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Andal in my classroom- A pedagogical and performative learning of an educator
- Samyukta Ninan

April 5, 2023

Andal came to me in a tiny sentence in a history chapter that I was engaging with my grade 12 students in school on the Bhakti movement. The section spoke about the role of women like Karaikal Ammaiyar from the Nayanar tradition and Andal, an Alvar saint whose songs were sung widely throughout the Tamil land. In possibly three sentences her contribution to Bhakti poetry was described, leaving the reader not at all curious about firstly Andal and secondly not shedding enough light on the bulk of poetry written by women Bhakti poets. So while school textbooks selectively give space to the 'voices' of women within the Bhakti tradition, I took it upon myself as an educator to really bring Andal into my classroom.

Engaging with Andal and her poetry while making it relevant to the current times for teenagers is not easy. It is important to note that very often our school textbooks leave the essence of a chapter for the educators to fulfil. Hence the pressures of syllabus completion and the rigours of the academic calendar, often ensures that educators are unable to do absolute justice to it. Similar thoughts ran through my mind, while looking at the vast corpus of Bhakti poetry written by women. However while I began to delve into Andal's verses of Tiruppavai and the Nacciyar Tirumoli, it became natural for my students to become an audience. It became interesting for them especially when it was revealed that Andal had composed the Tiruppavai at 13 years and the Nacciyar Tirumoli at 16 years. Knowing that the age group I was engaging with in school was the same, made it very exciting to bring her into the class room.

"I was first introduced to Andal during one of our numerous discussions in History class. Since then, I remained curious about her. I have never experienced intense Bhakti, and most times I am not even sure that I believe in a deity. Yet when I started reading more about Andal, I realised the way she viewed her spiritual self".
- Aadya Mittal, Grade 12 student

An interactive online session on the life and times of Andal with the renowned dancer Anita Ratnam allowed me the space to interact with someone whose own 'voice' resonates with that of Andal's."Andal is the earliest feminist voice expressing passion and desire of a female body through her poems. Her ideology went against the conservative society that she was part of. Today more than ever, her 'voice' is relevant to the youth and hence her story has to be told. Andal must travel out of the Tamil land and reach out to people across the nation," says Anita Ratnam.

Andal has been an integral part of dancer Anita Ratnam's life. She had been utterly captivated as a child with Andal, when she saw actress Vyjanthimala play the Bhakti poet on stage. Memories of getting ready for her Arangetram where her mother placed a side bun on her head, was very symbolic and iconographic to Andal's imagery. These had to impact the young teenager Anita, who took to Andal as her role model and icon to revere and be inspired by. Dealing with teenagers myself, it is indeed interesting to note how necessary it is for young people to have mentors and role models.

Andal - Visual education
Visual education

"As a female student it is hard to identify with History which is generally written by men about men. Studying about Andal and her poetry was very refreshing and her poetry has a transcendental quality which makes her words relevant even today. As women we are constantly trying to defy societal norms and obligations to be accepted. Her poetry gives us much inspiration".
- Siya Jangir, Grade 12 student

"My first time listening to Andal's composition was as a student of Carnatic music. Her songs have been sung widely, however it was only as a student of History that I was able to grasp the meanings of her verses. Everything she composed and as we read it out, had such beautiful visual imagery for us to imagine".
- Shivani Rajesh, Grade 12 student

Stories of Anita Ratnam's growing up years with Andal captivated my own imagination, and I as an educator was narrating the same to my students. Through some of my History classes, I was reciting verses from the Tiruppavai. My students and I were enchanted by the simplicity of Andal's poetic splendour and the beautiful visual imageries that were created through them.

Minakshi and Andal iconography
Minakshi and Andal iconography

I further took upon myself to help my students look at Andal's iconography. My history classes were now about bringing the visual narratives of Andal traditions alive for my students to see. An interesting example would be when in class we looked at the prints of the goddess Madurai Minakshi from the Sivakasi press and popular print of Andal from the Raja Ravi Varma press. A discussion on the similarities in both goddesses, also enable us as a class to study the idea of iconography within the arts. It also allowed me to take them through the life of Tirumalai Nayak who had a huge role of creating the iconography connected with Andal. Being a Shaivite, he was a huge devotee of Andal as well as Goddess Minakshi who is the consort of Shiva. The stories of both Goddesses kept us very engrossed within our class room discussions. Children of all age groups love stories, and the sixteen year old teenager, enjoys the stories as well as the intellectual introspection and dissection of rituals and traditions.

"When we read one of Andal's works in our History class, one theme that surfaced in her poetry was the individual need for spiritual association with her chosen deity. Her presence as a female Bhakti saint in a male dominated space brought to the forefront that symbolised the love for the divine, granting the verses an unusual tinge of profound eroticism".
- Syeda Shua Zaidi, Grade 12 student

"As a teen, Andal speaks of her undying and unconditional love for the lord through her poetry. Her poetry highlights her longing for Vishnu and she defied societal norms and chose to marry the Lord. Andal remains an enigma and continuous efforts to reconstruct her life is being done to inspire all".
- Amna Haleem, Grade 12 student

"Reading the verses of a girl as old as me really was an eye opening experience. Her poetry represents so much more than just sensuality; it represents to me a girl finding her own strength and not settling for anything else, except her own beliefs. Although love was central to her work, she shows maturity, self awareness and raises philosophical questions".
- Kathamrita, Grade 12 student

Many of my students were also students of sociology and political science, hence they were able to relate to sociological concepts on rituals and customs as well as the idea of the political environment these were embedded in. One of my students took up the poetry of Andal as her Grade 12 research Board project, and thoroughly enjoyed her project for which she was highly commended.

