A couple of years ago, on a cold Margazhi day, I stood in front of the sacred tulsi at the Srivalliputhur temple, in Tanjore District. Andal — the only female Alvar (Vaishnavite poet saint) — was according to legend, found under this plant.
Andal was a foundling. No one knew where she came from, or to which caste or religion she belonged. Perhaps attitudes were different in the 7th century, which was when she was born. And so she was brought up by the childless priest Peria Alvar, among the most famous of the poet saints of Vaishnavism.
I had joined a group of devotees who had set out early in the morning, walking through the dew-coated temple streets as they sang the Naalayara Divya Prabandham — the 4,000 pasurams (verses) in praise of Vishnu composed in chaste Tamil by the 12 Alvars between the 5th and 10th centuries AD. It was a truly mystical experience. The devotees came from different walks of life and they sang the verses with practised ease. They were simple devotees of Andal, certainly not concerned with caste or religion.
As the others went on, I stood for a while before the ornate and ancient pot that contains the legendary tulsi. Andal’s foster father had named her Kodai (meaning, garland) and she grew up totally devoted to Vishnu. The turning point in her life came when her outraged father discovered a then teenaged Andal wearing a garland which she was supposed to have made for the Lord. Andal told her father then that she was destined to marry only Vishnu.
In a series of 10 stanzas known as “Varanam Ayiram”, Andal describes to her friend a dream she had, in which she was marrying Lord Vishnu with all the grandeur and rituals. These form part of the 143 verses known as "Nachiyar Thirumozhi" which are rendered in the more explicit and sometimes even erotic style adopted by the bhakti poets of that era.
Andal composed 173 of the verses which make up the "Divya Prabandham". During the Margazhi month, many households resound with the music of her 30 Tirupavai verses. Many temples, especially in the Tanjore area, have special dance and music programmes, devoted to their beloved woman saint, during this season.
Last week, things turned ugly over a minor incident which was unnecessarily stirred into a controversy. It all started with a speech made by Vairamuthu, the iconic lyricist who has written some of the most popular songs in Tamil cinema. Vairamuthu, who has won several National Awards, is known for his ability to express complex ideas and thoughts in simple, lyrical Tamil.
In the first week of January, Vairamuthu ended a speech about “Thamizhai Andal” he delivered at a meeting, with a quote. This quote was from a book which he said was written by an American-Indian scholar who is alleged to have stated that Andal was a “devadasi” living in the Srirangam temple in the 7th century. This speech, which was reproduced by the widely circulated Tamil daily Dinamani, might have gone unnoticed if it had not been picked up and made into an issue by BJP leader H Raja, who demanded an apology from Vairamuthu and Dinamani for having been disrespectful to the much revered Andal. Worried that it would snowball into a major controversy, Vairamuthu and Dinamani both apologised, but the matter hasn’t really ended with that.
There were protest rallies in Srirangam and demands for Vairamuthu to be deported. Meanwhile, the well known Tamil film director Barathi Raja publicly defended Vairamuthu’s right to quote anyone he wished to. He said the lyricist knew more about Tamil literature than Raja did.
“Thiruppavai introduced Vaishnavism to the Tamil language and has been brought from the sanctum sanctorum to the common man's ears by Vairamuthu. Are you denigrating the status of such a man? H Raja, understand that Thiruppavai is not in Sanskrit, it is in Tamil,” Barathi said.
Vairamuthu too told a newspaper that his intention was not to denigrate Andal, whom he admired. “I always feel Andal — the only woman among the 12 Alvars — had powerfully expressed her love for (Lord) Krishna while others had to assume the role of women to match her feelings in poetry,” he said. (Vairamuthu was referring to the fact that many of the Alvars assumed feminine names to express their deep bhakti and adoration of the Lord.)
Iconoclast musician and writer TM Krishna jumped into the fray saying he found Vairamuthu’s apology “problematic”.
In a Facebook post, he wrote “The reactions imply that Devadasis are lowly beings, outcastes sans any moral or ethical moorings. The reactions seem to be coming from the feeling ‘how can such a pure divine soul such as Andal be referred to as a Devadasi?’ This is so very problematic. Does Andal become lesser if she was a Devadasi?”
Similarly persons from the Devadasi community (also known as Isai Vellalars) also felt that Vairamuthu should not have apologised. “He did not say anything insulting,” said a woman dancer who wished to remain anonymous. “The Devadasi comment was not even his view, it was just a reference. But he should have emphasised that the word itself is not an insult.”
Whether or not this classification of a temple artiste as a 'devadasi' itself existed in the 7th century is a moot question.
The members of this community of temple dancers, musicians and singers have over generations produced some of the most gifted artistes in the field, including MS Subbalakshmi and Balasaraswati. "Isai Velalar" in Tamil means 'cultivator of music'. The Hindu temple musicians from this caste are mostly found in Nagapattinam, Tanjore, Tiruvarur and Trichy Districts of Tamil Nadu. These districts are also known for their devotion to music. Terms like Chinna Melam, Periya Melam and Nattuvanar are the sub-divisions of the caste which define specific musical skills. DMK chief Karunanidhi belongs to the Chinna Melam sub caste. These classifications are not considered terms of insult.
Devadasis were simply the women attached to the temples… the servants of god. But unlike the other classifications, over centuries, the term has unfortunately acquired a different connotation. Words like dasi are used today as terms of insult. The music and artistic skill associated with these women artistes have conveniently been forgotten.
Unfortunately, incidents like the row over Vairamuthu's Andal comments only perpetrate this variety of misogyny.
Updated Date: Jan 17, 2018 15:28 PM