About-Dance and Theater, Angels and Demons
This one here is an old travelogue (and quite a concrete one too, unlike the metaphysical crap that I usually come up with). It was kindly and surprisingly accepted and published in a web magazine, but without the photos. I was already guilty of the regular sin of promising but not sending the photos to the Koothu-artists, who baffled and impressed us beyond expression on that day at Thirukkurungudi. I did not want to make my conscience heavier by ignoring them even as I started a blog of my own! Hence this.
It was just the four of us, who had the opportunity to perform a Mohiniyattam recital along with our guru Gopika Varma, in Sri Azhagia Nambi Rayar temple at Thirukkurungudi. Rarely have we felt so blessed to perform, rarely have we had so much fun together.
Thirukkurungudi:A mouse-click can lead to the ancient village of Thirukkurungudi. Located in Thirunelveli district at the foothills of the Western Ghats, its history dates back to more than a thousand years. Azhagia Nambi Rayar temple is at the center of the village, in a geographical as well as an emotional sense. It is one of the 108 Divya Desams, sacred Vaishnava temples, according to the myth. In Tamil language the word ‘Nambi’ means personification of all virtuous qualities blended with beauty and grace, which is to say Lord Vishnu.
It was a week before Gopika Chechi asked us to get ready for the performance. I, personally was clueless. Coming from West Bengal just three years back, I am still struggling to catch up with the temple-oriented culture in the southern part of my country. Back there we used to hang out in cafes or theaters. Okay beach…..of course I understand. But temples! I mean who goes to a temple to relax and have a fun time! What kind of a girl puts flowers in her head, bhvasma on her forehead and goes around in public without feeling disgustingly feminine! …to start with that was my take on the Chennaites for a few months. Soon to my own surprise I found myself in my spare time sitting in a temple reading or just vaguely listening to the old ladies chanting or muttering while making garlands in front of the deity. I was even buying flowers and stealing the powdered ash from the bowl kept in temples and putting them up, trying not to be seen by people who might know me. All the same I was quite ignorant of this particular temple of which our guru spoke so enthusiastically. But it was a program organized by Anita Ratnam. And of course I knew Anita Ratnam. Whoever has stepped into the world of dance and has not known her work! I have been a fan of that tall lean figure of hers since forever. Sri Azhagia Nambi (among the five Nambis in that area) was her family deity. The day of the performance was the Ekadasi day of Sukla paksha Karthigai. But much more than a performance in an ancient temple, or seeing one of my idols up close, was waiting for me, for all of us.
The adventurous beginning: We had to take a train from Chennai Egmore station on 16th November evening. The day was a hectic one. I had to attend a couple of classes, pack my bag, which I as usual kept for the last minute, and catch the train at 5:15. When I was finally ready to start for the station around 4 (it takes about forty five minutes to reach the station from my place) I looked outside. It was the moment before the advent of Matsavatara! In a couple of minutes it started pouring down. I was not pleased with Sri Nambi Rayar’s sense of humor. I had two hundred rupees in my pocket and Chennai Autowalas have never been famous for their generosity. How I reached the station partly covered by mud, changing local trains (which were all delayed), jumping over a fence at the station Fort etc deserves to be called a story by itself. But I definitely wish to emphasize the fact that I was the first to get onto the train and thus successfully capturing a window seat, one of the most desired things in my life.
Our shelter for the day: We reached Valliyur, the nearest station to the village, early in the morning just when the sun was about five inches above the horizon and the wind was velvet-soft. It was a dawn after a night of disastrous rain. The effect was so refreshing that we fell in love with the place at once. We were picked up from the station and placed in one of the Agrahara Brahmin houses next to the Azhagia Nambi temple. Agraharam means a garland of houses. Basically they are built around a Shiva or a Vishnu temple, resembling a garland. In his “History of Tamils from the earliest times”, P.T.Srinivasa Iyengar (1929) wrote
The houses had in front of them, a shed with short legs to which were tied fat calves; the houses were washed with cow-dung and had idols (inside them). Domestic fowl and dogs did not approach them. It was the village of the guardians of the Veda who teach its sounds to the parrots with the bent mouth. If you (bard) reach (the place), fair faced bangled ladies who are as chaste as (Arundhathi) the little star which shines in the north of the bright, broad sky, will after sunset feed you on the well-cooked rice named after the bird (explained by the commentator as the rice called irasanam) along with slices of citron boiled in butter taken, from the buttermilk derived from red cows and scented with the leaves of the karuvembu, and mixed with pepper-powder, and the sweet-smelling tender fruit plucked from the tall mango tree and pickled…
We on the other hand found a lamp-post in front of the house we were in. Surprisingly street dogs indeed were not to be found. But neither were parrots. However we were so amazed to find ourselves in such a beautiful traditional house that our chattering might have surpassed that of any species of bird. Starting from the vertical grills guarding the red porch in the front, the high ceiling supported by thick wooden beams, the narrow passage behind the house leading to the bathrooms (which among other things had a geyser!) to the huge trees in the spacious garden at the back, each and everything seemed fascinating to our city-clad eyes. We found our Arundhatis in the two white-haired ‘mami’s. One of them endeared us by her Kolam skills, where as the other one impressed us thoroughly, whooshing off in her two-wheeler after a short exchange of greetings.
