Natakam: Simple yet grand
When my flight touched down the runway of this quaint little airport, I was still dazed having traveled from Boston and arriving at 3am that morning. My yearly trip for the past 20 or so years. Every year the experience is different. I realize that I come alive here. All my senses awaken to the fullest extent. I peeked out the window just before landing. Palm trees were waving and the green of the pastures laying a carpet welcoming me. Both secular and religious poets have sung volumes describing this very landscape that I have the privilege of looking at from above. The recent rains had filled all the lakes and ponds and the pot holes as well. Ignoring the pot holes, I just focus on the beauty of the ponds that were covered with white cranes. I was at once reminded of Nammazhwar's poem calling out to an ancestor of these very same birds... Amsiraya mada narai...O frail crane... Nammazhwar as Parangusa nayaki addresses the bird. With beautiful wings and a handsome mate... Would the two of you not pity my plight and take a message to my lord who rides on the fierce Garuda bird?
Anita Ratnam was waiting at the front door of her family home to receive me. It is her special invitation that's brought me here. When I saw the email about the Kaisiki Natakam - an age old traditional temple theater event that takes place only one night a year was happening the night of my arrival in India - my heart racing, I promptly replied to Anita of my wish to attend. She invited me to come and stay with her in her family home. What a joy and privilege.
Anita has taken it upon herself to revive the ancient temple theater art that was near extinction like many of the traditional arts that are disappearing slowly but surely. Now, with extensive research and re-creation still keeping the tradition intact this particular Kaisiki Natakam is staged during the observance of Kaisika Ekadesi. The audience size keeps increasing every year attracting devotees from nearby villages and cities all over India.
The evening started with a chat with Anita covering all kinds of topics from Bharatanatyam to Barack Obama over a hot cup of coffee and snacks followed by our visit to the village temple where the presiding deity is Azhagiya Nambi. True to his name the deity is beautiful. I also had the opportunity of going to another temple in Nanguneri, a nearby town. Both these temple complexes are huge, reminding one of the glorious bygone era of thriving kingdoms when the temples were the center of art and culture.
Ekadesi is observed one day per month when a fervent Hindu fasts. Of all Ekadesis, Kaisika Ekadesi is very special. On this particular day one is supposed to fast through out the day and stay awake through the night meditating and chanting. What better way to do this than be entertained by a vibrant play that sings the glory of not only Nambi the God but also Nampaduvan - the devotee? This is an age old tradition in this temple that was kept up by a few who were aging. Lack of patronage and interest saw dwindling crowds. The artists' memories were fading and the texts collecting dust were buried away in a corner of the vast temple. Seeing this, Anita decided to revive this tradition of her family home town, putting together a team of scholars and dramatists, hand picked artists and trained them to perform.
The events of the evening started with the village children presenting a concise version of Kaisika Mahathmyam Natakam for 45 minutes. These poor village children are chosen by Anita and trained by her and her able team of dancers. The presentation was impeccable. The hard work Anita and her crew had put in to train them is clearly visible in their dance as well as their portrayal of various characters. It's hard not to be moved by this experience. The children not only have an evening of fun but this opportunity has given them so much self confidence and a sense of achievement.
The story of Kaisika Mahathmyam is simple and straight forward. Nampaduvan - a devotee of the temple deity Lord Azhagiya Nambi - a form of Sriman Narayana / Vishnu sings the praise of the lord in various melodies every single day. On this particular day of Ekadesi, while he is on his way to sing, a Brahma Rakshas/demon blocks his way and wants to eat him. Nampaduvan pleads with the demon to let him go and sing. He assures him that he will definitely return to offer himself as his prey after his singing to the lord. The Brahma Rakshas does not believe him. Nampaduvan swears on the 18 commandments. "If I don't return, may I be ridden with the sin equivalent to breaking of any one them," he vows. Brahma Rakshas lets him go after he swears on the 18th commandment – if I do not return I will be committing the sin equivalent to comparing Lord Narayana with other Gods. This convinces the Brahma Rakshas. Nampaduvan sings the glory of the Lord and returns to be eaten by the demon. By now the demon has changed his mind and wants the merit he gained (Punyam) from his singing to the Lord rather than the flesh of his body. Nampaduvan, a true devotee, does not yield. After a lot of negotiations and realizing his folly, the demon pleads with him to part with the merit of just one song which will liberate him from the body of a demon. Nampaduvan, moved by this plea agrees to give him the merit of his song of that night of "Kaisikam." The Brahma Rakshas attains Moksha or liberation.
This story is colorfully presented using all three elements of Tamil theater – iyal (prose), isai (music) and natakam (theater). The feature presentation started at 11:30pm to a packed audience. Men, women and children sat riveted as the story unfolded. The set-up was similar to other traditional and street theater formats. It was delightfully authentic. The whole event takes place on a proscenium stage presided by the temple deity. Whenever a character is introduced, the actor and the dancers go to the deity in a procession, audience following them. They get back to the stage and continue with the performance. The play lasted till 2:30 in the morning. The teacher later told me that they had to cut short several of the musical interludes and description of the scenery due to time constraints. The unpretentiousness of the presentation was what moved me the most.
The actors told me that they observe the Ekadesi fast and perform; after all it is a ritualistic offering. Three hours passed so quickly with the presentation coming to a dramatic end with the Brahma Rakshas going to the lord accompanied by all the actors/dancers and the huge dramatic mask is literally taken off his face. I was stunned to see a frail 80 year old behind the huge scary exterior!! I believe he has done this role for ever. The temple priest performed special service for the artistes. The play ends right then and there. No fanfare... no curtain calls...no recognition of individual artistes. It was a heartrending experience for me. The choreography was simple yet grand. One could recognize the imagination and hard work that has brought this ancient theater alive. The challenges Anita and her creative team would have faced to bring it to such a level that this has started attracting not only village folk but also tourists from abroad. Bravo!
The night did not end there. Kaisiki Natakam was followed by another ancient tradition called Arayar Sevai which started at 3:30 in the morning . That's another form of music and dance offering by a sect known as Arayars who interpret verses of the Azhwars - the Sri Vaishnava mystics - through their singing and enactment. The Arayar in this case is only 80 years young!! This is another once popular tradition that's seeing its last days. It is a hereditary art form passed on from father to son. The son was explaining to me that it'll take at least 15 years for anyone to learn the art form to the fullest extent. They have a separate system of hand gestures and singing and interpretative enactment of the 4000 pasurams of the Azhwars. The interpretations are extensive. This tradition was started by Nathamuni, a Vaishnavite saint who lived over a thousand years ago. O, how I wish this can be revived just the way Bharatanatyam was, all those years ago! O, well...
As my trip
came to an end with yet another wonderful darshan of Azhagiya Nambi, I
boarded the plane with a heavy heart but a revived spirit that anything
can be done if one has the conviction. Anita, thank you for your wonderful
hospitality! May you be blessed with the grace of Azhagiya Nambi to continue
reviving and not giving up on our rich traditions and art forms.
dancer Jothi Raghavan is the director of Nrityanjali in Boston.