Music and dance during the festivals
Going by the Gregorian calendar, the first festival of the year at the Mayilai temple is the float or teppotsavam. It is usually held in January. The richly decorated and illuminated float goes around the tank on three successive nights. On the first evening Kapaliswara and Karpagamba represented by Chandrashekhara and His Consort go on the float. On the second and third evenings it is Singaravela. Till a year ago an enormous number of devotees would wait patiently in a queue to board the float and go around the tank in turns. But this was stopped last year following security concerns. Now the Lord goes on His float in solitary splendour while the crowds watch from the banks. Nagaswaram artistes perform on the float on all three evenings.
The float festival may have become out of bounds, but the ten day annual brahmotsavam in the month of Panguni (Mar/Apr) is all about participation. On all the days, five deities, Ganesa, Kapaliswara, Karpagamba, Singaravela with consorts and Chandikeswara are brought out in procession twice, once in the morning and again at night in different alankarams and on various mounts. And each day’s procession is accompanied by nagaswaram and tavil ensembles which walk along with the procession and perform at specified spots. A western band also accompanies the deities.
During the golden years of nagaswaram, almost every great vidwan has come and performed for the brahmotsavam. The performing of the Mallari when the deities leave the temple is a tradition here. And who better than the famed Semponnarkoil Brothers for this? Ellarvi in his Enge Anna Enge (Amuda Nilayam Publications, 1958) writes of the performance of the brothers during the vrishabha vahanam procession of 1940. As MD Kitta Iyer, a local luminary walked along enjoying the music, he espied Chintadripet Muniswami, a well-known nagaswaram artiste doing the same. Muniswami was not well-to-do and Kitta Iyer had heard that he had been invited to perform that day at a venue outside the city and that he was to get a high fee for it. He had been happy for Muniswami and was shocked to find him in the procession when he should have been performing elsewhere. He therefore asked Muniswami as to what had happened to his concert engagement. Pat came the reply that he had cancelled it for how else could he enjoy the performance of the Semponnarkoil Brothers? Kitta Iyer remarked that the Semponnarkoil Brothers had exacted double their fee. The first was their remuneration and the second was this tribute from a fellow artiste who had preferred to forego an opportunity to earn money.
Ellarvi also writes of the festival of 1927 when the Keeranur Brothers Kannappa Pillai and Chinnathambi Pillai who were experts in pallavi rendition performed. Accompanying them on the tavil was Tiruchengattangudi Rudrapathi Pillai. As the pallavi was being performed, Rudrapathi Pillai was energetically playing on the tavil, his body and soul enraptured in the beat. One of his diamond kadukkans worked loose in all the movement and like a shooting star vanished into the darkness. Several saw this and so did Pillai himself. But while they all embarked on a spirited search for the kadukkan, Pillai continued playing without a pause. Such was his dedication. The earring was eventually found and returned to its owner but Pillai’s devotion to his profession was what was on everybody’s lips. There are several colourful tales about TN Rajarathinam Pillai. As is usual, the Mayilai temple claims the credit along with several others for being the first shrine where the maestro made his demand for being taken in procession on a vehicle and refused to accompany the deity on foot. Platforms were constructed at various locations according to old-timers for TNR to dismount from the vehicle and perform. On one occasion TNR demanded complete silence during the procession. How this was achieved with the teeming crowds is not clear today and all went well till the deities reached the first halt. When the time came for the procession to resume, the man-in-charge blew a shrill whistle giving the signal for the bearers to lift the deity. That was enough. TNR announced pack-up and went away.
Certain days are more important than others during the ten day festival. The third morning has Kapaliswara borne aloft on the silver Adhikara Nandi. Karpagambal and Singaravelar are borne by veena wielding Gandharva stree and purusha respectively. The whole atmosphere is filled with musical associations for Nandi is considered a master on the maddala. The bearers sway from side to side as they carry Adhikara Nandi and this gives the impression that the Lord is dancing. It is an awe-inspiring spectacle. It is no wonder that this procession inspired Sivan to compose Kaana Kann Kodi Vendum in raga Kamboji. In the word picture it paints of the Adhikara Nandi sevai, this song is unsurpassed. Legend has it that Rukmini Devi and Sankara Menon heard Sivan sing it himself during the procession and it was after this that he was appointed in 1934 as music teacher at what would later become Kalakshetra.
On the fifth day the vrishabha vahanam procession takes place late at night. Kapaliswara rides a silver vrishabham or bull while Karpagambal is on a golden vrishabham and Singaravela on a golden peacock. The procession takes the whole night to wend its way around the four Mada Streets and it is early morning and still dark when the five deities are brought to the sixteen-pillared hall on Sannidhi Street. Here, in complete darkness with illumination only by means of gas-lights, camphor is lit and waved for all the deities simultaneously. Then Ganesa circumambulates Kapaliswara and moves into the temple followed by Karpagambal and Singaravela. All is silent for a few moments. The bearers who carry Kapaliswara gird themselves for the grand finale. The deity is borne aloft throughout the procession on thick wooden poles worn smooth by many years of use and carried by hefty and muscular bearers. The men on each side grip the shoulders of the men on the opposite side. Then the band strikes up the English Note composed by Muthiah Bhagavatar and popularised by Madurai Mani Iyer. The men sway from side to side and the awesome mount and its deity dance to the music. As the band picks up momentum so do the men. They throw up the mount and catch it several times, they jump with it and they swoop and straighten themselves. And Kapaliswara comes alive. The priests hold on to the supports to prevent themselves from falling into the crowds below. Flowers and tinsel decorations fall from Kapaliswara as though in benediction on his devotees below. As His Consort and He sway to the music, we are reminded of the song “Maan Ada mazhu aada mangai Sivagami aada”. To the devotees watching it is an enactment of the primordial movement that caused all creation. Each time I see it, I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Then as the band moves over to “He’s a jolly good fellow” (an apt description of Siva), the bearers dance their way to the entrance where there is a step to be negotiated. There is an infinitesimal pause and then the bearers roar in unison, the sound giving them the energy to cross the step, all the while dancing. In a flash Kapaliswara has been carried into the temple and is out of sight. But not out of mind. We wend our way home filled with energy and hope and the confidence that a year from that date we will keep our tryst once more with the Lord and He will dance for us.
