How the Natyanjali festival celebrates Chidambaram’s eternal bond with dance

The more than four-decade-old Natyanjali has turned into a people’s festival, where the uninitiated happily shares space with the connoisseur

March 09, 2023 06:15 pm | Updated March 11, 2023 03:42 pm IST

The Eastern gate of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram

The Eastern gate of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram | Photo Credit: Chitra Swaminathan

One look at the audience sitting in the open-air venue of the Natyanjali Festival in Chidambaram, and you are reminded of Nandanar’s emotional plea in Gopalakrishna Bharati’s ‘Varugalamo ayya’ (Can I come in, Lord?). The popular composition movingly describes ardent devotee Nandanar’s hesitation to enter the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, because he’s a Dalit. Now, the more than four-decade-old annual Natyanjali dance festival, is where the uninitiated happily share space with connoisseurs — social inclusivity is the norm.

It was a slightly chilly evening on the day after Shivaratri (when the festival was inaugurated), and the moon added to the glow of lights at the Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar Trust on South Car Street. The festival that initially used to be held at the Aayiram Kaal Mandapam inside the Nataraja temple moved to the outer prakaram before shifting to this location in 2015. The stage decor recreated the temple ambience.

Sundari, who sells flowers, never misses watching the performances each year. “Dance not just defines Chidambaram, it takes on a special spiritual significance here. By coming here, we make an offering too,” she says, pushing the basket with some mallipoo still left under the chair. “During this festival, I don’t wait for it all to get sold,” she smiles, quickly adjusting the muffler on her head.

Watch | Natyanjali festival

Autodriver Ponniah doesn’t mind forgoing savaaris (customers) to be here with his wife and two daughters. The elderly Thillainathan and his son have come from the nearby Bhuvanagiri village just for the dance. Despite catering to the classical arts, the festival remains a people’s event. The huge presence of local residents and a free and friendly vibe lend it a celebratory spirit. Most of the audience sits till the last performance, enjoying not just the more familiar Bharatanatyam but also other classical styles.

Ashwitha Krishnan

Ashwitha Krishnan | Photo Credit: Chidambaram Natyanjali Trust

The pieces chosen by the artistes are invariably an ode to the cosmic dancer. For instance, the young Ashwitha Krishnan from Bengaluru draws up Nataraja imageries in her varnam ‘Konjum Salangai’ in raga Lathangi (a composition by Madurai Murlidharan). Her guru Kirti Ramgopal, during a post-performance conversation, talks about what the Natyanjali platform means to up-and-coming artistes such as Ashwitha. “There can be no dance classroom without an idol of Nataraja. But he is more than a religious or spiritual icon, he symbolises the dance of creation, preservation and destruction — the basis of all existence. In his stance lies a deeper understanding of the universe,” says Kirti.

The idea of such a festival was first mooted by arts scholar Kapila Vatsyayan and eminent archaeologist and heritage conservationist, R. Nagaswamy.

Kuchipudi dancer Aruna Rekha Varanasy

Kuchipudi dancer Aruna Rekha Varanasy | Photo Credit: Chidambaram Natyanjali Trust

A. Sambandam, secretary, Chidambaram Natyanjali Trust, who has been associated with the festival since inception, says: “We decided to implement it, realising Chidambaram’s place in the world of natya. This is the 42nd edition. And it feels good that the Natyanjali festival has inspired similar dance events during Shivaratri at temples across Tamil Nadu. Like the four major entrances in four directions that lead to the temple, we too aimed to make art accessible to every person, simultaneously ensuring the devotional aspect of this natya offering is not lost. We give preference to talented youngsters and dance schools.”

Senior teacher and choreographer Sheela Unnikrishnan, whose Sridevi Nrithyalaya is known for its productions, feels that “Every dancer should undertake this pilgrimage since it feels surreal to perform in this temple town. It is the celebration of history, heritage, tradition and a dancer’s bond with the art.”

“Every time I come here with my students, I am eager to present something new. This year, I specially choreographed the Kalabhairavar ashtakam,” adds Sheela.

Watch | 108 dance postures from the Natya Shastra on the Eastern Gopuram wall

For Aruna Rekha Varanasy, a Kuchipudi dancer from Mumbai, Chidambaram marks a significant and memorable stopover in her journey. “It felt like an inner calling when I got an invitation to perform on this stage. Everytime you rehearse or perform, you bow to Nataraja, seeking energy, strength and imagination. And nothing can be more fulfilling for an artiste to be able to dance in the abode of the ultimate guru.”

That evening, Aruna conveyed the essence of some verses from the Lalitha Sahasranamam through her large expressive eyes and seamless flow and precision of her movements.

Students of Sridevi Nrithyalaya performing Kalabhairavar Ashtakam at the festival

Students of Sridevi Nrithyalaya performing Kalabhairavar Ashtakam at the festival | Photo Credit: Chidambaram Natyanjali Trust

A little past 10 p.m. when the last recital of the day was in progress, a few vendors on the street were seen enjoying the performances on the screen outside even as they were winding up to leave. The sound of the salangai broke the silence of the night. As I travelled past the temple, I realised all the Thillai is but a stage.

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