Sleeping employees, a French official: the saga of a Tamil opera

‘Nandan Charithiram’ was the second opera to get printed

December 23, 2013 02:36 am | Updated 02:36 am IST - CHENNAI:

The cover of ‘Nandan Charithiram’ — Photo: Special Arrangement

The cover of ‘Nandan Charithiram’ — Photo: Special Arrangement

The habit of sleeping during office hours probably began in the 1860s in Karaikal, when it was under French rule. In a strange turn of events, these sleeping babus, were unwittingly responsible for the publication of ‘Nandan Charithiram’ by Gopalakrishna Bharathiyar in 1861.

According to music historian V. Sriram, government employees in Karaikal regularly visited Nagapattinam to listen to Gopalakrishna Bharathiyar performing kathakalashebam based on his new work throughout the night. The result was obvious.

“When the French official Cisse received reports that employees in Karaikal were sleeping instead of working, he conducted an inquiry. After gathering reports about Bharathiyar’s performance being the cause of the ‘problem’, he decided to see it for himself. Cisse was so impressed with the kalashebam and he came forward to publish the work,” said Mr. Sriram, while delivering the South India Heritage Lecture Series organised by the TAG Centre in Chennai.

Cisse’s name was prominently displayed on the cover of the book.

“It was the second Tamil opera, after Arunachala Kavirayar’s ‘Rama Natakam’ to see print,” said Mr. Sriram.

While the story of Nandan, one of the 63 saivite saints, known as Thirunalaipovar — his constant refrain was about going to Chidambaram the next day — been well covered in Seikizhar’s ‘Periyapuranam’, the character of the Brahmin landlord was devised by Bharthiyar.

“Probably, the inspiration would have come from Annu Iyer of Anathandavapuram, a corruption of Ananthathandavapuram. He patronised Bharathiyar who penned ‘Nandan Charithiram’ at the request of Kanthappa Chettiyar of Nagapattinam,” said Mr. Sriram.

Even as ‘Nandan Charithiram’ won acclaim, it was also subjected to criticism for incorporating many kotchai Tamil words.

He was successfully able to ward off the criticism by getting an appreciation note ( paayiram ) from Thirisirapuram Meenakshisundaram Pillai, a great Tamil scholar and teacher of U.V. Swaminatha Iyer.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai had never really appreciated music and it was he who prevented Swaminatha Iyer from learning music from Bharathiyar on the grounds that a musically-inclined mind might come in the way of his learning Tamil. “He agreed to write the paayiram out of love of Bharathiyar, who sang the keerthana varugalamo in raga manji ,” said Mr. Sriram.

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