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  • Writer's pictureAmal Dev M

Gramani: A Place Filled with Art and Humanity

Parindey: Shaji Oorali

Alivelihood: Education

Region: Palakkad, Kerala

Shaji and Simitha (Photo: Amal Dev)

"Gramani is the house we live in. The house where Simitha, Abhinu and I live is primarily a living space, as well as a cultural space."

- Shaji Oorali

Shaji Oorali is a great man of small stature with manifold attributes. In addition to being the founder of the community Gramani, he is also a unique artist. Shaji's life journey has led to his home, named Gramani, becoming a cultural hub where people can gather. Shaji's activities that combine art, education and rural life add to the nuances of the community.

Gramani means that which leads a village forward. Gramani is located in Naduvattam, a small village in the Palakkad district of Kerala. It is difficult to describe Gramani in a single sentence. In Shaji's words, Gramani is a group of people who would love to stand together. In 2006, Shaji and his wife Simitha moved to Naduvattam with their son Abhinu. "Naduvattam is a typical rural area with many shrines and vast paddy fields. It is home to the Thuthapuzha river and Rairanalloor hill, once climbed by the mad man of Naranam [a Malayalam folk character]." - Shaji added. Kerala’s unique rural lushness stands out in the Palakkad district, lending to its beauty. Naduvattam is one such village. It is also a place of legends and historical remnants.

Shaji graduated with a degree in Drama from the School of Drama in Thrissur District. Many friends of his who worked in the theatre scene used to visit Shaji's house. Shaji's close companion and classmate Martin's friends from Latin America also started visiting there. Songs, dances and plays were performed there since the people who came had an artistic background. At the same time, the house became a cultural hub when Poothan Thira, the folk-art form of Palakkad, was displayed to the public. From thereon, Gramani's roots took hold in Shaji's mind.

Later, the above-mentioned events started happening there every year. During the events, the locals would gather outside the walls but no one was interested enough to go inside. Since Abhinu grew up in this environment, he became interested in drama and various arts. Although Shaji did not want to make Abhinu a part of mainstream education, he was compelled by his life circumstances and the existing education system. When Abhinu was in fourth class, he used to come home with his friends and listen to Shaji's plays and try to do short plays. Later, as this continued on, the parents began to respond positively to the changes that were taking place in the children. Hence, Gramani became a place where children have imparted knowledge through drama. "There are a lot of people standing with us. Pramod is there, and Biji Chechi is there. Pramod is a theatre artist. Biji Chechi is a sculptor. Then there is Aneesh, there is Kaakku and so on. We all realised that if we all stood together, we could achieve a lot of things,” says Simita.

Children training to make clay sculptures at the Gramani Art Training Camp (file photo)

"The drama of life is different from that on the stage. We choose drama as a medium because we see endless possibilities in it to prepare for life.”

- Shaji

Children of Gramani performing the play 'Vellapokkathil' at Thrissur Sangeetha Nataka Academy (file photo)

Gramani's activities combine the three elements of art, education and rural life. Gramani began by using the art of drama as a tool for education. The play 'Pothu Kinar' [Public Well] is a good example of this. It was a play prepared by the children themselves to understand the general system that exists in society. As part of the preparation for the play, the children travelled by public transport and visited the panchayat office. The play discusses the etiquette that a citizen should follow in society and the function of traditions. Many of the props used in the play are made by the children themselves. Along with plays, various art camps are also organised at Gramani. In addition to drawing, photography, pottery and origami, children are also trained in martial arts. Children's activities are not limited to Gramani. The play 'Vellapokkathil' [In the flood] directed by Aneesh V. P. was performed by the children and they were appreciated at the 'Karshakarkku Kalaasalaam' program held at the Thrissur Sangeetha Nataka Academy to mark the 100th day of the farmers’ protests. The play tells the story of a pet dog abandoned in a flood. The commemoration of Beevathu was another notable event of Gramani. The 'Beevathu Ororma' commemoration program was held to commemorate the death of Beevathu, a street dog from Naduvattam. Beevathu was considered one among the villagers. The news about the villagers gathering to pay homage to a street dog named Beevathu was featured in all the newspapers the next day. Renowned wildlife photographer N. A. Nazir was the chief guest at the memorial service. For this event as well, the children performed the play ‘Vellapokkathil’. The day of commemoration was also a reminder of the relationship between humans and other living beings and animals. "It is a village house. A house where people get together with family, friends and locals. Here, the sky is the same for humans, animals, birds, trees and plants," Shaji adds.

Clay Statue of Beevathu sculpted by Biji Kongorppilli (Photo: Amal Dev)

"Oorali life inspires us immensely. Personally, I gain strength and courage from the Oorali experience. Because the foundation of Oorali is the relationship between the people who stand by it."

- Shaji

Oorali Band (file photo)

Oorali is a popular music band in Kerala. Shaji writes songs for Oorali. There are several factors that set Oorali apart from other bands. It is a mixture of music, drama, poetry, art and song that differentiates the songs of Oorali and fills people with a certain feeling. The band derives its name from the character 'Oorali' who talks about contemporary issues in the folk art form of Padayani. The songs of Oorali have the same characteristics. In all the songs, Oorali puts forward a political theme. At the same time, Oorali takes part in the protests for humans and the rest of nature. Shaji plays a big role here as these songs of struggle and protest fill the minds of the people. "Art can be part of the protest. Struggle can be turned into a festival as long as Oorali is part of the struggle. Oorali has nothing to do when the police jeep is smashed and set on fire. What Oorali can do is tell people to refrain from that," asserts Shaji.

Children sharing their experiences at Gramani (Photo: Amal Dev)

Gramani faced many crises as the spread of COVID-19 intensified. But even at that time, the children, albeit with limitations, were engaged in several artistic activities. An example of this is the short film Mittayi made by children. Shaji and his colleagues are now in the process of starting a new batch for the children. Gramani is not a planned project. It is a place that has melted into the flow of Shaji's life journey. While Gramani means leading the village forward, the ideas put forward by Shaji and friends are breaking down many boundaries and spreading to a lot of people. Gramani is also shedding light on the identities of humanity that art creates in human beings.

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Translated from Malayalam to English by Riya Orison

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