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Celebrating Andal

A two-day festival organised recently by the Prakriti Foundation, Chennai, focussed on the multi-faceted personality of Andal in Tamil literature. PREMA NANDAKUMAR writes.

The garland made with choice leaves and petals.

ON December 8 and 9 a wake-up call for the Tiruppavai season (December 16 — January 14) went forth from the Prakriti Foundation as a two-day programme, "Andal: Today". A multi-faceted seminar-exhibition was presented at Sundara Mahal in Chennai by a team of enthusiasts led by V. R. Devika and Ranvir Shah. Here were the main exhibits gathered with infinite care and attention to their heraldic significance by Lily Vijayaraghavan and Shanta Guhan. A variety of paintings and laminated portraits of Andal set up a fascinating discussion among the viewers on the changing fashions in the female physique, garments and ornaments down the centuries. The Thanjavur Age stood out: a gathered plumpness, sarees with zari borders and heavy jewellery.

Indira Venkataswamy was overseeing three garland-makers from the Chakrathalwar Sannidhi, Srirangam, who were busy making garlands as baskets of vrikshi (ixora), tuberose, blue lilies, red lotuses, mari-kozhundu and seemai-kozhundu sent out a soul-ravishing fragrance. According to artiste Sekhar three kilos of vrikshi, three handfuls each of white sammangi (tuberose) and seemai kozhundu and 20 hand-bundles of marukozhundu had been used for the garland meant for Nithyakalyana Perumal. Tiny parrots made of fresh leaves and petals lay there; ready to be attached to the garland. Chandru and Rangarajan say: "These are the Srirangam style parrots. When the deity proceeds through the Swarga Vasal to the 1000-pillared mandapam on Vaikunta Ekadesi at Srirangam, it is invariably clad in an armour of gems (ratna-agni) and a special garland made with such parrots. They are made with the leaves of arali (nerium) plant. The beak is set with the rosy softness of red arali blooms." There were bigger parrots too, but they were specifically of the type offered at the Srivillipputtur temple. The body was made with leaves and the beaks were a sharp red colour with the insertion of pomegranate flowers.

The present temple of Andal in Srivillipputtur is said to have been the original home of Perialwar. Satyajit Dhananjayan's expressive photographs of the temple were on exhibition. The sculptured pillars caught in a criss-cross flow of light, and the well which seems to have been used by Andal as a mirror to watch herself wearing the garlands meant for the lord came in for a special appreciation from the connoisseurs of art who had assembled for the festival.

The artistes had hung fragrant and breath-taking garlands on the door of the rooms and the hall. A patterned red-green-white garland framed the large mirror in the other room. With expensive zari-bordered silk saris waving close to the mirror, one's mind went back to Vishnuchitta's house in Srivillipputtur 1,300 years ago. Here were old-world artefacts in brass and wood and a huge payasam-making bronze uruli (vessel) filled with water where red lotuses and lotus leaves floated. The scene was a recreation of Perialwar's verse that describes the love-lorn condition of his darling daughter:

"She wears the chocker-necklace,
Looks at herself in the mirror,
Jangling her bangles; wearing
The rich garment, she grows wan
And checks her reddened lips;
Trying to take hold of herself,
She repeats the thousand names
Of the Lord; O my daughter
Has become mad after the Supreme!"

The uruli reminded the onlookers of Andal's promise to lord Sundarabahu of Tirumalruncholai to offer a hundred pots of sweetened rice, a promise that was subsequently redeemed by Sri Ramanuja.

The programmes began with worship offered at a miniature household-temple (kovil-azhvaar) by a priest who also recited the Vedic hymns, Sri Suktham and Bhu Sukhtham. This was followed by a musical rendition of choice verses from the Tiruppavai by a group of women led by Padma Narayanan.

For the seminarial papers and discussions, Dr. K. K. Venkatachari set the tone of the festival by drawing one's attention to the manner in which the hymns of Andal had given scriptural eminence to the Tamil language itself. He declared that the agamic worship in Srivaishnavism attains completion only with a recitation of the last two stanzas of the Tiruppavai. In the course of the wedding celebrations in Srivaishnava households, there is the significant ritual of "Seer Paadi", during which the "Varanamayiram" decad of Nachiar Tirumozhi is recited by the priests. Dr. Venkatachari underlined the need for a meditative approach to the study of Andal's hymns. Mere dissection of her verses to fit them into some chosen concept can only be counter-productive.

My own paper, "Tiruppavai: Travelling through time and space" dealt with the various regional rituals in places as far apart as Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu that were in vogue before Andal's time, the fusing of various elements into the Tiruppavai idea, and the post-Andal scenario where the poem has given rise to great commentaries, dramas, lyrics and epics in several languages. The folk songs of Andhra Pradesh recapture the days when Srivaishnavism spread in those regions and Andal became a beloved icon at home and in the temple. Today the Andal cult is not only popular in the whole of India but is gaining fast in the United States where separate fanes for Goda Devi have been erected in Hindu temples. The Margasirsa (December-January) month is celebrated there with Suprabhatha seva, special lectures and art-based activities.

