Srirama Bharati (b.23-6-1949), till recently Deputy Director, Doordarshan and presently Director, Sri Sadagopan Tirunarayana Swami Divya Prabandha Pathasala, is a student of V.V. Sadagopan, with whom he began a study of the performance tradition of Divya Prabandham 25 years ago.
Srirama Bharati is a well known performer and teacher of the Araiyar art. His bath Festival of Markali won the prestigious Hoso Bunka Foundation Radio Prize in 1978. His annual Devagana performances in the temple of Sri Muddu Tirunarayana Swami have been widely acclaimed. His wife Sowbhagya Lakshmi, also a student of V.V. Sadagopan, accompanies him in his performances.
Every year during January-February the serene village of Selvamudaiyan Pattai (Jalladampet) brims with gaity as the temple of Sri Muddu Tirunarayana Swami presents Araiyar Sevai, continuing a theatre tradition traceable to Yogacharya Sri Nathamuni (9th Century AD). The ten-day festival is a celebration of the Alvars, giving aesthetic expression to the poets' psychological gender transformation and their passionate call to divinity in erotic terms, through the sublime spiritual experience of Sringara Rasa.
Theatre Expression in Sri Vaishnava Worship is a scholarly account of that festival and its variants in the temples of Srirangam and elsewhere. Srirama Bharati, who has taught and performed the sacred art for over 25 years has rendered the Alvars' Pasurams (verses from the Divya Prabandham) in English with the intimacy of an 'insider'. The book includes an overview of the 108 Divya Desa temples and a gist of the Vishnu-Krishna lore of the Itihasa-Puranas.
"Bharati has placed the world of scholarship in his debt. I deem it a privilege to write this
Vaishnava religion has had a continuous history almost from the beginning of the Epic period. In the Rig Veda, Vishnu is a solar deity regarded as the pervader, having his place in the supreme heaven (Vishnoh paramam padam). We have also in the Vedas the conception of the God Bhaga, who is the bestower of auspicious blessings. It soon came to mean the power of goodness and he who possessed that power was called Bhagavan. The religion in which Bhagavan or Bhagavat is the object of work ship is Bhagavatism. We have reference in the Mahabharata to the Bhagavata religion. Vaishnavism is the development of the Bhagavata religion which identifies Vishnu with Bhagavan. The distinctive features of Vaishnavism are found in the Pancharatra religion metioned in the Mahabharatam. In the Vishnupurana, Vishnu's supremacy is unrivalled and the Hari Vamsa strengthens it. From certain inscriptions it is gathered that the Bhagavata religion found its way into South India some time before the first century of the Christian era. The Srimad Bhagavata Puranam says that in the kali age the worshippers of Narayana will be legion in Southern India.
Sri Vaishnavism is, therefore, as old as Hinduism itself and it has been extolled through the age as the religion of redemption. In the history of Indian philosophy. Visishtadvaitic Vaishnavism occupies a central position both as philosophy if its great men, the Alvars and the Acharyas or the seers and the prophets, recorded in the Guruparampara. The most important milestone in the continuous history of this great religion is the period during which its systematiser, the immortal Ramanuja of sacred memory, lived and with his magnetic personality, encyclopaedic knowledge and brilliant powers of exposition placed it on an imperishable pedestal. And Ramanuja in turn leaned heavily on the teachings of the Alvar saints who lived in different parts of Tamil Nadu between the 6th and 8th centuries A.D. and poured out in Tamil their sacred utterances totaling 4000 verses which were compiled and set to music in the 9th century by Nathamuni, the first Acharya of Sri Mystics have always taught that the Divine must be sought through self-surrender (know as Prapatti) and loving mediation (called Bhakti). The Alvars, who were steeped in God consciousness, betook themselves to serve Lord Narayana by these as ten and their chronological order has been given as follows by Vedanta Desika in his 'Prabandha Saram' and by Manavala Mamuni in his 'Upadesa Rattinamalai'.
Vedanta Desika: Poykai Alvar, Bhutattalvar, Pay Alvar, Tirumalisai Alvar, Nammalvar, Madurakavi Alvar, Kulasekara Alvar, Periyalvar, Andal, Tondaradippodi Alvar, Tiruppanalvar, Tirumangai Alvar.