After a hot water bath we were so hungry that our behavior towards the food offered to us might not have been suitable for Mohinis, which after all was our identity for that day. But the hospitality was beyond imagination. I did not feel for a moment that I was in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, where I almost did not understand the language. It was as good as having a hearty meal sitting in my grandmother’s house with others fussing around whether I ate enough.
After breakfast we went to meet our guru and then of course the person I was so keen to see. I was not disappointed. Such a personality! Sigh….
The temple: It was the time for visiting the temple. Gopika Chechi was supposed to go around with the organizers and see all the temples around. We were more keen on seeing the Azhagia Nambi temple, which was more than a thousand years old. Our stage for that night was also inside that temple, a tiny Mandapam, smelling of age and tradition. Before leaving she emphasized that we have got to see the performance next to ours, Kaisika Puranam, which was performed each year on that auspicious day. It was then she told us that this temple had seen dance of real Devadasis and one of the descendants of a Devadasi family was part of the performance we were going to see. It was performed in the form of a Koothu, an old theater form of Tamilnadu, more like a musical, almost continuously danced and sung by a few performers over a duration of four to five hours. Even considering the harsh reality behind the so called aesthetics of the Devadasi system, we were thrilled! After all, the philosophy of Mohiniyattam is about charming Lord Vishnu (which always transitively included the sponsors of the deity and the whole hierarchy below that), whom were we kidding!
The Gopuram at the entrance was covered with moss. It was not such a majestic thing. We entered the temple and listlessly walked around for some time. My bare feet touching the stone-floor of a temple has always been one of my most relished feelings. Also every temple, even the ones which are not that old, has some sort of stories of their own. Not knowing the language is definitely a disadvantage when it comes to listening to the temple-staff eloquently describing the history and mythology. But it is a boon in the sense you can make stories of your own, which usually turn out to be much more thrilling than the real ones. And Nambi temple is one such place where I could let my imaginations run wild. However I did figure out what the Purohit in charge explained about the pitch black stone statue of Kalbhairava, a form of Lord Shiva, standing upright, canines coming out of the thick lips, intimidating. It had quite an effect of its own. The flame of the lamp below his nose vibrating even though there was no window etc sounded like unnecessary dramatization to me.
This is where we met Nambi, not the God, but the old man, who was going to play an important role in the evening performance, so we heard. In fact he used to be the Brahmarakhshasa, one of the two main characters of the Koothu, but
not any more. The role of the antagonist had been snatched away from him by a younger Brahmarakhshas. Though he still remained the inaugural showpiece of the evening’s program. He showed us the huge mask that he was going to wear. Later in the evening seeing him in his full grace we were amazed how that simple old man transformed himself into a demon. But it was the bare legs of the Rakhshasa under the heavy sets of clothes revealing the benign guy we met in the temple yard. In fact it was almost touching, knowing how hard our man must have been trying inside that elaborate costume to enact a grotesque subhuman being. He was such a sweet old man! Asking for copies of the photos that I never sent. Alas.
May be this is the ripe time for the story of Kaisika Puranam. It was sort of clear to us that our Mohiniyattam performance for that night was not much of a big thing. Including us, the whole village were waiting for the Koothu, which was based on a part of Varaha Puranam.
It was named after the particular Raga of a song which was used last in praise of the Lord Nambi by devotee Chandala Bhakta Nampaduvan. Composed in an extremely regional dialect which was a mixture ofSanskrit and Tamil or Telugu interspersed with Sanskrit quotations (Manipravalam), it was mostly a series of conversations between a lower caste (Chandala) Vishnu-devotee and a demon (Brahmarakhshasa), punctuated by small dance items. Nampaduvan (though never allowed inside the Nambi temple!) used to sing in praise of Lord Vishnu every day outside the temple. Once he was stopped by the demon, who as expected desired to eat him. Nampaduvan was scared but he kept his head. After a lot of argument he convinced the Rakhshasa that if he would let him go to the temple then on the way back he would surely fulfill the demon’s wish. Now Nampaduvan turned out to be a man of his word and even the demon was surprised to see him back to be served as his dinner. His hunger vanished and the only thing he desired now was a part of the virtue (Poonyam) that Nampaduvan achieved by his prayers. Touched by his ardent requests the devotee consented and the demon was immediately redeemed to a Brahmin named Soma Sarma, who in the first place had been cursed into demon-ship because of some irregularities in his yajna.
