Chennai: After performing in Chennai, folk musician N Deepan stunned the audience by revealing he was a child labourer once.
From the age of 10, he said he had been in and out of school, spending most of his time toiling at construction sites or binding books in stores.
And then he discovered the parai, one of the oldest traditional drums used in Tamil Nadu.
“The beat of these drums liberated us,” the postgraduate student told the audience, referring to his 10 fellow performers.
“We went back to school, we played music in the evenings and all of us eventually made it to the college.”
India is home to 5.7 million child workers aged between five and 17, according to the International Labour Organisation, which estimates there are 168 million child workers globally.
More than half of child workers labour in the fields and over a quarter in manufacturing – from embroidering clothes to weaving carpets and making matchsticks.
Children also work in restaurants and hotels and as domestic workers.
The artists in Monday’s show, who formed Nanbaragal Gramiya Kalaikal (Friends of Folk Art) in 2013, grew up in the slums of north Chennai, where it was normal for children to work until just a few years ago.
The revelation that the musicians were once child labourers astonished the audience attending the arts festival at Kalakshetra, a leading cultural institution which promotes classical arts.
“We use every platform we can to talk about our past,” Deepan informed.
Most of the performers, who dance while drumming, were rescued and persuaded to go back to school by members of the NGO Arunodhaya – a centre for street and working children.
“We all worked. When I was 12, I went on the fishing boats,” said performer S Pavithran.
“I dropped out of school and spent the entire day loading and unloading baskets of fish. Now I am pursuing masters in business administration and also have a part-time job,” said Mr Pavithran.
The number of working children in Chennai’s slums has fallen recently following awareness programmes and interventions by civil society groups and the government. The drummers have also become an inspiration for families in the area.
“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.
The folk group, a mix of men and women, performs in schools and at weddings as well as in shows – and at the end of most performances they tell the story of their childhood.
The group is also eager about dispelling perceptions about the parai. “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. The parai gave us freedom and a purpose,” he said.