Manavala Mamuni: Poykai, Bhuta, Pey, Tirumalisai, Nammalvar. Kulasekara, Periyalvar, Tondaradippodi Alvar, Tiruppanalvar and Tirumangai Alvar.
Bhakti is one of the most important tenets of Hinduism. A vast literature has grown around this cardinal concept in many Indian languages. There are several definitions, but the main concept remains the same. The Bhakti Ratnavali of Vishnu Puri, which is an anthology from the Bhagavatam, says that the sentiment of devotion to the Supreme Being is as the Vedas themselves.
Bhakti opens the way to illumination. Ramanuja regard bhakti as a kind of knowledge (Jnana Visesham). Without Bhakti mere knowledge cannot lead us to freedom.
Vaishnava devotion has used the most intimate human relations as symbols of the relation of man and God. God is viewed as the teacher, the friend, the father, the mother, the child and even as the beloved. The last is stressed by the Alvars, the Bhagavata Purana and the Bengal school of Vaishnavism.
As already mentioned, Nathamuni was not merely a savant and an Acharya but was also an adept in the art of music. There is an interesting incident narrated in the 'Koyil Olugu', a history of the Ranganatha temple at Srirangam. Nathamuni was then living at Kattumannarkoil near Chidambaram. One day several Vaishnavities from Melnad recited a decad of verses commencing with the word 'Aravamude' and concluding with 'these ten out of a thousand composed by Satakopan of Kurukur'. Nathamuni, who was thrilled by the verses, made anxious enquiries from them if they knew the rest of the verses but they replied that the ten they recited were all that they knew.
Nathamuni was sorely disappointed and soon got into a state in which he could not rest till he unearthed the other Pasurams of Satakopan (Nammalvar). He proceeded forthwith to Kurukur, the birth place of the Alvar and met Parankusa Muni Dasa, a disciple of Madurakavi. The latter confessed to Nathamuni that owing to the indifference of the local Vaishnavites the verses were practically lost to the world and the only method of recovering them was, according to his Guru, to mediate on Nammalvar by repeating the decad 'Kanninun Siruttambu' (by Madurakavi) twelve thousand times. Nathamuni was only too glad to follow the advice and in due course Saint Nammalvar appeared before his mental vision and taught him his Tiruvaimoli. Nathamuni later appears to have collected the Pasurams of the other Alvars from other sources.
Nathamuni was fully aware that the verses collected by him, excepting the Iyarpa, had been originally set to music by the respective Alvars themselves. The Guruparampara says that Periyalvar sang the Tiruppallandu using the bells on an elephant's neck as cymbals. Saint Tiruppanalvar was a professional musician (Paanar) and sang the praises of Lord Ranganatha with a Vina in his hands. But the original music had been lost.
Nathamuni decided to set the Divya Prabandham verses to music in the Deva Ganam style on the model of the Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita Prayogas of the Vedas. He took the assistance of his two nephews, Kizhai Akattalvan and fulfilled the task. For this magnificent service rendered by Nathamuni not only to Vaishnavism but also to sacred music, Vedanta Desika aptly describes him as "Taiam Valangit Tamil Marai Innisai Tanda Vallal" (the benefactor who set the Tamil Vedas to music with Talas).
From the Guru Parampara it would appear that there were two styles of music in Tamil Nadu in Nathamuni's time viz. 'Deva Gana' and Manushya Gana' and Nathamuni adopted the former style. Which was Deva Gana and which was Manushya Gana? A clarification for this is available from an anecdote narrated in the Guru Parampara itself. In the court of Chola king, who was then ruling from Gangai Konda Cholapuram, there was a dispute between two women singers, one singing the Deva Gana style and the other, the Manushya Gana style. The ruler set up a committee of musicians to settle the dispute and as recommended by it, declared the Manushya Gana style as the superior of the two and honoured the exponent of the style. This broke the heart of the Deva Gana singer who, from that day, decided to dedicate her art to none other than God. She traveled from place to place singing in shrines but no one appreciated her music till she came to Natahmuni's village. The Acharya realized her worth and praised her style of singing.
