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TBI Blogs: Why I Believe the River Nila Plays an Important Role in Preserving Kerala’s Rich Artistic Heritage

Like all river valley civilizations, River Nila is a fertile ground for arts, craft, literature and tradition to flourish on her banks. Exploring the river civilization is often a journey of self-discovery.

As a child growing up in the 80’s, summer vacations meant travelling by train to my ancestral home in Kerala, reading Tinkle Digests and staring out of the window to endure time. The word ‘boredom’ was taboo, hence other skills were honed. It was on long train journeys such as these that I built a perception of the world around me. Staring out of the window was a sought after pastime, the landscape gave an impression of being in a flip book – trees chased us as the train rattled though nameless towns, rivulets peeped out of green paddy fields, promises of summer vacations and happy reunions with cousins loomed large.

Each year, on our annual vacation to Kerala, there was one unforgettable sight that announced our proximity to home – The Bharathapuzha or River Nila.

Marble clouds offset green islets.
Marble clouds offset green islets.

In an unfailing ritual, year on year, my parents would point through the window at an abundant, scenic river seeking the horizon. In time, like every Malayali worth her salt, I understood that the Nila was integral to Kerala’s ethos. I never asked why. The universe however had other plans for me.

In early 2016, I landed at the banks of the Nila for an evening. The few hours I spent by the river bank left me yearning for more. Even as I made my way back to the city, the river haunted me.  Three days after my return, I sat late into the night, writing about her.

My writing set off another trail of interesting events and collaborations, and I arrived at the Nila again in October, this time to explore the Artistic Traditions of the region. Nothing prepared me for what I was going to experience this time around.

It was a homecoming to roots, stories, songs, poems, emotions and memories tucked away in little pockets of my mind.

A tiny village temple lit up for the evening.
A tiny village temple lit up for the evening.

The region nurtured by the Nila is beautiful beyond what words can describe. Golden waves of Palakkadan Matta sway to the breeze, white marble clouds kiss emerald fields, and meandering roads lead to ancient Kerala homes. Surrounded by these overwhelming natural elements are a group of artists, striving to keep their age old heritage alive. Some of them are the sole living custodians to their skill. Certain others see promise as their children want to continue the tradition.

Like all river valley civilizations, Nila set fertile ground for arts, craft, literature and tradition to flourish on her banks. Maybe river valley civilizations, due to plentiful and excess bounty, allowed people to pursue creative inclinations other than farming. It is in playing this role that the river transforms into a collective celebration of people and their creative aspirations. Perhaps this is also why rivers are revered and considered sacred across the world, they nurture everything that seeks them.

The Nila river culture boasts of innumerable crafts traditions along its trail.

The Adakkaputhur Kannadi, where metallurgy innovation and craftsmanship come together to create beauty !
Adakkaputhur kannadi, where metallurgy innovation and craftsmanship come together to create beauty

During my trip, I managed to meet a few craftsmen integral to the region. Each of them honing, defending and nurturing their craft from dying an untimely death. Be it the Aandipandaram, Koodiyaatam doyne, Kathakali Koppu Maker, Weaver at Killimangalam, Metal Mirror Maker or the young, charming Chenda Melam artist, each one of these practitioners had the same story to share. The story of tenacity to rise above the neglect and disdain the new world bestows upon their skill.

What was overwhelming in each of these interactions was the simplicity of hope, ardent belief in selflessness and unwavering reverence to century-old myth and tradition. Each of these artists display a love so pure to their tradition, that there is no distinction between self or art! There is contentment even in the face of impermanence.

After each meeting, I wondered how people could be so giving, simple and loving even as the world has moved on, beyond these ancient traditions.

Being apprentice to the master Kathakali Koppu Master. He was immensely kind to let he try his tools.
Being apprentice to the master Kathakali Koppu Master. He was immensely kind to let he try his tools.

After we returned from our trails, we spent nights staring at the moon, casting her reflection into the century-old Kullam. Sipping badly made tea, we spoke of being children in a different time, where gathering seeds and making toys from coconut leaves won friendships. A time so simple and yet so impactful.

And it is then that I realised the secret of the artists of the Nila. They have not forgotten the Wisdom of Children.  It is as children that we resonate with the earth most.  As children, we don’t see ourselves different from river, ocean, sky or mud, we become each of these in absolute love & abandon. This kind of love is compassionate, selfless and beyond all worldly rules.

And this is the kind of love & belief we must strive protect with our actions and choices!

The author, Aparna Vinod, is leading a small group of children and parents to explore the River Nila through its arts and crafts for a week on 3rd and 22nd Oct 2016. For more information, click here.

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