Project by Saanvi Chugh
Project by Saanvi Chugh

"My project focused on looking at Bhakti poetry through the lens of female Bhakti poet Andal. It was the iconography and beautiful verses attached with her that made me select the theme. An early icon of feminism, Andal's sensual and passionate verses is in itself inspiring. As a 16 year old from 8th c, her 'voice' speaks to us even now, and somehow I can relate to it."
- Saanvi Chugh, Grade 12 student

My engagement with Andal did not just come through Academia but also through the rich tradition of performing arts. As a student of renowned dancer Geeta Chandran, I am aware of the power of the performing arts within all spheres of life. As a student of history and dance, I hope to combine my two loves within the classroom, that is my laboratory to explore and experiment. It was on my Guru's insistence, that I became part of a project where I would write on the production 'Naachiyar Next' - a retelling of the story of Andal, which was conceptualised, directed and produced by dancer Anita Ratnam. I have to say that it is probably one of the many miracles of Andal that I saw unfold in my life. Incredible as it may sound, Andal was silently guiding and mentoring me throughout my process of studying 'Naachiyar Next'.

Anita's journey in dance has been incredible, a restless dreamer with the energy to bring innovations in dance. Trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Tai chi and a decade long career in performing arts she is a culture activist. To collaborate with different mediums of expression and to give 'voice' to who she is and her roots, is what keeps her going.

Naachiyar Next
Naachiyar Next (Photo: Chella)

"Naachiyar Next was conceived as part of a larger plan to revisit some of my old works. After having done a lot of contemporary dance, I wanted to get back to the traditional form. Andal has been a familiar personality to me throughout my upbringing as well. I'm very excited to be revisiting her writings through this performance," says Anita.

With every production of 'Naachiyar Next' a new layer of Andal is discovered, she appears more humane, much like the dancers who are enacting her life. She for them is no longer a deity/goddess but a woman of flesh and blood. While peeling through her many layers, she has the same layers that we all have, and that makes her more endearing. One sees in the production 'Naachiyar Next' a collaboration of musicans and dancers united in their journey of carrying the voice of Andal across the ocean of humanity. There is a beautiful union of Bharatanatyam, contemporary dance, theatre, coupled with Carnatic music, chants and Andal's poetry.

Every interaction with Anita Ratnam brought me a step closer to Andal; it gave me the opportunity to spend time with the team of Naachiyar Next, and understand the dynamics of a production. To give expression to this incredible story of 'divine love,' Anita Ratnam has found theatre as a very strong collaborator with dance. In her approach to the choreography of 'Naachiyar Next' and many of her solo ventures it is theatre she has always turned to. Theatre has always been an integral part of the classical dance traditions, and it gave the much needed dialogic expression that classical dance needed to convey. In this form Anita embraces the idea of using dance and theatre activism as a powerful tool in performative tradition. For the entire team of 'Naachiyar Next' this wasn't just to be a production but a sheer labour of love that Andal and her story came to be for them. The emotional investment of the cast has deepened over time, each carrying forward Andal within them.

Naachiyar Next
Naachiyar Next (Photo: Chella)

At the Serendipity Arts festival 2022 in Panjim, Goa, the production touched a strong emotional chord with the audience. Andal's story had travelled through a sea of humanity and embraced all who was willing to listen to her. This will not be the last production of 'Naachiyar Next', but many more productions will travel throughout the world, carrying this tale of divine love with them. Being from academia, and spending all my time researching on Andal, it was the production 'Naachiyar Next' that finally put my angst to rest. Andal had reached me in so many ways, and allowed me to tell her stories to so many more.

And so as I trace my own journey as an educator who had started a small experiment in my history class, to get my students to develop a deeper connect with their subject, I found that I had found much more beyond what I had hoped for. Through this entire journey, I bonded with my students, and they were my fellow travellers through my experiment. They were able to see small snippets of the performance through some pieces I had posted for them. Hopefully, when 'Naachiyar Next' comes to Delhi, I could take my students to see the production. I was convinced, that despite the rigours of school pressures, we educators can still keep a piece of our interests alive in our students. I was able to bring my two loves - History and Dance into my classroom, and go beyond the textbook, and help my students experience the beauty of visual and performing arts. And as many of my students get ready to chart out new journeys for themselves, a piece of me and Andal will stay with them forever.

Samyukta Ninan
Samyukta Ninan is an educator at Bluebells School International based out of Delhi. A heritage and storytelling enthusiast, she tries to find different ways to include the visual and performative arts within her pedagogy as an educator. A student of Geeta Chandran, she has combined her love for history and dance, as her field of interest to research in.

Samyukta, this is such a terrific essay that enveps your love of and my life long journey towards ANDAL.Reading the students' comments made me realize, all over again, how important female voices were in medieval times. Thank you for this summary that gives me a much needed boost to continue my search.
- Anita Ratnam (Apr 7, 2023)

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