Kaisiki Natakam at Thirukurungudi
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
e-mail: lalvenkat@yahoo.com
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December 15, 2011

In preparation to my visit to Thirukurungudi this month, I wanted to read up on my last visit when I had done an interview of Prof. Ramanujam (http://www.narthaki.com/info/intervw/intrvw35.html), sitting there outside the temple wall opposite to Anita Ratnam’s ancestral home.  Only then did I realize it has been already 10 years since I last went there to watch Kaisiki Natakam!
 
Kaisiki Natakam is an all-night drama and dance performance about the story of a demon who demands the life of a devotee preparing to offer prayers to the Lord on the special night which falls in the lunar month of Kaisiki (mid-November/early December). This year, it was on the night of December 6.  The ensuing debate and the actual ritual, saturated with eloquent poetry in classic Tamil, snatches of humour and dance attracted thousands to this shrine in the belief that it was a special blessing to remain awake all night in the presence of Lord Vishnu and witness this tale. The original palm leaf script of the Kaisiki Natakam was written by Veerabhadra Nattuvanar in the 13th century. There are 40 paasurams on Thirukurungudi Nambi Perumal in the Divya Prabandham.

After an overnight train journey to Thirunelveli and then a one hour drive (about 45km), I reached Anita’s family residence. Like the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam, the Azhagiya Nambi Perumal temple at Thirukurungudi is the central point and houses are situated in a row parallel to the temple walls along the streets. Thankfully, there is no noise, pollution or hustle bustle here and the temple is very accessible to everyone. One also has glimpses of hills beyond.

 
 
After a tasty breakfast, I was off to the temple to get reacquainted with the stunning sculptures. The gopuram was covered for restoration but we could fortunately see the beautiful carvings through the wooden scaffoldings.  On the gopuram are exotic sculptures of elephant and horse made up of parrots, horse and elephant made of human figures, so many dancing figures, meditating ascetics, scenes from everyday life, a realistic one of a woman screaming in fright when she sees a scorpion on her clothes, palanquin bearers, a dancing garuda, elaborate pilasters and rosettes, sculpture from mythology and so on that are a feast for the eyes. The inside walls and ceiling of the gopuram entrance are also richly carved, one such panel showing an interesting scene of Arab traders and their camels, while outside the gopuram is a sculpture of two Chinese men. Prof. Ramanujam pointed out sculptures that inspired the design of costumes and headdresses in the play. In the room preceding the main sanctum, the priests were chanting; in the elaborate sculpture mandapam across the temple was a group of women chanting and beyond them in the hall of yalis, the children were rehearsing for their version of Kaisiki Natakam, all adding to the sublime atmosphere.


After having my fill of looking around peacefully, it was back home for an elaborate lunch and then again to the temple, this time to climb the steep steps inside the gopuram to see the marvels inside. Restoration work is being done here too. While the exterior decoration is of stone, the interior is full of beautiful wooden carvings, with each level having something different to offer. Starting from the topmost level, we saw a beautiful wooden vaulted room and at a little above eye level, the wall is lined on 3 sides with about a foot high wooden sculptures of males and females wearing varied attire alternating with yalis. In the next level, the ceilings are fully carved with wooden panels, each more beautiful than the other and a line of free standing dance sculptures above the central lintel. There are even a couple of Nataraja figures. The next level has many sculpture panels on pillars, just about 6” by 6” but each is fascinating not only for the costumes and expressions but also in the drama of the scene portrayed. It was fun to make up stories on each panel! The vertical Celtic knot like patterns parallel to the pillars is intricate. Yet another level has huge wooden yalis. As there are light shafts on all levels (that is not visible from outside) and the ceiling above the steps also look layered, in a way, the whole thing was fascinating as it reminded us of the pyramids (minus the passages)!  It was indeed a privilege to be able to see this otherwise inaccessible beautiful part of the gopuram.

The couple of hours of relaxation were spent chatting with Prof. Ramanujam, Anita Ratnam and other guests, and watching the children getting ready for their program. They are children from underprivileged families of Thirukurungudi and Guru Rajamanickam has diligently spent a lot of time training them. It was soon time to go back to the temple again for the evening program at the yali hall. At about 6.30pm, the children commenced their one hour version of Kaisiki Natakam performed to recorded music. They did a marvelous job. The lip synch for dialogues by the Rakshasa, Nambaduvan and the old man were done superbly. The younger lot, who were all given important group sequences, acquitted themselves well. With elders supervising them every step of the way, the smooth transition of sequences was impressive and greatly appreciated by the large crowd in attendance.

