The earliest memories of 27-year-old Sarath K.R. are that of being enchanted by a neighbour’s rendition of nadan paattu (folk songs in Malayalam). He was all of two but remembers what he’d felt that day—the folk song imprinted on his infant mind and conjured a euphoric emotion in him.
Across Kerala, nadan paattu are sung by fishermen while rowing their boats, in the kitchen while chopping vegetables, or by the solitary traveller traversing the mighty rivers of this South Indian state.
Two decades since that day, Sarath now finds himself part of a handful of young ecowarriors selected by the Indian chapter of UN’s Climate Change wing as part of their #WeTheChangeNOW campaign. He currently presides over the youth-training wing of “Vayali”, a Kerala-based folklore collective that works towards preserving the land’s local culture.
Over an exhaustive chat with National Geographic Traveller India, he shared the genesis of his work for Nila, the intersection of folklore and environment and his childhood tryst with the powerful sand-mining lobby in the state.
What is the “Friends of Bharathapuzha” programme?
While there were many individual initiatives aimed at rejuvenating our river Nila (Bharathapuzha), there was no cohesive team effort. I had attended many meetings geared towards saving Nila along with Vinod Vayali (director of the Vayali group). The Pattambi convention that Vayali organised was attended by India’s “water man”, Rajendra Singh (environmentalist) — that was a turning point for me in understanding that little initiatives spread across the region had to be unified. There was the need for a focused effort towards river rejuvenation. That is how “Friends of Bharathapuzha” was born.
At what age did you realise this was your calling?
There was a time in my childhood when I would escort sand mining lorries to earn some quick pocket money. I (and other children that age) would monitor the area and notify the illegal miners if cops arrived. It took me a while to understand how detrimental this practise was for the river and the people living around it. It is from this guilt that my motivation to do something for the river stemmed.
In what ways does the Vayali folklore interest you and why is it important for your conservation efforts?
When you grow up watching darika performances, or shaniyattu that happens every four years, or malavazhiyattam (a performance that lasts an entire day), the love for music and dance of the culturally rich becomes ingrained in you. The communities that live on the shores of Nila have a history of practising arts and crafts. These are the Kuthampully handlooms (a large community of hand-weavers), Kathakali koppu nirmanam (the craft of kathakali accessories), Pulppaya neythu kendram (the only place in Kerala where traditional grass mats are made), Tholpavakoothu (shadow puppetry using leather puppets), Kumbara community (traditional pottery–they use mud that is at least 1.5m away from the river), Adakkaputhur Kannadi (mirror using bell metal craft).
What are the challenges the mission faces?
Getting young people on board. Many people may join, but most people wither away at the slightest sight of conflict. Sustaining their interest levels is also difficult. After each camp, we do get a couple of interested people who actively join our activities. Then, exams or politics come in the way and all efforts go south. Fundraising is another challenging part.
In what ways have your efforts helped enhance the lives of people in your community?
When children go back home after our camps and start working towards their dreams to make a change, that is my success. There are so many kids who started terrace gardens after our camps. Also, through our campaigns, we have given a boost to the many crafts around Nila which I just mentioned. When the livelihood of these craftspeople gets sustained because of our publicity, all our efforts bear fruit.
Arman Khan is a freelancer journalist and editor who writes at the intersection of travel, culture, and queer and minority rights. When he’s not binge watching dystopian dramas, you can always find him foraging in the hills. His works have appeared in Them, Vogue, GQ, VICE, Architectural Digest, The Swaddle, The Caravan, India Today, CN Traveller, Grazia, and Femina.