The man came asking for her hand from a faraway village. He had seen her dance, and was instantly smitten. R Muthukannamal agreed to his proposal, but on one condition: that he let her continue dancing. Sathir, an ancient dance form, a precursor to the more popular Bharatanatyam, was her lifeblood, and she was not giving it up. Today, over 60 years later, Muthukannamal says matter-of-factly, “I told him he can live with me only then.”
The Sathir dancer from Viralimalai was recently honoured with the DakshinaChitra Virudhu, an annual award instituted by The Madras Craft Foundation and The Friends of DakshinaChitra to honour folk performing artists.
In a voice muffled by a mouth full of betel leaves, Muthukannamal narrates her story. She draws us instantly — for it’s not every day that one comes across a 79-year-old who can dance and sing at the same time; who is the last of the 32 Devadasis who served the deity at the Muruga temple in Viralimalai; who lives life on her terms; and most importantly, continues to dance.
Muthukannamal is from the seventh generation of a family of Sathir dancers — her father was her teacher. “I did my arangetram (début on-stage performance) when I was seven,” she says. She has been dancing from the time she learned to walk. “I was up by 3.30 am to practise every day,” she says. Waking up that early was the least of her concerns. She laughs, “I lived in a house full of dancers who would start dancing much earlier in the morning. Imagine sleeping amid the din.”
Tradition demanded that she live a life of dedication to the temple, and Muthukannamal embraced it. The long practice sessions, a strict father and teacher, the constant public gaze — Muthukannamal breezed through it. She loved it all; the respect and recognition her dance form earned her, and that her life was going to be composed of nothing but dance.
But things weren’t that easy once she entered her twenties. “We were under the patronage of the Pudukottai Maharaja, Rajagopala Tondaiman for 12 years.” Once privy purses for royals were abolished, Muthukannamal was confounded. Her stage inside the temple premises disappeared. “But we got invited to perform at weddings,” she says. And so began a new way of life — at a time when women rarely stepped out of their homes, Muthukannamal travelled across Tamil Nadu, and even Kerala to perform Sathir. She journeyed in trains, cars, and even bullock carts; and danced her way through her wedding and the birth of her three children.
She rarely says no to a performance, even today. “I came to Chennai this morning after a performance at a Pollachi temple,” she says. “I’ve been going there for 38 years.” A Sathir dancer is also the singer, requiring her to master breathing techniques. Muthukannamal laughs recalling how her father would chide her the moment she stopped singing during practice. “He was very insistent of the rules of the dance,” she adds.
Today, Muthukannamal teaches Sathir to those interested. “It’s important that they know the basics of Bharatanatyam though,” she explains. More people are coming forward to learn from her. Age is catching up, but she’s having none of it — she fights exhaustion from travel and sleep to sit for the interview and even manages an impromptu performance. With her nose-studs glittering, and eyes alive, Muthukannammal sings in a booming voice as her hands move fluidly. It’s heart-warming to see her dance with all her heart.
Behind the stage
Muthukannamal didn’t wear makeup for her performances. She merely washed her face with freshly rubbed turmeric root. The result: her face glowed golden in the light of the oil lamps (There were no harsh lights back then).
Her father Ramachandra Nattuvanar did her hair – he braided it, and she decorated it with flowers.
Sathir involves acrobatics, which she did with ease by tucking her sari between her legs.
Muthukannamal got both sides of her nose pierced when she was a little girl, in keeping with her profession’s aesthetic.