 

This was followed by ‘Dasavataram’ performed by Zakir Hussain, dancers of Sripadam and music ensemble from Chennai. Zakir changed his dance style a bit to suit the environs and in place of his sedate presentations, there was a lot of lokadharmi elements used to entertain the audience. Zakir’s jewellery set with hundreds of white stones dazzled and the expressions on the faces of the little children watching the performance was equally dazzling in their innocent appreciation. After that, it was again a quick dash home for dinner before going back to the temple for a fourth time to watch the all night main Kaisiki Natakam.

 
Attended by scholars and a throng of devotees, Kaiski Natakam was flourishing till the demise of TV Sundaram Iyengar in 1955 after which it fell into decline. Prof. Ramanujam who hails from Nanguneri a few miles away, heard about this temple ritual theater from his aunt who was already in her 90s then.  After doing some research on it, he brought this to the attention of Na. Muthuswami, well known Tamil theatre activist and Director of Koothu-p-Pattarai, who was aware that Thirukurungudi is Anita Ratnam’s native place. The three of them held discussions in 1996 and set about making efforts to piece together whatever was known from the traditional artistes who were still alive, the locals and from temple records. The entire text and music based on the rules of ancient Tamil songs was reconstructed. The first performance after revival in 1999 was on a modest scale, but a beginning had been made.
 
In the Varaha Puranam, Lord Vishnu tells the story to Mahalakshmi about how he adores being worshipped through dance and music. Kaisiki Natakam, which is traced back to the 13th century, tells the story of a lowborn (chandala) called Nambaduvan who devotes one night every year on Kaisiki Ekadasi, to sing the praises of Lord Nambi. One year, as he was travelling on that day to the temple, a Rakshasa (demon) stops him and demands his flesh. After great persuasion, Nambaduvan tells the Rakshasa that he would return to be eaten by him after completing his annual offering of music to Lord Nambi. Convinced of his sincerity, the Rakshasa allows him to proceed to the temple. After singing all night in front of the Lord, Nambaduvan is in his way to the Rakshasa to fulfill his promise, when he is waylaid by an old man, (Lord Vishnu) who warns him about the Rakshasa and to take another route, but Nambaduvan refuses to break his promise and proceeds. When the Rakshasa meets him again, his mood has changed. He now demands that Nambaduvan give over to him not his physical body but the punyam (fruits of good deeds) he has acquired from his musical offerings to Lord Nambi. Nambaduvan refuses and then is told that the Rakshasa is really a Brahmin who was cursed because of his arrogance and who would be redeemed from the curse by a chandala.  It's a revolutionary theme of a low born giving moksha (salvation) to a high caste Brahmin.

 
 
The main Kaisiki Natakam is staged in the mandapam in the main temple. The place was overflowing, with not an inch of space available, so we had to climb on to the hall (steps were packed with people) that’s on a raised level across the stage. The entry of the Rakshasa in a black mask was dramatic as he was first carried along by 2 men towards the deity across the hall to pay obeisance and back again through the crowd to the stage. The dialogues between the demon and Nambaduvan were easily understandable as it was all in Tamil. Hats off to the actors for remembering the long dialogues and to the orchestra for singing beautifully for more than 4 hours without slacking in energy.  By the time the program came to an end, it was about 3.30am and tired from standing for so long to watch the whole show, we walked back home for the umpteenth time that day, barefoot! It was amazing to see that Prof. Ramanujam was still sprightly as ever, supervising that all was going well!
 
It was indeed a memorable trip. Lots of plans are being made for the coming year, one being that Anita wants to identify someone who can impart music training to the underprivileged children. “All kids are from Thirukurungudi village and come from the poorest of the poor sections. They are from families of dhobis, their mothers make jasmine flower strands for sale. The children attend the annual summer dance and martial arts camps that we conduct where we teach boys and girls creative movement, theatre exercises and also silambam, oyilattam and devarattam. All professional performers are from Thanjavur district since there is practically no music and dance in the belt between Thirunelveli and Kanyakumari due to conversions for the past four decades. It has been impossible to find and relocate dance teachers and music teachers to Thirukurungudi in spite of offering couples good money and living conditions. There is a dire need to start music and dance classes now,” says Anita Ratnam.
 

The age of Thirukurungudi temple is not known but it is supposed to have been built from around 9th century and then added on by the Nayak rulers around the 12th century and then when Vijayanagaram fell to the Mughals in the 16th century, all further building was stopped. The restoration work supported largely by the TVS family, is being done tastefully and the temple should be gleaming by the next Kaisiki Ekadasi.  Water blasting technique of the stone sculpture of the gopuram retains the beauty of the stone color. The yalis in the mandapam and other sculpture in the temple have been cleaned and coated with a transparent varnish of polyeurethane that gives a glossy look with the stone texture remaining unchanged. If only restorers of other south Indian temples could learn a lesson or two from this instead of painting fabulous stone sculptures with garish oil paint in the name of preservation.

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Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of www.narthaki.com