Meet a software engineer turned entertainer who keeps traditional folk arts alive in America
Sivasankar Subramanian and his team have been a driving force in the revival of Tamil folk arts and are encouraging school children to embrace it.
As musicologists and folklore experts worry that this generation has only recognized a handful of styles of music and dance when performed on various occasions. We have already lost over 30 different types of percussion instruments and 40 styles of dance since the Sangam era; generations past have seen one of the worst mass extinctions of traditional performing art forms in the form of globalization and the technological handicap of the so-called conservationist and revivalist in this field.
This is where Sivasankar and his team at the Washington DC-based Kombu Performing Arts and Research Center play a major role in archiving the skills and knowledge of artisans. This group is led by Siva who is a software engineer and now proud to identify as a Nagasuram artist. Being in a contrasting professional background, he also kept various forgotten musical instruments such as Pambai, Urumi, Chendai, Thiruchinnam, Kombu, Udukkai, Thamukku, Chinnamelam, Periyamelam, Parai, Thavil and Nadaswaram. Besides musical instruments, his job is also to obtain costumes and props for performing arts such as Poikkalkuthirai (false-legged horse) dance, Kavadi, Karagam, Mayilattam, Oyilattam, Puliyattam, and the list goes on. These folk dances are performed by people to express their zest for life at every possible event or occasion, such as the coming of the seasons, the birth of a child, weddings, festivals, etc. In the United States, his team interacts with various Tamizh cultural organizations and encourages them to purchase these artifacts directly from artisans so that they can continue to produce crafts and pass their skills and knowledge on to others. According to Siva “Creating awareness among the South Indian diaspora would be the first and important step towards the resurrection of these art forms” He is very convinced that he achieved this goal until pre-covid . During this time, Siva toured all over the United States every weekend for carnivals, local galas and various other cultural events. Likewise, his performance won several accolades at the Tamizh International Conference held in Chicago and the Periyar International Conference held in Washington DC.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to preserve these art forms, COVID-19 had a devastating impact on his efforts when he saw the popular arts community those who strove to keep the tradition alive. lives were now suffering financial setbacks due to the lack of social events. In early October last year, Siva partnered with international cultural organizations from Singapore, Australia and the UK to launch a major online fundraising campaign. They have partnered with AIMS Seva, a nonprofit organization, and ValaiTamil Web TV to deliver weekly programs aimed at Affirming the livelihoods of performing artists and helping unemployed artists. According to Siva, the COVID chaos has also provided a huge opportunity to reassess its strategy; this has improved more international visibility for his team and immense time outside of the weekly performances. He undertook extensive research on old manuscripts while interviewing families and descendants of artists to obtain the measure of various wind instruments. Siva is also the author of his findings in several international magazines and research journals. One of his major works includes his “Study of the Acoustic Principles of Nadaswaram” – which is the first and only thesis available on a scientific platform that speaks extensively about
sound impedance, Helmholtz resonance, and wave theory, making it one of the first strongest brass-less double reed instruments known (More info here). According to Siva “A musical instrument, like any other scientific invention, goes through the same process of trial and error before being standardized for general use.”
“Instruments with a strong adherence to scientific and acoustic principles are gaining in importance among the rest, as they undergo minimal structural changes and Nagasuram is one such instrument.”
“Nagasuram is reputed to be 5,000 years old and mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, it remains steeped in religion today.”
As an conservationist, he understands the fact that this story of renewal does not bear fruit when no younger generation is ready to take up the tradition. Yet even in this neglected area there are practical and cultural challenges as some of these art forms are still associated with specific communities. Therefore, Siva is hopeful of passing the baton on to the next generation in the United States, as they have more immunity from the differences in caste and religion, which are associated with these art forms. There is no doubt that preserving the art of performing and its performers is essential and failure to do so erases the multicultural history that serves as a mark for future generations. For any community, folk songs and their dance style serve as a time machine to bridge the past and present, helping us understand how our world – and we – have become. But his efforts have surely won the highest accolades among emerging South Asian immigrants to the United States.