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Thadhiginathom - Part 8
- Zakir Hussain
English translation: Dushy Gnanapragasam

July 11, 2020

(Reproduced with permission)

When you walk the storied halls...

An artist's contributions should be celebrated and acknowledged in his or her lifetime. Offering him garlands and incense after his demise is contemptuous of his/her art. Any accolades or honour that was not afforded to him in time can only be considered unnecessary nails on his coffin.

On that evening, the entire Technical College was transformed to look like a wedding celebration adorned with banana plants and mango-leaf decorations. The inauguration of the stage was attended by the college correspondent Mr. Chockalingam Chettiyar and his spouse Meenakshi Chockalingam. Mr.Chockalingam is the son-in-law of Thyagarajah Chettiyar. There are schools and colleges in the name of Thyagarajar in Madurai as well. After the country gained independence, the Chettiyars of Naattukottai built many schools for Saivite-Tamil as well as higher studies with philanthropic intent. Our technical college was one such institution. At exactly five o'clock, as Nadhaswaram and Thavil played, and as NCC and NSS students sprinkled flower petals as confetti, the correspondent and his spouse were welcomed with great honour. As it was inauspicious time until 6 o'clock, Sunday, the stage was inaugurated at six thirty with the lighting of the lamp. In those days, fireworks displays in Salem were reserved only for the festival at Kottai Mariyamman Temple. Therefore, there was no display of fireworks at the college event.

Exactly at seven o'clock Mr. Visweswaran began with the G.N. Balasubramanian song 'Vara Vallabha Ramana'. Chitra madam's dance school Chidambaram Academy uses this song as the opening hymn for performances. Other than her, most others who follow the Vazhuvoor dance tradition, use Vazhuvoorar's 'Jayasudha Purivasa' as the opening hymn. My students and I use the hymn 'Thiru Aadi Pooraththu Jegaththuthithaal Vazhiye' on Aandal Nachiyaar as the opening hymn.

Soon a large conch sounded and the curtains to the stage parted as if to lucidly reveal my life's destiny. Did godly beings descend to the earth? But their feet are said not to touch the ground! But these dancers were traversing the entire stage with their belled feet! The dancers whom I was with all afternoon had transformed beyond recognition. When they danced, their costumes and makeup created a colourful and magical aura, as if clouds of different hues were twining and peeling from each other constantly. The people of the great city of Salem sat mesmerized, unblinking and speechless, becoming silent witnesses to what was unfolding on the stage. Rama, Seetha, Kaikeyi, Manthara, Soorpanakai, Hanuman, and Ravana - who were hitherto only seen in temples, paintings, and Kamban's poems - came alive in Swathi Thirunal's Sanskrit hymn 'Bhavayami Raghuramam'. They were born; they conversed; they walked; they laughed; they were angered; they departed; they cried; they fascinated; they battled; they won.

How is this possible? It was nothing short of a miracle. When Chitra madam asked for a boon as Kaikeyi, crossed the Ganga as Kugan, carried the sandals as Bharathan, had her nose sliced as Soorpanakai, abducted Seetha as Ravanan, she transformed her sole self into each of those characters! And she did it without the aid of any changes to the costume. The audience's astonishment was conveyed through a thunderous applause that melted my heart. I stood in a corner as if in a euphoric trance, vigorously wiping away tears rolling down my eyes. I had lost my speech and my senses. I wondered with apprehension if a day such as this would ever dawn for me. From that moment on, I started visualizing dancing with Chitra madam on stages. That thought inspires me to this day and propels me on to the stage whenever I become disenchanted.

Once when I was speaking to Chitra madam in Chennai, I asked her, "You are our inspiration. Who is yours?"
"Mrs. Kamala Lakshman," she said without a moment's hesitation.

Kamala Lakshman ruled dance auditoriums and cinema in the fifties and sixties under the pseudonym Kumari Kamala. Everyone will know her as the dancer from the song "O Rasikkum Seemane" in the Sivaji Ganesan movie Parasakthi. Her popularity reached new heights in the sixties when her dance numbers were given equal footing as the hero in the promotion of the movies. It was only after watching a performance by Kumari Kamala - who was a disciple of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai - in Kolkata did Chitra madam decide to move to Chennai with the desire to learn from the same teacher. I suppose everyone has a hero or heroine they want to emulate.

'Raghu Vamsa Thilagam' drew to a close in front of a packed audience, with the singing of the verses:
'Mangalam Kosalendraya Mahaneeya Gunabhdhaye
Chakravarthi Thanujaaya Sarva Bhoumaya Mangalam'
and with the camphor lit adoration of Rama, Seetha, Lakshmana, and Hanuman. The dancer who performed this was Mrs. Chitra Visweswaran. The manner in which she made her students stand as deities while she fell at their feet transforming herself into a devotee brought the audience to their feet with thunderous applause. "For a true dancer, language is secondary." This is what should be called a dance performance. This is what should be called an audience.

The seed for my desire to go to Chennai someday to learn dance from Mrs. Chitra Visweswaran was sown in that moment. As it germinated and rapidly grew spreading its branches like the banyan tree, my head began to swell with pride.

"Madam, can I take a photo with you?"
(July 6, 2020)

To be continued...

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