A neem tree, a Dalit and his song: Notes on Kalai Rani's performance of 'Nandanar Charitram'

The neem tree in the centre of dancer Anita Ratnam's garden was in full bloom. Delicate white flowers swaying in the Chennai evening breeze, flowers bitter and curative, sometimes used as garnish in rasam, or in a mango sauce.  Tamil Brahmin households include freshly plucked neem flowers along with jaggery in their New Year lunch spread — a reminder, an acknowledgement that bitter comes with sweet.

We could not, that day, see sweet for a long distance — reeling fresh under gut-wrenching accounts of children assaulted and mutilated; Hindu or Muslim, they defied the slenderest expectations of humanity. How could we have gathered there to watch Kalai Rani perform 'Varugalaamo Iyaa' in her solo theatre act? Catharsis, art as a balm!  It worked — almost.

'Varugalaamo Iyya' is a well-known composition in Carnatic music. It is in the rare Raga Manjhi, with a folkish flavour, sharing hazy boundaries with the very "classical" Raga Bhairavi.  It is also a popular piece with Bharatanatyam dancers to depict in abhinaya. Part of a larger work — 'Nandanar Charitram' — composed by Gopalakrishna Bharati in the 19th century, it tells the story of the 8th century Saiva devotee, Nandan (or Nandanar, as he is respectfully referred to). A low caste farm hand, he loved Shiva. His community urged him to turn his devotion towards their own folk gods, the Gods of the "little tradition" and not Shiva of the "Great (sanskritic) tradition" — to use Milton Singer’s useful distinction. But Nandan was smitten, mad with love, as bhakti saints all were. Bhakti, after all, is about love for the Lord, eschewing ritualistic trappings and paraphernalia, often rejecting social taboos.

Nandan was low caste and he yearned for the darshan of Shiva. But how could he permit himself, and how would others permit him to enter the great temple at Chidambaram, to glimpse the dancing God? He belonged to a caste that worked with carcasses, removing the skins of animals to make drums — drums which were also used in the temple. But he and others of his caste were too impure to enter the temple. Did he get angry? Did he rage and rant? Or was he submissive, supplicant, accepting? Was he patient in love or did he seethe at the injustice?

 A neem tree, a Dalit and his song: Notes on Kalai Ranis performance of Nandanar Charitram

Watching Kalai flitting between wretchedness, anger, crazed laughter, was witnessing a powerful performer

The original source of his story, the Periya Puranam, extols his piety and love, and in the final act describes his purification in a fire, out of which he emerges a Brahmin. He then receives the Lord's darshan and disappears as a light into the idol — an unequivocal endorsement of brahminical superiority inserted into the story of a low caste devotee. A one-time accommodation without addressing the larger issue of discrimination and systemic prejudices of the caste system.

The 19th century Bharati leaves out the purification scene and sings that the Lord showered grace even on a low caste.

Nandan's story has been recounted through Bharati's work in many performances of Kathakalakshepam, a traditional form of weaving song and story-telling; the songs have been sung by leading Carnatic musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers perform abhinaya to them; there are films including one in which the brilliant singer MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatra plays Nandan. But always his bhakti, his meekness and final victory in the face of his unyielding love as well as the Lord's grace — these are highlighted. Nandan does not get angry!

Not in Kalai's performance. Kalai was on the ground, facing the sky, head towards the audience, legs bent at the knees, like a sleeping araimandi, hands wrung above her head. Her costume suggesting the rough and the coarse (aspects) of Nandan's life, the thick rope around her waist, Nandan's abject bondedness. She lay writhing on the ground, singing, "I was born on this earth a low caste", moving towards the audience, slowly sitting up and then standing, walking with hesitant steps, then strident ones, beseeching, cajoling, and then yelling. "You are the merciful Lord!  May I come?  Near you — to sing and dance?  To watch your dance of joy?" Cleverly borrowing the idea of sanchari from Bharatanatyam, she repeated this line in acceptance, in defiance, in anger.  Yes, I am low caste — I was born like that. Can I help my birth?

Watching Kalai flitting between wretchedness, anger, crazed laughter, each time coming back to "varugalaamo?" was witnessing a powerful performer.  Kalai says she tries to evoke all the nine rasas and not just the usual bhakti. More pertinent perhaps is the idea of vyabhichari bhaava that is deep rooted in explorations of emotion in classical Indian performing and literary arts — transitory emotions, those that flit in and out, to play off, to strengthen by difference, the main or the primary emotion being depicted. Perhaps the most sensitive and insightful analyses of presentation and evocation of emotions can be found in the explorations of rasa. And vyabhichari bhaava is critical here — the technique of letting one mood dominate, with others subservient to it. When depicting love, exploring it in performance, a swift entry of doubt or envy or despair does heighten the effect when handled with due restraint.

One is reminded of the deviations from the base raga that thumri singers effect. A swift departure can astonish, with its unexpectedness and its beauty, but the tricky part is getting back to the base. That is where artistry lies and if not done sensitively enough, it can sound "all over the place". There were moments during Kalai's performance when the changing hues of emotions and the unsettling impact were a bit much to savour. Perhaps one dominant mood needed to tie others down. Is it because I speak from a sensibility nurtured by the classical arts?  I don’t think so... Control, that supreme aesthetic determinant, is evident if it is there — whether in folk or classical forms.

Our performing arts have been profoundly impacted by the bhakti tradition, its literature, its orientation, and goal. Kalai’s act is a bold engagement with this repertoire while breathing new life into it, with raw intensity.

Watching her performance, I also heard the cries of those children, the helpless anger of the parents, their unspeakable pain and wretchedness and somehow the neem tree with its simple beauty and grace and Kalai’s art injected an objectivity into my anguish. Which is why we need our Mother and the pointless pursuit of the arts.

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2018 13:13:49 IST