Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sadhir workshop

I was blessed recently to be able to attend a workshop on Sadhir- aka Dhasiaatam, the dance form practiced by Devadasi community in temples and in festivals affliated to the temple and the court . The workshop was conducted by 77 year old Muthukannammal of devadasi community from Viralimali in Pudukottai district, Tamilnadu. The workshop was arranged by Udalveli foundation, that aims at opening up audiences in Coimbatore to a wide range of stage performances and artistic experiences. The workshop was well attended by some senior dance practioners from as far as Bangalore and Hyderabad, all masters in their own right.

The workshop took off to a bright start with Muthukkannammal regaling the group of dancers with her singing skills and opening up to the group with stories of her life and art. The group of dancers were well motivated and heartily took to the inspiration that Muthukkannammal had so generously to offer, and quickly organised among themselves into a cohesive unit, ready to grasp every piece of art, this legend had to offer, and perform them on stage in a grand evening that would conclude the workshop.

The dancers were quite aware of what a historic moment they were part of, and were keen on learning the features of a dying art from one of its living masters. They were also aware of the responsibility that was to befall their young shoulders in keeping this dance form alive. They also showed great elan and aptitude in picking up the dance from the simple instructions of Muthukkannammal.

From the wide range of repertoire that Muthukannamal was privy to, the dancers and the organisers decided on working on 6 items for a performance showcasing the form of Sadhir. This included 1. Alarippu 2. two Padhams 3. a Kummi 4. a kolattam piece and 5. a Nottuswaram.


Viralimalai Muthukkannammal was born in 1929 in a devadasi family. She was wedded to Lord Subramanya of Viralimalai at the age of 7, in a ceremony that is called 'pottu kattudhal', the last of such an instance in Viralimalai. She was trained in dance and music by her father Ramachandra nattuvanar, who had learnt the dance traditions of Viralimalai) from his mother, Nagammal( a devadasi)'s elder sister Ammani ammal and the repertoire of the Tanjore quartet from his mother's teacher and 'some time companion' Pandanallur Kumarasami Nattuvanar.

Muthukkannammal recalled with pride how she and others of her community were so much an integral part of the temple and its rituals that the day in a temple started and ended with a Devadasi. She recounted how they would be called upon in the morning to present before the lord, rice flour and make patterns of 'om Saravanbhava' on some 32 plates and present it before the lord. it is these 32 plates of rice that would go in to feeding the 32 families of devadasi community that lived off this temple. Each of this family had atleast one girl wedded to Lord muruga or a man who formed the music troupe of the attached to a devadasi.

In the evening the Devadasi would be called upon to remove all the evil cast upon the Lord and shield him, as any wedded wife would care for her husband. She would again be called upon in the night to sing lullabies and see the Lord to sleep in his private chamber.

These apart, she would be called upon to assist the purohit in conducting the daily poojas and in performing dances on special occasions and festivities.

The devadasi and her troupe of musicians ( called Thasimelam) also travelled out of the temple to perform in royal courts and festivities of the landed Zamindars. Muthukkannammal recalled how some of these Zamindars were very appreciative of their music and dance performances and gifted them liberally. 

All this gaiety and celebration turned sour and bitter overnight with a piece of legislation introduced by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, calling for the abolition of Devadasi system. Now Muthukkannammal could perform nowhere, she lost her livelihood and her patrons.MK's father had to sell all that they had received as gifts at throwaway prices, so that they could sustain themselves. MK recalled how she felt stifled and suffocated by humiliation all around. Amidst all this Muthukkannammal vowed not to let her art vanish in thin air. She made it a practice to perform within the temple premises, even though no one appreciated her art are welcomed her performance. She held on to her art with all conviction and it is  her resolve to see her art pass on to younger generation that has made this workshop possible. 

Sadhir and Bharatham

It was on the top of all our minds to understand how was Sadhir different from Bharathanatyam. Scholars would have pages to cite on this topic, but i would like to share here what i observed during the course of this workshop.

Singing: In Sadhir, the dancer is simultaneously trained in singing as well and is expected to sing during her performance. This is one aspect MK kept stressing on to the participants in the workshop, and was quite proud of her ability to sing and dance even at this ripe age. 

Mudhras: Bharatham lays a lot more emphasis on hand mudhras than Sadhir, whereas Sadhir delves more into enacting andbringing to life the drama in the composition.

Compositions that formed the oeuvre of Sadhir reflected the evolving cultural ethos of the time- like Modi, Nottuswaram; and drew heavily from folk traditions of the land- like Kummi, Kuravanji. This was amply reflected in the pieces that were chosen for performance on the concluding day of the workshop.


Kuravanji is a dance drama that had its origins some four hundred years ago in the Maratha courts of Nayak rulers. The most popularly known work of this genre, Kutrala kuravanji was authored by Thirikoodarasappa kavirayar. Many avatars of the kuravanji concept, wherein a Kurati, a tribal woman visits the city, mostly as a messenger of love, forms the crux of Kuravanji dance drama. In our workshop we were exposed to songs from Viralimalai kuravanji.