The Chola king who heard about the incident invited Nathamuni to his court and requested him to explain the real greatness of Deva Gana. The Acharya explained it with suitable authority and to prove that one should possess a sharp ear for subtle Srutis to appreciate that style, he had several pairs of cymbals of different weights sounded at the same time and accurately told their individual weight. This shows that the Deva Gana style had more subtle Srutis than the Manushya among the 4000 verses of the Divya Prabandham, Tamil Panns and Talas had been assigned to the 1102 verses of Nammalvar's 'Tiruvaimoli'. Ragas have been assigned by some later musicians but they do not tally with the Tamil Panns concerned. For the 'Iyarpa', there is no music at all.
During Nathamuni's time the temple singers of the Prabandham came to known as 'Araiyars' and they not only sang the verses but danced as well. The ritual is still followed in Srirangam, Srivilliputtur, Alvar Tirunagari and Tirunarayanapuram (Melkote in Karnataka). The title of 'Nada Vinoda Araiyar' was conferred on a singer by Lord Ranganatha who is himself referred to in the Koyil Olugu as 'Gayaka Sarvabhauma', a surprisingly modern expression.
The poetic beauties and the devotional content of the Pasurams of the Alvars have been fascinating the Tamil speaking world for over 12 centuries and they have been commented upon by eminent Acharyas and translated into several language. For the benefit of the English knowing public several Indian and European scholars have translated selected portions into English prose verse. But good has chosen and ordained Srirama Bharati to render the most signal service for propagating the Divya Prabandham. Born and brought up in New Delhi as the son of an illustrious scholar of Tamil descent, Vaishnava blood runs in Bharati's veins and a devotional rapture seizes him when he sings the Prabandham. Although not traceable to an Araiyar lineage, he because a Super Araiyar when he dons the Araiyar apparel.
Bharati's revered Acharya in his life's mission is no less a savant than my close friend V.V. Sadagopan, a musician and scholar of race merit and a soul that had realized itself. With nostalgia, I remember the many fruitful fours I spent in his company at Delhi. Srirama Bharati's unique achievement in the field is not fortuitous. He spent years at Alvar Tirunagari and Tirunarayanapuram studying the Araiyar tradition. He them set to music the Prabandham in modern rages which would fit into their spirit. Setting down at Melkote, Bharati published 'Deva Gana' (An outline of South Indian Temple Music) in 1985. This was the forerunner of the 'Tiruvaimoli of Nammalvar' (Rendered into English) published in 1987. The 'Devaganam' (Musical Tradition of the Divya Prabandham) published in 1995 runs into 500 pages with about 400 Pasurams in notation and also an English paraphrase for each verse.
The present volume is Srirama Bharati's magnum opus. It contains the English rendering of all the verses of the Deva Ganam, including the Tanians, and copious notes of great value. This is a feat achieved for the first time in the annals of the Prabandham extending to over 12 centuries. Bharati has placed the world of scholarship in his debt. I deem it a privilege to be asked to write a foreword to this unique publication.
A water colour picture of Sri Nathamuni hangs in the hall of mirrors at Alvar Tirunagari, done perhaps two hundred years ago. Since it is numbered, it would appear to be part of a planned series depicting various decades of the Tiruvaimoli. The main panel in the picture depicts decad 10.3, where the boy saint Nammalvar achieves a gender transformation and enjoys union with Krishna. The insert shows Sri Nathamuni having a beatific vision of that union, and singing in ecstasy. He is shown as a bearded figure wearing a tall cap over his long hair gathered into a tuft. A tiger skin covers his lions. In his left hand he holds a fretted string instrument. His right hand is raised in Jnana Mudra. He wears a saffron mark on his forehead in the shape of a 'U' with a dot in the middle. The Upavita or sacred thread runs across his bare chest.
It is said that after Nathamuni's Yogic vision of Nammalvar, he called his disciple Uyyakkondar, and told him of his intention to teach him the secret of his Yoga. Uyyakkondar said, " Pinankidakka Manam Kollalamo?" (Is it right to marry, when corpses, lie all around?) That is, with so many spiritually empty souls moving like corpses, needing to be redeemed, is it right to exclusively enjoy the bliss of spiritual union with the Lord? Nathamuni saw merit in the argument and devised plays to educate the lay through entertainment. He then presented these plays in Srirangam, reviving a tradition that Tirumangai Alvar had instituted several decades earlier.
