Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A musical beyond music (And a story beyond the Season, too)

By Raja Ramanathan
As a child, I grew up in what was essentially a Kiplingish London of the 1950s.  The East was still the East and the West was still the West, and, it did not look like the twain wanted to meet in a hurry.  Whatever religious instruction was available was Church of England.  Even other brands of the Christian faith were rarely on offer, and, God forbid the thought that Hindoo religious instruction would be available.  Being inherently religious and acting on the belief that any religious instruction was better than no religious instruction, my parents enrolled me in Sunday school at age five.  While they were reasonably happy with my proven ability to recite Psalm 23 and become the poster boy for the class, they still felt the need to give me some grounding in Hindu ideas and beliefs. 
My mother who was in charge of this process of indoctrination did a couple of things.  The best of her ideas was for me to celebrate two birthdays every year, one the day on which my birth star under the Hindu astrological signs came up, and a repeat performance on my birthday as per the English (Gregorian) calendar.  I got sweets twice over, and, gifts twice over. 
Then, everyday she would recite a few lines from the Naama Ramayana (Suddha Brahma Paratpara Rama…) and I was expected to recite along with her.  By the time we left England in 1958, I could recite fairly large parts of the Nama Ramayana. 
My mother also made it a point to tell me stories from the Indian puranas and traditions.  She would accompany these with line sketches of scenes on my slate.  One story that was her favourite was Nandanar Charitram.  I think my mother had seen all three versions of the Nandanar Charitram film and we also had at home the 78 rpm records of Dandapani Desikar singing the songs.
These musical and line drawing story telling sessions were generally at lunch or dinner.  I distinctly remember the scene in the Dandapani Desikar version—a dialogue between Nandanar played by Dandapani Desikar and his Brahmin master played by Serukalathur Sarma.  This is the famous ‘Tillai ambala sthalam onru irukkutham’song in which Nandanar seeks permission to go and visit the temple of Nataraja at Chidambaram.  In the song, the Brahmin master derides Nandanar for his desire to go to Chidambaram.  I remember my mother singing the song in dialogue style; sometimes she would intentionally stop and I would have to provide the words.
Over later years, I often heard tapes of Dandapani Desikar singing the songs and in recent times seen YouTube clips of some of the songs.  However, I had never seen the film and it came as manna from heaven when a music e-group that I belong to provided YouTube links to the whole film.  Here they are for anyone who may be interested.
Part I
Part II

I watched the entire movie at one two hour sitting, and, my childhood came back to me and a lot of the story telling of my mother came back to life.  I suspect that my mother had mixed the three different versions of the film, as she sang songs I did not hear in the Dandapani Desikar version of the movie. 
After watching the movie, I searched the web and found these very interesting pieces from the Hindu archives on the movie(s).
Nandanar definitely seems to have been a historical persona.  Scriptures refer to him as Tirunalai Povar Nayanar, and, the avatar of Nandanar that I was familiar with seems to have originated with Gopalakrishna Bharati (1811-1896), the famous Tamil poet and composer.  It is said that Gopalakrishna Bharati introduced the character of the arrogant Brahmin master into the story.  I am not sure if this is a verified fact.
While Gopalakrishna Bharati’s kathakalakshepam got the Nandanar story going, it was the ethos of the 1920s that brought it into prominence. The temple entry movement of Travancore, including the Vaikom satyagraha were an expression of the angst among the Dalits.  Gandhi saw tremendous inspiration in the Nandanar story and Babasaheb Ambedkar dedicated his book on Untouchables to the memory of Nandanar.
The struggles of Nandanar may be difficult for the twenty first century urbanised Indian youth to comprehend, and, the acting style of the movie does not make it any easier.  However, the stranglehold of caste still exists, firm and secure, albeit in different forms.
Having been somewhat influenced by the writings of Dalit leaders like Kancha Ilaiah, I wonder whether there is a degree of co-opting in Nandanar’s search.  These writers talk of the spirituality of the Dalit, and, say, for example, that the fierce looking Goddess who guards against small pox is there at the entrance to the village, doing an honest day’s job, guarding against pestilence, while the Brahmin deity sits inside the sanctum offering an esoteric form of liberation.  Again, the obsession with hygiene and cleanliness that is so much part of the Brahmin spirituality is all fine and dandy for the Brahmin because he does not have to skin carcasses or carry night soil. 
Likewise the ban on meat. 
I remember once walking up the stairs to the house of Ramesh Balsekar, the Advaita teacher, and, seeing the maid cleaning fish in preparation for the day's meal.  That was the day I was convinced that being a vegetarian had little to do with one’s spiritual development. If someone could be as deeply spiritual as Balsekar, it mattered little as to what one ate.  It was just a matter of personal choice and habit.  So was the dance ballet of Kannappar Kuravanji, brought to life by Rukmini Devi, and, the protagonist's offerings of meat to his God.
The final scenes where Nandanar goes through an agni pariksha (a la Sita) before being allowed to enter the temple are somewhat difficult to accept as being representative of an all embracing spirituality.  Interestingly, Nandanar emerges from the fire in that scene looking very Brahmin-like…
While the Nandanar story is beautiful I am a little concerned about co-opting him into Brahmin spirituality while Karuppanasami, the original deity of Nandanar’s community is made short shrift of in preference to Nataraja at Chidambaram.  By the way, was Karuppanasami a primeval Siva ?
The words of the Sanskrit  prayer keep coming to my mind, in a somewhat troublesome way
Akashat Patitam Toyam Yatha Gacchanti sagaram
Sarva-Deva-Namaskaraha Kesavam Prati Gachati.
It means:
Just as the drops of water from the sky do end in the ocean, the salutations to various Gods reach the Source.
Wonder why there was a need to co-opt Nandanar into the Brahmin spirituality? Wouldn’t the same intensity of devotion to Karuppanasami have been just as good? 
I am sure my mother would have had an answer to that…not one that I may have accepted after age five, but, in any case, that is a moot point, she is gone now.

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