The seventh day has the car festival when thousands throng the temple and the four streets to witness the procession of five chariots. The eighth day is the most important. Even in Sambandar’s listing of the festivals connected with the temple in his Poompavai Padikam, the eighth day of the Panguni Utthiram festival (the present day brahmotsavam) is the only one among the ten days to merit a mention. In Sambandar’s time it was evidently the day when Siva came out in procession with his eighteen bhoota ganas or ghostly attendants. In time it metamorphosed into something which included Sambandar. Perhaps he was responsible for the change. For this is the day when Siva comes out in procession with his 63 devotees, the Arupattu Moovar, all of them preceding him in palanquins, with their faces turned towards him; their palms pressed together in adoration. The morning witnesses a re-enactment of the Poompavai episode and in the afternoon the procession begins. Deities from other temples join the procession and lakhs of devotees throng the area. Pandals are put up at all locations and water, cold drinks and food are distributed to the throng by devotees. Some of the tanneer pandals as they are called, have a hoary history themselves, going back as they do by many years. Watching the response to this festival in 1928, S Satyamurty hit upon the bright idea of selling khadi to the public during the procession in the subsequent year. And selling it were none other than SG Kittappa and KB Sundarambal. Later KBS would recall that she bore bundles of khadi on her back and sang songs to attract the public. Not that they would have needed anything more to attract them than the mere star presence of the duo. A unique song associated with the Arupathu Moovar festival is the Vazhinadai Chindu, written by an anonymous poet in the early years of the 20th century. It describes in Chindu format, the route taken by a beau and beloved of George Town to attend the Arupathu Moovar festival. The song describes several landmarks of Chennai.
On the ninth day, Siva comes as Bhikshatana, the handsome beggar who seduced the wives of the sages of Darukavana. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Doraikannu, the Devadasi of the temple would lead this procession dressed as Bhikshatana herself and her dance would thrill the audience. Papanasam Sivan came to Madras the year Doraikannu died and so the two perhaps never met. But he too was greatly inspired by the Bhikshatana procession to compose songs for the occasion. There are three songs Saundarya Vellantanil (raga Mohanam), Tiruvalar Mayilayin (raga Khamas) and Picchaikku Vandiro (raga Surutti) describing this event. The last song is in the form of a ninda stuti. In addition, one more song Kapali Karunainidhi (raga Hamsadhvani) sings of both the Adhikara Nandi and the Bhikshatana processions. Sivan’s famed Kapali (raga Mohanam) too deals largely with Siva as Bhikshatana. At a particular point in the Bhikshatana procession, Kapaliswara is met by Karpagambal decked out as Mohini. It is now the turn of the Goddess to dance and she performs most spiritedly and finally enchants him.
The tenth day witnesses the wedding of Kapaliswara and Karpagamba and late at night after the ceremony, the deities are brought out on the Ravana Vahana. On this occasion, musical accompaniment is provided by the mukha veena, a variety of clarionet.
A unique feature of the ten day festival is the dolls exhibition at the Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar Chattram often referred to as Bommai Chattram on South Mada Street. This building which functions as a marriage hall for the rest of the year transforms itself into a dolls-house for the ten days and on display are age-old leather puppets and clay dolls all of which are locked up for the rest of the year.
The vidayatri festival begins immediately after the brahmotsavam and continues for ten days. The Lord and His consort are entertained each evening by music and kalakshepam performances. It was during this festival in 1928 that GN Balasubramaniam made his debut as a singer when he was asked to step in by AK Ramachandra Iyer as a last minute replacement for an indisposed Musiri Subramania Iyer. The concerts were earlier broadcast over the public address system and devotees could listen to the performance relaxing on the steps of the temple tank. This is where Madurai Mani Iyer wove his spells over the audience which even had rickshaw-pullers refusing savaris so that they could listen to him singing. In the days when ambient noise was low, the concerts must have created a divine atmosphere.
The festival of nine nights or Navaratri is celebrated with gusto at the Kapaliswarar temple and on each evening, the Goddess gives darshan in different alankarams and on different mounts to her devotees at the Navaratri Mandapam. Music is offered to her on this occasion also.
Tiruvadirai, the day sacred to Nataraja is also celebrated here. The icons of Nataraja and Sivakami are brought out in procession and here again, Nataraja is carried by bearers who adopt a special gait thereby giving the impression that the deity is dancing.
(This article was originally published in Sruti magazine as a companion to the main piece on Music in the Kapaliswarar Temple)