Song of Surrender

Friday, 12 January 2018

Herambanathan

Birthdays & Anniversaries



The Bharata–Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture (BIFAC), Chennai, organized a lecture by B. Herambanathan, from Tanjavur on ‘The contribution of Devadasi-s to Bharatanatyam’. Herambanathan is the son of Bavu Pillai and Jeeva Amma – a dancer – and the son-in-law of devadasi Doraikannu. The Managing Trustee of BIFAC, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam introduced the subject and the speaker. She pointed out that the devadasi tradition had for long been misunderstood and misinterpreted. A devadasi was properly initiated into the divine order through ‘mantropadesa’, and they contributed to the moral, ethical, technical and artistic value of Bharatanatyam. 

Herambanathan said he was proud of his lineage of devadasi-s belonging to the Tanjavur region. A few excerpts from his lecture: 

According to oral tradition the devadasi-s of Tanjavur came from Andhra Pradesh and were known as ‘taiyyalkara kudumbam’ (family of tailors). Education for them meant completing Standard V, enough to maintain a ‘dhobi account’. They were initiated into dance at the age of seven, and some seven years after they learnt a margam, they had their arangetram. They were well versed in languages like Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and Marathi. Some devadasi-s have written kavya-s in these languages. Attaining puberty was an occasion for celebration that went on for ten days when renowned musicians performed. A sadir kutcheri was specially organized for the occasion. When the devadasi-s danced, the accompanists stood behind them and often wore a uniform. The nattuvanar was not only adept in the art of dance but also in playing the mridanga. A famous devadasi, Kamukannu Amma (mother of the well known mridanga vidwan T. Upendran), who was known for her beauty, was the first lady to do nattuvangam. The devadasi-s were known for their abhinaya as they were good singers and knew the language well. They were adept in kummi, kolattam and pinnal kolattam. 

Many devadasi-s had knowledge of the “64 arts”, were respected by kings and scholars, were spiritually oriented and venerated in society. It is mentioned in the work called Rudraganika Kavuthuvam that the devadasi-s were also known as Saani, Matangi, Basavi and Mahani. Tirugnanasambandar has described them as ‘sirridai kannimaar’. According to the Agni purana, Linga purana and Bhavishya purana the appearance of a dasi was a good omen. She had the right to coronate the king in the absence of the rajaguru, and was given the authority to choose the successor to the throne. 

Many devadasi-s were known for their charity and their affinity to temples.. Rajali Amma donated her necklace and melted the zari from her sarees to make a golden pot for the Mariamman temple. Ponnammal, a devadasi attached to the Tribhuvanam temple, donated money to carve a golden utsavamoorti of the Lord. 

Some devadasi-s swept and cleaned the temple premises, washed the vastra (cloth) of the deities, and cleaned the vessels and jewels. They always wore their characteristic nose ornaments – ‘natthu’ and ‘bullakku’. During worship, the devadasi danced to the accompaniment of the nattuvanar, mridangist and the flautist. She also performed when the Odhuvar sang the Tevaram during pooja. Following this she performed the ‘kudavilakku’ (kumbhaharati) for the Lord before handing it over to the priest. Such was the honour given to a devadasi. 

After Herambanathan’s talk, Padma Subrahmanyam recalled how she learnt some nuances of neck movements from Andal Amma and Viralimalai Annammal. She shared her experience of learning padam-s from Mylapore Gowri Amma, the last devadasi of the Kapaleeswara temple. Padma also narrated the touching story of the devadasi of Srirangam who helped put an end to the sultan’s rule in south India in the 13th century. The devadasi, when asked what she wanted in return, replied she would die happily if she were to receive the temple honours on her death – raw rice from the temple kitchen and the saree from the Goddess to cover her body. 

Herambanathan’s emotion-packed lecture had many poignant moments. It offered many new insights into the lives of the devadasi-s which need to be understood in the proper perspective.

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