Swan song

DEVOTED: Araiyars in Srirangam. Photo: M. Srinath   | Photo Credit: M_SRINATH

An ancient scripture lost to time, revived by curiosity and kept alive by genealogy — is the one line story behind the Araiyars. They are a sect dedicated to the coalescence of literature with music, expression and commentary.

Today the Araiyar community, whose population has steadily dwindled over the centuries, can be found at just three places in the state: Srirangam (Tiruchi), Srivilliputhur and Tirunagari. In Srirangam, the community once occupied an entire quadrangle called Senthamizh Paaduvan Veedhi (Classical Tamil Singers' Street) of the present day agraharam (Brahmin settlement). Today there are just two families left. Meet the survivors of time.

“The word araiyar in Tamil means arasan (king). Araiyars are hence also known as paatuku thalaivar (kings of song),” says Araiyar Lakshminarayanan, the head of one of the Araiyar families in Srirangam. Giving a brief on the history of this tradition, this former Deputy General Manager of BHEL says the lost 4,000 verses of the Dhivya Prabandham (written by Vaishnavite saints) were revived by a person called Naadhamunigal.

“To ensure that it was never lost again, he set the verses to a tune called Devaganam (music of the lords), choreographed it with relevant abinayams (expressions) and taught it to his two nephews, who became the very first Araiyars.”

Descendants of Naadhamunigal, the Araiyar community has since then been performing the ritualistic Araiyar Sevai on select festivals at Vaishnavite temples. The ancient scripture, inscribed on olai chuvadis (palm leaf manuscripts) has been handed down through the generations, along with a unique costume. “Only two copies of this palm leaf script exist now in Srirangam and it is in the Nagari script (Tamil combined with Sanskrit),” says Araiyar Srirangachari, who is practicing agriculture. The olai chuvadi is hand preserved with a concoction made of coal powder and the juice of green leaves, which is rubbed onto the leaves gently with cottonwool. “Our interpretation of the script, which forms the vyakyanam (commentary) part of the sevai, will differ from that of Araiyars elsewhere. Ours is based on the Thambiran padai, written by our ancestors,” he adds. A conical hat named kullai, the traditional panchagachham and two hand-held cymbals make up the costume.

Araiyar Renganathan, Superintendent of accounts with the Tiruchi Corporation quotes a combination of reasons for the gradual withering away of the community. “Many Araiyars did not father boy children (girls are not allowed to perform the service), learning the nuances of the performance took around 18 years of unwavering dedication, and the service being honorary alone, was not enough to sustain their families for most,” he says. People started abandoning the tradition for want of financial stability and started entering regular careers, leading to a steady drop in the number of Araiyars in the community, according to the surviving Araiyars in Srirangam.

Araiyar Baradwajan and Araiyar Madhavan are from the next generation of this community. Hoping to be a civil aviation pilot and an engineer respectively, these two youngsters along with the few others in the other Araiyar family, embody the community's future. For Araiyar Madhavan it has been a natural progression in his life to enter the service.

“Right from the age of four, we are taken along to watch our elders perform and we spend all our free time learning the verses, the abinayams and the commentaries,” he says. An understanding that money is the major factor that drove most families into deserting the tradition, these youngsters are keen on finding careers that would give them the finances as well as the time to keep it alive.

Quoting incidents from their childhood, the family recalls how they were allowed to take exams separately when the need arose, the respect and adulation they received and the high levels of interest among their audience. “The larger community and their patronage continue to be a point of motivation for the Araiyars, though the number of people who understand the relevance of our performance has dropped,” says Araiyar Lakshminarayanan. Commenting on the administrative changes that have been happening at the various temples, he feels that the government could protect several such traditions through the people it appoints as authorities.

“If people, who understand the cultural heritage of such traditions, are placed in appropriate positions, that by itself will ensure the longevity of the respective communities,” he says.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 9:30:37 AM |

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