It is said that music is the nourishment of the soul. However, for folk musician N Deepan and many others, music is the nourishment of life itself; for music has helped Deepan break the shackles of child labour. Recently N Deepan performed at one of India's top arts centres in Chennai and before the audience could get over the euphoria of the performance, Deepan served another shock by sharing that he used to be a child labourer.
Deepan shared how from the tender age of 10 he began working at construction sites or binding books in stores. He would have become just another face if he hadn’t encountered the Parai, one of the oldest traditional drums used in Tamil Nadu.
The postgraduate student shared with the audience the story of his 10 fellow performers, how the beat of the drums liberated them all. "We went back to school, we played music in the evenings and all of us eventually made it to college."
While this is inspirational, all child labourers haven’t been lucky as India houses a mammoth army of 5.7 million child workers all between the age of 5 and 17 according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The global estimate of this figure is 168 million.
India is primarily an agrarian economy and hence sees more than 50% of its child workers toil away in its fields while more than 25% of children find their way to the manufacturing sector where they embroider clothes, weave carpets and make matchsticks. Other occupations they engage in are working in restaurants and hotels or as domestic helps.
Coming back to the show in Chennai, the artists who call themselves the Nanbaragal Gramiya Kalaikal (Friends of Folk Art) came together in 2013. They all grew up in the slums of north Chennai, where child labour was the norm until a few years ago.
The audience were stunned to discover that the musicians who took them on a soulful journey were once child labourers. Chennai’s show was performed at Kalakshetra, a leading exponent of classical arts including the prestigious Bharatnatyam dance form that originated in Hindu temples.
"In spaces like this, considered sacred by dancers, the reality of life in another part of the city including the slums I grew up in should be reflected", says Deepan.
Most of the drummers, have a routine which includes dancing along with drumming were in fact rescued from child labour and persuaded to re-enter school by volunteers of the non profit organisation Arunodhaya – a centre for street and working children.
Another performer, S Pavithran said that he used to work on fishing boats at the age of 12. At that time, he had dropped out of school and ended up loading and unloading baskets of fish all day long and today he is pursuing his MBA besides doing a part-time job.
The good news is that the number of working children in Chennai's slums has dipped recently due to intense awareness programmes and interventions by civil society groups and the government.
"We know how easy it is to drop out so if we find any child wandering around during school hours, we literally drag him or her back to school. Today, even their parents are grateful when we do it," Deepan said.
Deepan’s group which has both male and female members performs at events in schools, weddings and in shows. However, one thing is common at all performances, they close the show by sharing the story of their childhood.
As a sign of respect to instrument that filled new music in their life, they also are working towards dispelling misperceptions about the parai – a flat portable drum.
"The parai drummers are most often considered illiterate and associated with playing at funerals," Deepan told the audience.
"We are all educated and we are not at a funeral today, in fact, the parai gave us freedom and a purpose."
* Read the original story by Anuradha Nagaraj on www.news.trust.org.
Story courtesy – The Thomson Reuters Foundation.