Coming back to 21st century, we were still walking around listlessly in the temple ground till we found a huge pond immediately followed by discovery of a very narrow passage which led up to a grand terrace.
This is where we saw the main Gopuram of the temple and were stunned by the sheer size of it.
It was like discovering a world of our own. We did not even know if we were allowed on the terrace. From the unassuming nature of the whole place most probably we were. But it was more fun that way, not being led to it by a temple-staff. Sooner than what we would have liked it was time to go back. The sky was slowly taking the color of ash, there were hints of water drops in the slightly chilly wind and we had to rehearse at least once before the performance. Also to our surprise we were already feeling hungry.
After the rehearsal and a heavy lunch I was roaming around alone for some more time inside the temple. Among other things I revisited the sacred elephant. It was in no mood to bless me. Running around the campus to get rid of the attendant trying to give him the daily bath it looked anything but the pious soul it was supposed to be.
I also saw a rehearsal of the evening’s show, though not by the real stars. It was an enthusiastic group of kids who were rehearsing in the same Mandapam we were going to dance in. Seeing them, even if they were performing in a thoroughly amateurish way, the story of Kaisika Puranam became quite clear to me. They were dancing with the props to be used in the real drama in the evening. The girl acting as Nampaduvan had a powerful voice and the boy enacting Brahmarakhsas was supple enough to create the semi comic semi ferocious effect. It was an interesting performance by itself. Sitting next to me were two middle aged ladies, who turned out to have stayed in Mumbai, thus able to talk in broken Hindi! They assured me that now the temple was open for all castes of the society. The Nampaduvans of today did not have to stand outside and sing to their beloved deity. But the women were Brahmins themselves and coming to think of it they sounded sort of vague too. Well at least for that Ekadasi day of Sukla paksha Karthigai the temple door was definitely open for all! Of course behind the story of the apparent victory of the man of a lower caste birth, the fact lies that once the hideous soul of the demon obtained blessings from the God, he indeed turned out to be a Brahmin, leaving no doubt about who is superior to whom.
By the time I was back to our place it already started drizzling. Soon it was pouring heavily again. We were all too tired after the long walk and the dance practice. Dressing up for the program was not to start before late afternoon. It was difficult to keep our eyes open with the continuous sound of rain vibrating in our ears.
Our guru was reasonably shocked to find us all snoring aloud when it was already little late to start the make up. However making myself ready for the stage is always a world of pain to me, delayed or not. And the other three were so efficient that they could possibly get ready within half an hour even without a pistol being pointed to their head. So the delay did not make much of a difference to our routine make up session. Around 7-o-clock we were standing in front of the stage, all set, sweating profusely because of the powerful spotlights. The mandapam that looked like an abandoned yard in the morning was full of devotees, giving us expectant looks. Ours was a short performance and it was over sooner than it started. We hurried back to change into human clothes and catch our dinner before the Koothu started.
It was by far the peak point of the evening. Brahmarakhshasa was perfection himself, in fact it was kind of unnerving to see him jumping off his red plastic chair and touching the feet of one of the veteran organizers, who from the demonic perspective must have looked like a delicious dinner. Nampaduvan was enacted by a female actor, her face emanating Bhakti and the correct amount of cleverness suitable for the Chandala character. The costume of the Rakhshasa looked similar
to that of a Kathakali dancer, but not so elaborate. The black skirt and the black crown decorated with cheap golden ribbons matched perfectly with the pitch black mustache and beard. The face was made into a gory design of red and white. The eyebrows thickened. The eyes bloodshot. Can not say if a couple of backstage puffs of some illegal vegetation added to its effects(Such usage is not unheard of). The Chandala’s dress was vaguely close to that of Mohiniyattam. In contrast to the demon, she wore an all-white costume with a Kondai (hair-bun) on the right side of her head. The lower part of the dress was made into a Dhoti to signify the gender. Both of them were adorned with a few simple jewels and long flowery garlands. The origin of the Koothu seemed to be closer to Kerala than Tamilnadu in many ways.