Devesh Soneji read parts of Dr. Katherine Young's paper which sought to reconstruct Andal's life with internal evidence from her poems. Dr. Young posited the view that since many verses of Andal refer to her being close to death, this would mean either she was practising the sallekhana (voluntary giving up one's life) of the Jains, or she was on her death bed. This was hotly contested in the ensuring discussion. Dr. Venkatachari said in his closing remarks that such approaches seem to be a familiar pitfall for western critics who do not adequately prepare themselves in the nuances of the Tamil language or the signification of traditional commentaries. Bridal mysticism of the kind found in Andal's verses cannot be easily dismissed as the outpourings of a frustrated soul trying to seek a cover in devotional mythology. Shrimati Rashmi brought the arguments to an enlightened close by saying simply: "It does not matter how Andal died. What matters is how she lived and how her life is relevant to our own lives."

The opening paper, "The playmate as the soulmate", was presented by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan. Musician and choreographer, Sujatha brought out in simple terms how the verses of Andal present a familial set up where children grow up considering one's cousin as one's beloved, since such marriages have always been prevalent in Tamil ethos. Andal's own love for the divine must have been the result of Perialwar's approach to Krishna as a growing child. Speaking on "Andal: A Historical Perspective" through an information-studded paper, Dr. K. V. Raman referred to the wide-ranging inscriptional evidence on the subject. While Andal refers to herself as Pattarpiran Kothai, she is referred to only as Choodi-kodutha Nachiyar in the inscriptions. Even the much later poets like Tiruvarangathu Amudanar refer to her as Choodi-koduthal. The Alwars were contemporaries of Pallavas and Pandyas and it is obvious that the Bhakti and temple-building movements went hand in hand after the Kalabhra interregnum ended. There was a definite paradigm shift from Vedic yajnas to archa worship in temples and the Velvikkudi copperplates are eloquent witness to the rejuvenation of the Vedic-Brahmanic religion in South India.

Srilata Mueller's "Taming the Love Song of the Lady" insinuated that the passion-laden songs of Andal with inspirations from the ancient Aham aesthesis were systematised to fit in the Visishtadvaitic theology by Periavachan Pillai. For instance there was the Sangam concept of Madal-eruthal that found a love-lorn young man going around the village dressed as a mad man riding a horse made of palmyra leaves. Periavachan Pillai compares Andal's prayers to Kama (a godhead belonging to the lower echelons of the Hindu Pantheon) as a case of self-abandonment comparable to the Madaleruthal of ancient times. This can be seen as a definite attempt to get the <147,1,0>love songs of Andal fit into a codified philosophical system. Vasantha Surya read out the paper of Archana Venkateshan which sought to analyse Andal's poems as an "act of remembrance," almost akin to a kind of purging of the soul. In the ensuing discussion it was pointed out that using terms sacred and secular to describe Sangam poetry and bhakti poetry respectively was a trend begun by the 19th Century scholars from the West. It would be more constructive if a holistic view is taken to get at the Sangam influences which made the poetry of the Alwars an inspiring phenomenon transforming the religious map of the whole of India.

In the evening of day one, the senior Arayar of Srivillipputtur temple, Srinivasa Rangachariar Swami presented an amazing "Muthu Kuri" at the Nithyakalyana Perumal Temple, Tiruvidenthai on the East Coast Road. First came an emotive miming of Tirumangai Alwar's verse, " Thooviriya malaruzhakki" in which the young lady sends the bee as her love's messenger to the Supreme.

Then, through the verses of Andal and other traditional sources, the Arayar evoked the lady who pines for the lord the anxiety of her mother and the gypsy. The gypsy comes and assures Andal that she will surely be united with Arangan. The song-cum-mime Arayar sevai concluded with the "Koodal" verses of Andal. The Arayar Sevai traces its ancestry to the first Srivaishnava Acharya Nathamuni (9th Century) who codified the Divya Prabhandham, taught his nephews Melaiyahathazhvan and Keelaihathazhvan how to sing the verse to the accompaniment of cymbals and instituted the expression-based singing of the prabhandham in temples dedicated Vishnu. Though the institution has almost vanished because of economic factors, select families still continue the sacred art from in temples like Srirangam, Srivillipputtur, Alwar Tirunagari and Tirunarayanapuram.

On the last day, Kalyanapuram Aravamudham, renowned kathakalakshepam maestro gave a fascinating recital of Andal's life and legend, drawing from the Manipravala commentaries, Valmiki's Ramayana, the Telugu songs of Tyagaraja and the Tamil Hymns of the Alwars with electric ease. The festival concluded with a luminous programme of select hymns from Andal offered in the Bharatanatyam mode by Priyadarshini Govind.

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