's history. "What they performed was actually a medley of two songs. It talks about the sights in the forest — the peacocks, the animals and the birds. A part of it also talks about a wedding," Vasu Maash tells us (Maash is Malayalam for male teacher), stating that this was also the first time that someone from the Kattunaikkar community had participated in an event as big as this one. The song wasn't sung in Malayalam, but in a language called Naikka Maathu, which is the language of the Kaattunaikkars. "I learnt it from Maachiyouwa, an old grandmother in our village," he adds.
School time: Vasu Maash says that the school's dropout rate is comparatively very low, as the school has a hostel that has all the necessary facilities
Since the song wasn't in Malayalam, the teacher was quite doubtful of how the judges would receive it. "Only the children know the language. Even I'm not well-versed in it. I was slightly worried if they would be able to convey the theme well. You know, these children are not really exposed to opportunities like the others, but that didn't stop my students from singing the song with such grace. How could someone not like it!" says Vasu Maash, who has been working in the school for the past ten years. Being someone who cares a lot about the issues of the depressed classes, he says that he was very particular about working in this particular school, which is exclusively for children from the Kattunaikkar community. And what incited such an interest in him? "I am someone who had lived in government hostels and completed my education and so, I understand the kind of difficulties they face. Also, I too belong to an underprivileged Scheduled Caste," he says. For Vasu Maash, the years of experience in government hostels exposed him to the problems of other depressed classes. "I always wanted to work for the upliftment of tribes. I wanted to observe their culture and learn their difficulties and also, bring them on par with the others," he adds.
Meet them: One of the primitive tribes in South India, the Kattunaikkar community that lives majorly in parts of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are traditionally honey tappers
So, maybe it was the hostel connect that drew Vasu Maash to the seven student performers — Unnimaya KM, Athira PS, Nithya MR, Manusha S, Midhun Kumar, Rahul KR and Vishnu K — who are residents of the school's hostel, which is just kilometres away from their homes. Despite them living not too far away, the hostels ensure that the school has a low dropout rate, as the kids get good food, exposure and transport facilities here. They go to their colonies only during Onam and Christmas. But Vasu Maash was particular in ensuring that they aren't uprooted from their culture. "I noticed that these students had been forgetting their culture while studying other subjects. They only go home for holidays. Otherwise, they're away from the forest and Adivasi colonies. That is why we decided to train them in this school," he says. With the help of a social worker KR Prajod, Vasu Maash then decided to train the students in folk songs. "Prajod belongs to their community and he is well educated. We had plans of creating a troupe, but that did not materialise because of the examinations. But we were adamant about equipping them to do well in competitions," he says.
Plan ahead: The team has already started preparing for next year's state youth fest
And the results were outstanding. The team went on to win competitions at the sub-district and district level, and eventually, secured that elusive A grade at the state youth fest. Clearly, this isn't the first time that the school has done something to help preserve the folk song culture. They have released an album and a book about it too. Vasu Maash also narrates an incident that proved how dedicated his students were towards the art and their performance. "Rahul, a class X student plays Chenda and the performance wouldn't make sense without his part. We were set to go to Thrissur on the night before the competition, but sadly, his mother passed away that morning. We didn't know what to do," he recalls. Distraught and hopeless, Vasu Maash and the other students went to the hamlet to meet Rahul and pay their respects. "It would have been unfair to ask Rahul to come with us. He wasn't in the right mindset. But surprisingly, his father told us that Rahul could come with us if he was okay with it. That evening, after Rahul performed his mother's last rites, he took the bus to Thrissur with us," adds Vasu Maash, leaving us flabbergasted. Rahul had since then, won seven A+ grades in the SSLC examination.
Allow me to conclude with this perfectly apt quote — Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny