History & Culture

A voice that echoes in the sanctum of Kapaliswarar temple

Odhuvar Sargurunathan  

The saya rakshai or evening prayer at Chennai’s famed Kapaliswarar Temple in Mylapore has a particular magnetism. In the intense atmosphere, as the priests chant and the oil lamps are lit, the nagaswaram plays, and the temple bells join in. Then, everything suddenly falls quiet, and in that moment of stillness, the clear voice of Odhuvar Sargurunathan begins to recite the Thevarams dedicated to Lord Siva.

Sargurunathan sings in this sanctum every day, choosing from the compositions of the Saivite saints, the Moovar Thevaram, each poem set to lyrical pann ragas; a ritual offering of music that he makes unfailingly; even through these times when the temple has been shut for devotees.

If one connects this remarkable singer to the Thevara Nayakans whose names were carved in stone by Raja Raja Chola in the 11th century Brihadiswara Temple, one realises that he can easily be included in the list of 612 artistes, of whom a group of 50 were identified as the Thiruppadigam Padum Pitarargal – ancestors of Saivite devotional singers.

Even more interesting is the legend of the lost songs engraved on brittle palm leaves found lying in a locked room in the temple at Chidambaram and how Raja Raja Chola restored them for worship throughout his kingdom.

The life stories of the saints are well-known from Sundarar’s Thiru Thondar Thogai and the later magnum opus, Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam. Legend has it that the mettu or lost tunes of the poems were remembered by a frail old woman, a descendant of Yazhpanar Thiruneelakanda Nayanar, one of the 63 Nayanar saints.

Initial training

Odhuvar Sargurunathan was born in Karukkatippatti, about 20 km from Thanjavur, where his father worked as a primary school teacher. As a teenager, he was taught Tirumurai music by experienced Odhuvar Murthis, Tamil scholars and singers, in an institution supported by industrialist A.C. Muthiah. The Odhuvars are part of an ancient lineage of singers of Thevaram hymns.

Like all students, Sargurunathan too learnt the 12 Saiva Tirumurais or anthologies perfectly. The Nayanar verses extol 275 temples, known as Paadal Petra Sthalam, and the students also learn the Arputha Padhigams or songs composed on each temple and its sthala puranam (temple history) .

Sargurunathan excels in the Poompavai Padhigam, part of the Mylapore temple legacy. This Padhigam, sung in pann Sikamaram (Mayamalavagowla of the Carnatic music), is a plaintive song, ‘Mattitta punnayan kanal madamayilai, kattittam kondan Kapaliiccharam amarndhan’, where the boy saint Gnanasambandar addresses the young girl Poompavai, asking her to return to life, as her grieving father holds her ashes in a pot.

Gnana Sambandar’s poem is incomparable, containing an amazing record of the temple's antiquity and the rituals and celebrations observed in those times, followed even today. The festivals of each month of the Tamil calendar are mentioned, from Purattasi festival, Aippasi Onam to Karthigai Deepam, Thai Poosam, Panguni Brahmotsavam and so on. Each stanza ends with a moving query, “Why have you left us without seeing these festivals, Poompavai?”

Stint at gurukulam

The Padhigam is accompanied by the ritual enactment of the resurrection of Poompavai from the ashes, with Sargurunathan’s moving rendition of ‘Mattitta punnayan’ on the Western bank of the temple tank at noon on the day of the Arubatthu Moovar festival.

His stint at the gurukulam followed by training in Carnatic music under Vidwan B. Achutharaman helped Sargurunathan hone his skills in the traditional pann system while also building bridges with Carnatic ragas. His immaculate voice modulation suits the rendering of the Thevaram verses. It is important, according to him, not to hamper the lyrics with any flourishes. Simplicity marks his singing. Sargurunathan says these songs are the essence of poetry, music and rhythm, and every effort must be made to absorb the depth of the lyrics and convey their spiritual meaning.

He sings six times through the day, starting with the Thiru Palliezhucchi at dawn in Bowli ragam to Ardha Jama Puja in a soothing Sahana ragam for Manickavachagar’s beautiful lullaby ‘Ponn Oonjal Aadamo.’ Besides his temple duties , Sargurunathan and visiting Odhuvars present verses when the deities are taken out in a procession along the four temple streets during the 10-day Brahmotsavam.

Sargurunathan’s scholarship and understanding of music are evident in the rare songs that he revives. And he is particularly famous for his rendition of Sundarar’s ‘Meela Adimai’ in Pann Ragam Chenjurutti (Madhymavathi).

The Thevaram verses, with their historic and socio-cultural references, are valuable not just as history but as components of an important intangible cultural heritage. And Sargurunathan represents the continuity of such a heritage.

The Chennai-based writer is a veteran Bharatanatyam dancer

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 11:28:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-voice-that-echoes-in-the-sanctum-of-kapaliswarar-temple/article32403717.ece

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