In this segment we have a Kurathi entering the stage praising lord Muruga of Virali malai and subsequently describing the hill scape she hails from and the general ethics that bind her lifestyle to the city folks and telling them what she is capable of in a very animated style. the lyrics of the song are slightly tweaked to suit the features of a locality in time and space resulting in a location specific Kuravanji.

In the song we got to hear, the Kurathi first introduces herself as some on from the hills of Subramanya..
vanji vanthaal malai kura vanji vanthaal 
senjali gunsali aagiya theeran subramanian naattil 
vanji vanthaal
vanji vanthalaiya, mamalai kura vanji vanthalaiya..
kanja malar  velli valar gangai kula velaral
konjum subramaninan koor vadi thazhaikkum naatil 
sootiya sangani valai pootiya sangani valai
subramania natinil kudigal kolla 
vanji vanthalaiyaa..

Next she goes on to tell the city folks about her customs and how she is different from them..
jaathi murai kelu amme..
minji metti kaal viralil podom, naangal..
meththaiyil paduthu manam naadom
vandu methitha malagalai soodom
matroru jaathikku naangal pen koduthu,
 koodom koodom koodom

oruvarudan palar koodi padupom, nangal
odi kanjikaha paatai padipom, nangal
surumbudan kal kudipom
soonyam puthaiyalgalai kandu eduppom
Next, she tells them about the magical powers she possesses and how she can help bring a new lease of life to the city folks..

vasiya jalangal engal agapattu irukkuthu
manathu vaithu kelum kelumaiye.
pasuvum puliyum oru thuraiyil erangi ninru
parugi unninada seithu paarthiduvom;
kosuvai karudanudan parakka vittu panthayam
koodiduvom, maiyal naadiduvom.

koona kilavi nalla kumari pol sool kondu
kulanthai petru thanthida konjiduvom;
pesatha oomaigalai pesumpadi seivom
peria malaiyai engal maiyiril katti adipom.

The Kuravanji is so very convincing and irresistible with what she has to offer, that she is certain to accomplish whatever mission she has set out on.


Notuswaram refers to Notes song set to western tune, with only swaras for the words of the song. As each line ends in the song, the dancer gestures a 'salaam' to the audience. These compositions and performances probably reflect the community's efforts to win over patrons from among the English.

The dancing set to Notuswaram largely draws from the stamping of feet in a millitary marching.

The song goes..

gagarariga  pamamaga riririgari rigamariri 
sasa sanidapadanisapadapdadapa


Muthukkannammal had the best of training of two world's- the Viralimalai repertoire and the Tanjore courtly repertoire, as a result of her father's training in both. We were introduced to a Sabdam set to praising a King of Bhoja clan..

Bhosala Kula soma, (scion of Bhoja) 
budajana visrama ( protector of the common man)

niku sati dora nivani ninne nera nammi nanu( i believe you have no equal)
tanjapurini velasina ( oh resident of Tanjaur)
srimantudu nivera (blessed one)
sivoji maharajendra ( ref to Siavaji II) 
bhalira melu salamu re.


The Tanjore courtly repertoire is characterised by padhams, that is songs brimming with love and eroticism. in the padham chosen for the workshop we had the heroine pining for her love, while still staying focussed on being paid for her love...

enna seiguven penne en mogaththai,
ethu seiguven kanne en mogaththai
ennerumo aval ennai kalanthanaivaal?
mannan rajagoplan innamum vara kanen

aasai irunthaal inna, kaasai viduvamo?
alagu maapilai aanalum, valavukku sellalamo?
vesikku kaasillamal veru piriyamundo,
veenaga nee enthan veetu kizhavi vaivaal.


Kummi is a traditional folk dance, where the dancers are in a circle and execute steps that are accompanied by clapping to music. the accompanying song is usually in praise of the King, and the Gods of the land, and has very sprightly tone to it, wanting to make you jump and join the cirle of stepping and clapping.  For this workshop we had a beautiful composition, that goes.. 
 'therkaththi rajanada, 
thenmathurai pandiyanda
pittukku vandavanda
thillai natarajanada
thananana nanana thanana..
eratha malaithanil
eruthu rendu thathalikka
paramal kaikoduppar
palani malai velanadi
thananana nanana thanana
maduraikku merkirukku
maariamman theppakkulam
theppakkulam paarkavanthen
devi ennai ratchi amma
thana nanan thana thana thanna

The Padhams, and the kurvanji song are in particular very admirable for their lyrical qualities and dramatic details. 

Show day

After 3 days of work shop the team was ready for performing on stage. It was very fascinating to watch the young dancers take up to this legend with the ease and warmth of a mother to a child and together put up a grand show that the city of Coimbatore was really blessed to witness. It was lovely to watch the dancers decking up the legend with the jewellery that they could sapre for the show day. the bonhomie among the dancers also showed in the way they carried the show on their shoulders by taking the lead in explaining the pieces, and their significance to the audience and also in helping each other in bringing out the best. 
It was such a wonderful experience being a part of this historic workshop as an observer, revisiting some old pages of our cultural history.

Reference: Davesh Soneji's book Unfinished gestures, which is dedicated to Muthukannammal among others, was of great help to me gaining a perspective on the life and  art of Muthukannammal.

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