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Dancing to a new beat: A 70 year old Chennai folk artist is helping juvenile convicts in TN

70 year old Kannan Kumar recalls a warm July afternoon when he walked into the intimidating cement building in Chengalpet, in the south western region of Kanchipuram district. 

The septuagenarian, who has been teaching folk dance for 5 decades to students and adults, had arrived to take his first class for those housed within the tall boundary walls. 

Kannan remembers walking in nervously, as he already knew this was going to be his most challenging assignment yet. That first moment, when he entered a 200 sq feet room, with walls that may have once been white and looked around smilingly at surly teenagers who glared back at him, is still fresh in his mind.

The boys, all between fourteen and eighteen were already weary of this intruder but Kannan was not in the least put off as he brought out his thappu, a traditional drum-like instrument used in the folk dances, to begin his first session in the juvenile detention centre.

The classes, a part of a project sanctioned by the University Grants Commission was conceptualised by Dr.Thenmozhi.S, an associate professor of the psychology department of Madras University and two other research scholars. 

The project aimed to reduce aggressiveness among children in conflict with law and also boost their self esteem through music and psycho therapy. The researchers studied western papers on music therapy thoroughly before planning out how this study will be conducted.

 A review of literature showed that instrumental music along with psycho-motor activity could yield positive results in teenagers with a propensity to take to crime. The concept and procedure to be followed was ready by January and approved by the UGC in April. The researchers were granted Rs 10 lakh for the project. 

18 boys were identified for the project, all of them convicted of grave crimes including murder and rape.

“We approached several dance teachers after approval from the UGC but nobody was willing to be a part of this project,” claims Dr. Thenmozhi, who is also the principal investigator in this project. “Most teachers said they can’t work with such boys. It was really disheartening initially but finally we found Kannan master, the only one willing to help the boys. Classes began in July and we have been closely monitoring them. ” 

It was then agreed upon that Kannan would conduct classes every week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But the task was not as simple at it seemed on paper.

“The boys simply refused to even walk up to me on the first day,” says Kannan. “I would keep playing the instrument and coaxing them to join in but even those who seemed interested were pulled back and threatened by the others. They were really unruly,” he adds laughingly.

 It took two months for the folk dancer to teach these boys the first step of Thappattam.

“I have been teaching this art for 50 years now but the day I managed to convince these children from the juvenile home to move to the beat of my instrument has been the most rewarding,” Kannan smiles.

 Kannan spent one week after another, convincing these children that learning the dance form could prove to be useful, when they leave the detention centre. “I told them I am ready to make them a part of my own troop, when they leave the centre. They respond very positively to praise. They are after all only looking for recognition and some form of appreciation,” he observes.

The boys have been part of the project for over 6 months now. Of the 18 juvenile convicts, 5 have left the detention centre. The researchers too, have observed an improvement in the boys’ attitude towards others. Methods developed to understand the aggression levels of the boys have been put into use. The tests even reveal a positive turn in their self esteem.

“We conduct tests to measure levels of aggressiveness at regular intervals. They have definitely calmed down,” avers Dr.Thenmozhi. “They would tear the instrument which is made of leather, punch it and even throw it away. But now, they look forward to the classes and keep asking where Kannan master is.”

The project ends in the beginning of February but researchers hope they will manage to procure funding to afford more classes for the juveniles.

 “Psychological assessment is the need of the hour now,” says Dr.Karunanidhi, head of psychology department of Madras University. “It will really help these boys invest their talent in the right places. These intelligent children, if led in the right direction, will make excellent leaders in the future.”

 The researchers will submit their findings to the University in April. They hope that the results will lead to more funding for the cause of training and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law.

Source: The News Minute