Dancing for the gods
Shorn of urban gloss, the Devarattam dancers perform with a vigour that speaks volumes of their faith in tradition
TRULY DESI Devarattam is without filmi flourishes
The tsunami has washed away some of the youngsters learning Devarattam from him, but that has not stopped Kalaimamani Kumararaman Naicker from teaching the art to others.
"We have to continue doing what we have to do," says this retired school headmaster of Jamin Kodangipatti near Tutukodi. "Devarattam literally means dance of the gods, and we want to continue to dance for the gods. If we do not teach, this pure folk dance preserved by the descendents of Veerapandiya Kattabomman dynasty may die."
At a performance in Bangalore recently as part of Mahabharat Utsav, the Devarattam troupe danced to the beat of the deva thunthubi. Dressed in a kurta and veshti (dhoti), with colourful handkerchiefs tied to their wrists, the artistes danced to the mesmeric beat of the thunthubi.
Legend has it that Nandi, the bovine disciple of Lord Shiva, had become very arrogant because of his expertise on the melam, or drum. The lord then created the deva thunthubi, and it was only after he played it that the celestial dancers Rathi, Tilothamma and others could dance.
Kumararaman, though, is anything but arrogant. The slim, spectacled man does not tell me that he has won several awards. Or that it was because of his persistence that the dance form was pulled back from the precipice of extinction. Or that it was because of his efforts that Tanjavur University enlisted Devarattam as a subject of research.
What Kumararaman does say is that the form imitates the motions of everyday life in the fields of Madurai. His words make one think of the newly-turned fields, of fresh turmeric being harvested, of paddy crop waving in the breeze.
"Earlier only the Naicker community used to perform this dance. Devarattam is a combination of ancient muntherkuruvai and pintherkuruvai of the ancient Tamil kings. It was performed in front of and at the chariot on the victorious return of the king and his army from battle. Now we perform in front of Sakkadevathai or Sakkammal."
While film directors have adapted most folk forms to suit present-day tastes, Devarattam dancers continue to follow tradition. The 18 basic steps of the Devarattam give rise to various permutations and combinations, 72 of which have been standardised. Moviegoers may remember the rather disturbing sound of the drumbeat in Kamal Haasan's Virumandi. Pasupathy, the theatre actor who portrayed the villain, had learnt Devarattam from Kumararaman. The experience made him invite the Kodangipatti troupe to dance a sequence for the film. "We do get offers from directors, but we are not prepared to change the dance to suit films," says Kumararaman.
Shorn of urban gloss, the Devarattam dancers performed with a vigour and passion that spoke volumes for their faith in tradition. Many of these dancers continue with their agricultural work and their education. Kumararaman's daughter, for instance, has an M.Sc. in Mathematics and a teacher-training diploma. The troupe also performs street plays to educate people about pollution, environment and religious tolerance.
Why then is education so ineffective in our cities? In spite of several reminders and requests both in writing and over the public address system, cell phones rang during the performance. A group of students were busy talking importantly on their cellphones. Did their actions arise from their snobbish attitude towards rural artistes?
There's something about respecting others that the Mahabharata teaches. The Devarattam, performed without songs, had nothing to do with the epic, and yet fitted in beautifully with the theme.
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