Market gets taste of exotic

The Charleston Farmer's Market may be the place to get local produce, but it had an exotic flavor on Saturday.

Market-goers were treated to a drum and dance performance by the Sakthi Dancers, who are from the Dalit caste and live in Dindigul, a town in Tamil Nadu state of southern India. For 2,000 years, the Dalits -- or the "Untouchables" -- have been oppressed by members of the upper castes.

And while the caste system has been officially abolished, long-held prejudices continue on a societal level, according to Sundar Balasubramanian, a cardiology researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina and a member of a community of about 100 Tamils living in Charleston and about 8,000 in the United States.

Balasubramanian added, however, that change is taking place in India -- largely because of improved economic conditions and education -- and that the Sakthi Dancers not only want to call attention to the plight of their people but to their rich traditions.

"It is changing slowly toward betterment," Balasubramanian said.

During the performance on Saturday, female dancers performed to drums, known as parai, that have been used for an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 years. The dancers are part of the Sakthi Center, founded by The Catholic Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to empower impoverished women through art. Sakthi means power and also is the name of a Hindu goddess.

The group, led by Sister Chandra, a Catholic nun, has been touring South Carolina and Georgia this summer performing and spreading the word about the Dalit people and the work of the Sakthi Center.

Earlier this month, the group performed at Gaillard Auditorium as part of the 24th Tamil Convention organized by Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America, or FeTNA, the umbrella organization of North America's Tamil Community.

The event was attended by prominent members of Tamil community from India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and other countries.

To learn more about the Sakthi Center and the Dalit people, go to www.charityforindia.org.