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Keeping a tradition alive

For C.S.M.Subramanyam, an employee with the Southern Railways, namasankirtanam is a form of worship. He is performing at the Ananthapadmanabhaswami temple, Adyar, on December 21.

HE WILL show you certificates awarded to him for excellence at work in the Southern Railways as section engineer, Basin Bridge. But though he is conscientious about his job, and good at it, we can see C.S.M.Subramanyam's heart is elsewhere.

Every summer, it takes him to Saliamangalam, Thanjavur, where he transforms himself into Lilavati — wife of the demon Hiranyakasipu, mother of the saintly Prahlada — in the centuries-old Bhagavatamela dance drama, performed as an annual ritual to propitiate the Gods.

The Bhagavatamela is a hereditary all-male art form, practised by the village clansmen as a sacred duty. "My mother belongs to Saliamangalam. Her father and brother are custodians of the lion mask of Narasimha, which is crucial to the play. They offer daily worship to the mask at home," he tells you. On annual trips to the village, Subramanyam was inducted into the traditional play, "Prahlada Charitram", stage by stage — first as Vinayaka, then young Prahlada, and eventually as the female lead.

Born and brought up in Andhra Pradesh, Subramanyam became familiar with Telugu, the language of the mela natakams. Training in Kuchipudi there was supplemented much later by Bharatanatyam with guru V.P.Dhananjayan and his disciple, Sahadevan. In Thanjavur, he was put through the Bhagavatamela rehearsals by guru Herambhan who belongs to a family of traditional artistes. "He had the old jatis intact and composed new movements for them. I had absorbed the abhinaya from childhood by observing my senior S.Srinivasan, who made a superb Lilavati in those days."

Subramanyam's fascination for namasankirtanam — communitarian chanting, reciting and singing in praise of the personal deity — also began in childhood, with father C.S.Sundaram taking the boy to attend bhajan sessions. "I have seen old Bhagavatars breaking into abhinaya as they sang moving songs, while remaining seated. Some experts such as Pudukkottai Gopalakrishna Bhagavatar and Srivanchiyam Ramachandra Bhagavatar used to get up and dance with bells on their feet. I was a child when A.L.Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar would ask me to join him as he went round the lamp (deepa pradakshina) in the Radha Kalyana Utsavam."

It was natural for Subramanyam to continue this practice as an adult. "There is no `stage'. You dance in front of people sitting on the same level on the ground. Often you are in the middle of a circle of spectators. The musicians sing, drums beat, cymbals resound, and you dance with growing abandon, depicting stories of gods, goddesses and saints." For this theatre-in-the-round, Subramanyam had to develop new, non-proscenium methods of movement.

The songs are not part of dance music but the kritis of Tyagaraja, tarangams of Narayana Tirtha, padas of Annamacharya, kirtanams of Gopalakrishna Bharati and Marathi abhangs. "There is great scope for sanchari bhava. I shape Panduranga's throne in all its splendour, place the Lord on it, and surrender myself to Him. Or reveal the compassion of the Lord who came to the helpless Draupadi's rescue. I create the drama of Narasimha's incarnation for Purandaradasa's verse — after all, I am steeped in the lion god lore of Saliamangalam." His favourite however, is Nandanar, in `Varuhalamo', where the saint laments that he is lowborn and without any merit to claim the Lord's grace. "I forget myself in the pitifulness of his plight. Audience response is tremendous."

Subramanyam is keen to continue the namasankirtanam dance tradition as there are few people today to keep it alive. The venues are temples, maths and homes in many parts of India. A welcome development in the last two years is the encouragement from the Chennai sabhas.

With so much ardour and involvement, why has he not taken up sacral dance as a full-time career? "I don't have the guts to give up my job,'' he admits ruefully. Besides, for him, dance is worship, not a career. With senior auditor wife Uma's wholehearted approval, he donates whatever remuneration he gets for dancing to temples and charitable institutions. "I want my sons to feel the same bhakti, to see dancing as worship. The elder one already plays little Krishna or Ayyappa in my shows."

Subrahmanyam's only complaint is that his office does not support the pursuit of art. He is unable to perform more than twice a month or travel abroad with namasankirtanam troupes. "There is so much support in this country for sports, but hardly anything for those involved in cultural activities," he says. "But I will continue to do my best now and in the future."

C.S.M.Subramanyam is performing at the namasankirtanam in Ananthapadmanabhaswami temple, Adyar, on December 21.


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