The Varnam as a metaphor for the  
Devadasi’s ecstasy and anguish 
by Leela Venkataraman, Haryana 

February 12, 2003

For the imaginative dancer, fresh creative space can be found even within the ‘margam’ repertoire. London based Bharatanatyam dancer Chitra Sundaram’s recital at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, in a unique, unconventional dance treatment, gave to a much-rendered historical composition, not just a fresh look of originality, but also a contemporary relevance. In a multi-layered presentation devised and choreographed in collaboration with dancer Mavin Khoo, Chitra’s approach uses the structure and format of the famous Ponniah Pillai varnam in Bhairavi “Mohamana en meedu” as a metaphor, epitomizing the ecstasy and agony or the “rapture and rupture” as it was referred to, of the temple dancer- the Devadasi, who sought her ultimate moksha through and in her “magnificent obsession” for the Deity, in this case Lord Tyagesa of Tiruvarur. The Deity as the ultimate “rule giver” and “rule breaker” is a symbol for society, which after giving birth and legitimacy to the devadasi, discarded her, thereby disowning its own child. 

   Reared from her tender years amidst the chants and resonance of Rudram and Purusha Suktam invoking the deity, and filled with reverence for the divinity housed in the sanctum, the girl as woman initiated as a temple dancer believes the world outside well lost for a life to be absorbed in the Lord Tyagesa. 

   The minimal fabric of the varnam composition was reinforced through deliberate departures into other compositions like snatches of lyrics of Appar and Manikkavachakar, saivite saint poets of the 6th to 9th centuries, all the interventions in keeping with the totality of the Siva theme like the Nandi Chol and the Mallari, the latter played on the Nagaswaram, a traditional part of temple ritual while the deity is taken out in procession. Tillana and Jatiswaram flashes and even a line from a Padam, are all departure flowing naturally imparting a special element of theatricality to the presentation. 

  Musicians in two arrangements seated on both sides of the performance area had a vocalist in Professor C V Chandrasekhar and mridangist Adyar Balu on one side, and singer Jyotishmathy Sheejith Krishna with flautist Muthukumar on the other.  The tender moments of sringar when the female voice sang with the gentle flute music acquired a reminiscing quality of softness contrasting with C V Chandrasekhar’s strong voiced interventions with the percussion for support. His tanam flourish as the nayika offers herself to the Lord in the “Bhoga Tyagesa anubhogam seyya va” line, with Chitra’s absorbed interpretation made for evocative moments. The ‘moham’ (obsession), evoking its combined desire and jealousy (the latter directed against Ganga and the Moon lodged in Siva’s locks), was very convincingly portrayed. 

   Anchored in firmly grounded technique, covering floor space in circles and squares  - the geometry so symbolic to Indian temple architectural spaces, tastefully attired Chitra Sundaram, with her intense ability for communicating without ever resorting to exaggerated histrionics, gave a delightful performance. When the nayika has decided on dedicating her life to Tyagesa, the squares and circles are too elaborate and she seeks a diagonal route straight to the deity in the sanctum. The one who has now chosen her destiny and the child still growing up in the same surroundings showing the future devadasi in the making (played by the confident Niveditha Srinivasan) cross each other on the diagonal line in a dramatic encounter. But alas! With time the God seated on his lion mounted throne, becomes an unapproachable figure, the devadasi dispossessed of her vocation, and as she removes the ‘oddiyanam’ and insignia of what was, her special status in the temple, she laments that her magnificent obsession and life as one closest to the God should now have relegated her to a place farthest from him. “Did I sacrifice name and reputation in my complete absorption of you to be made a beggar?” she wonders. “Ettai Kandi ichhai kondai Magale” sings the male voice – the parental question addressed to the disillusioned daughter, “What did you see in this (weird and idiosyncratic) Being to be so enamoured (sacrificing both name and future in the process) ?” 

     Chitra created an art experience and it is hardly surprising that this production, despite its narrative content should have been premiered in the mainstream dance scene in London. 

(Chitra Sundaram presented Moham on December 18, 2002 at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai). 

Leela Venkataraman, is a dance critic of The Hindu - Delhi edition, for the past 15 years. She has recently authored a book Indian Classical Dance: Tradition In Transition.