Five generations later, Ramanuja expended the plays in scope and content, and created a band of players, (Iramanusanudaiyars) for their performance during Utsavams and before the Lord in procession. This theatre movement gave rise to the tradition of Araiyar Sevai in temples. It is an integral part of Sri-Vaishnava worship, based on the sacred works of the Alvars, and sanctified by Pancharatra. In its ritual form, Araiyar Sevai can be witnessed during the Adhyayana Utsavam (December-January) at Srirangam and in the temple of Srivilliputtur, Alvar Tirunagari and Tirunarayanapuram. The past of the Araiyar in these temples is hereditary, even if the Araiyars themselves may or may not be. The sheer antiquity of this art no doubt creates a sense of awe in the viewer, but the discerning listener is often left wondering how the atonal rendering could be called music. And yet, on that account alone, to call it a dying art or a lost art would be to miss the timelessness of India aesthetics, that has sustained art of life and literature down the ages. At least three times in recorded history, Araiyar Sevai in whatever form has been lost and three times regained, through Yoga, through learned intuition, or though establishment of rapport transcending space and time. In our own times, the well known musician V.V. Sadagopan, the first Acharya of Sri Sadagopan Tirunarayana Swami Divya Prabandha Pathasala, pioneered a revival of the art expression. Sadagopan's work began with his revelatory experience before Periyalvar in the Kudal Alagar temple of Madurai in 1966. He disappeared without a trace in 1980, then reappeared in Archa form six years later and brought the work to its present state of completion. Like of a fruit, so of a man, the proof of ripeness is sweetness. The legacy that Sadagopan has given us is full of sweetness and sweetness alone, though the many that knew him as a man would recall the travels that he had to go through, in putting across concepts and ideas of timeless value to an inherently time-bound world.
A ten day festival is performed in the Pathasala at the beginning of every year as a reverential offering to him from his students and devotees and as a celebration of his advent (Tai-Hastam). Its purpose is to educate, entertain and conserve the art for the generations to come. The festival presents the works of the Alvars serially, beginning with Mudalayiram, then Periya Tirumoli (and Tiruneduntandakam) and finally Tiruvaimoli. (However, in the chapters that follow, Tiruvaimoli precedes Periya Tirumoli, to make for a better understanding of the underlying concepts in the reading.)
An overview of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, source text for Araiyar Sevai appears in the Appendix. The term Ayiram (thousand) in it is more an indication of the size than a number. For historical reasons Araiyars do not sing the Iyarpa section. Also, except in Srirangam, in the decadically arranged works of Periyalvar Tirumoli, Periya Tirumoli, only the first, Uyir Pasurams (sometimes also one more) are sung by the Araiyar, while the rest are recited by the Iyal Goshti. A complete musical account of all the sung Pasurams in Svara Nation has been presented to the Tamil knowing public under the title of Devaganam (1995). The present book extends the presentation to the English knowing world, with translation and notes of the various Pasurams in performance. The first word of the Pasuram, Raga & Tala appear in the title.
Sacred text command respect, and demand humility. Translating the Alvars' poetry into English is an onerous task with endless scope for important. The translations I have provided here are mine; they are meant to be read with the heart sound of the songs. (The songs are available on cassette).
The uniqueness of Alvars' poetry in all of Bhakti literature lies in the Alvars' ability to blend the lore of Vishnu-Krishna with the physical reality of Archa from in temple worship. To understand the poetry therefore one must have a fair acquaintance with the Itihasa-Puranas on the one hand, and familiarity with the ancient temples that dot the land on the other. In these, the new reader may derive some help from the Appendices, one which give a gist of the lore, and another the salient features of the108 traditionally revered temples. The Index number of the temple appears as superscript in the text.
The book is designed to be used as a brief guide for those who come to the Pathasala to witness the Annual Festival. It is also addressed to the general reader interested in the Alvar tradition, presenting Araiyar Sevai in the overall context as performed here and in other temples. Above all it goes out to the rising generation with a hope and a message. If it can inspire a dedicated pursuit of the art carrying it into the next millennium, the book would have served a purpose.
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