It started with a small dance of our familiar Brahmarakhsas of the temple. Soon the orchestra was chanting Mangalam and the people were bending forward eagerly for the evening’s main performance.
It was a hit from the beginning. Greeted by cheer calls, the artists entered as they traditionally do in Kerala dance forms, behind a piece of cloth held by a couple of co-dancers. The orchestra accompanying them were obviously skilled. The vocalist, a lean and pretty young lady in a yellow sari held the audience with her deep voice. The Veena player was old and experienced. The Mridangam player was younger, but enthusiastic and efficient. Quality of percussion is a vital thing in any dance form. Particularly (though it is really a personal feeling of mine) in dance forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Koodiyattam, Ottamthullal etc which are based on story telling, percussionists not only just support the dancers, but run a parallel copy of the story with their hands. The percussionist of Kaisika Puranam was doing his job more than just well. In fact later he also sang with equal efficiency.
The drama drew our attention as soon as it started. Both the artists were experienced and confident. Nampaduvan had a beautiful and playful voice. It was unbelievable how our Brahmarakhsas was moving with so much flexibility managing
such a huge amount of flesh and costume. Madhu was patiently sitting next to me and explaining the song meaning as well as she could. But of course I missed eighty percent of the fun because of my ignorance of the language. Still as a visual art it gave me immense pleasure. Their gestures and faces were expressive in a way that was suiting the mood of the theater very well. What I mean to say is that I did not know if the actor came from a background of profound learning of Abhinaya (pure acting) or Nritta (pure dance), but as a dancer I knew that it would have been difficult for an arbitrary academy-trained art student to depict the stories with so much fluency and genuineness as they did. The effect was mostly that of ‘Hasya’ (comic). But when it came to demonstrating the ‘Bhayanaka’ (fear) or ‘Bibhatsa’ (disgust) in the violence of the demon and the ‘Karuna’ (pity) or ‘Shanta’ (peace) in the pleading of the poor Chandala, they did it with equal skill. It was supposed to be a people’s play and it was a hundred percent of that.
Another beautiful aspect of the play was that the young generation of artists did not forget the older ones. Nambi was brought to the stage, all dressed up, along with the artist who used to perform as Nampaduvan. The present artists showed their respect to them. So did the audience, some of whom must have seen the frail white-haired couple ruling over the same stage in their youth.
It was almost impossible to get a seat in the front so we sat at one side of the backstage and had the opportunity to see the co-dancers closely, they were mostly the kids the I already met in the morning.
Soon they went up for a group dance followed by another one performed by the elder co-actors.It gradually took the form of a public dance when the dancers climbed down the stage and started dancing through the audience towards the main statue of the deity. Many joined them spontaneously.
It was a break period for the two main characters. The whole village gathered in front of Nambi. Worship became a celebration for a whole community. It was getting late for us. However we decided to wait for the Dasavatara performed by the much heard of Devadasi-descendant before leaving.
She turned out to be an immense woman without any dance training. But out of her devotion every year she had been dancing on that auspicious day. I will not say it was a pleasant performance. But it had something in it that kept us glued to the seats. In fact seven out of the ten Avataras of Lord Vishnu are based on Raudra (anger), Bibhatsa and Bhayanaka. And she was a perfect personification of those.Surprisingly she did not look out of the place even when she enacted the others. May be our eyes were too intoxicated with the sheer lack of sophistication of the whole place. After all a dancer’s dream is to be as near to her audience as possible. The feeling of success comes when the audience laughs, cries, feels anger or passion or pity at the same time the dancer is enacting them. We with our grammatically correct Adavus and expressions and our shining silk and the expensive jewels could at most generate some empathetic awe and admiration in them, where as this was their own story, their reality. The aesthetics of the dancer was not the important thing there because each person in the audience including us became one and same as the person on stage. Very few things in the world could achieve this. An intense vibe of belief was one of those. Though I can not say if that is a fortunate or an unfortunate thing.
The end: It was the end of the program for us, though the real thing went on for more than another couple of hours. We had to catch a train a survive a car-trip of almost four hours before that. Also we were at the end of our tethers. We, particularly I was not used to so personal an involvement to such wild demonstration of faith. While dragging ourselves back to our room we passed by our stage. The Koothu being performed in a stage opposite to ours, the yard had got back to its eerie emptiness. Even the statues that looked alive, vibrant and full of stories during the day, now looked heavy, dead and stony as they were. It was a wonderful experience. But we swallowed too much of it in too short a time. Cracking unnecessary jokes to each other in whispers, we left the temple with a betrayed feeling of suddenly not belonging there any more.