It is Margazhi, the month Tamils devote to music and dance. No auspicious functions like weddings or house warming celebrations are held during this period. Strangely, it has rained heavily in the week leading up to Christmas.
Rain in Margazhi? That is unusual. Many superstitious Tamils believe that the wet spell has everything to do with the fact that Kannagi’s statue was removed from its designated place. Now things are different. Even the reservoirs and water bodies are brimming.
Kannagi is an endearing heroine in Tamil literature, folklore, cinema and daily life. Her loyalty to her husband, despite his infidelity, is celebrated.
The wife of young Kovalan, she was abandoned by her husband for Madhavi, a courtesan. Shilappadikkaram tells the story of the three characters. According to it, Kovalan is put to death by the palace guards who suspect him of stealing the queen’s anklet when he tries to sell one of Kannagi’s anklets. Angered by the act, Kannagi storms into the king’s court and hurls the anklet on the ground.
She asks the queen to throw her anklet as well. When both the anklets break, it is discovered that the queen’s one had pearls embossed in it. Realising his mistake, the king and queen faint. But Kannagi is not appeased. She curses the city of Madura, which is soon engulfed in flames. Till recently, her statue stood on the road leading to the secretariat.
Ancient Tamil literature also relates culture to nature, coming up with a fascinating discussion on a different landscape, known as Tinais. The Tolkapiyam tells us that the life of ancient Tamils was close to nature, with the country being divided into four distinct landscapes-mullai or pastoral, kurinji or hill country, marudam or arable land and neydal or coastal region and palai or desert. Each landscape has developed its own popular deities, music and musical instruments. The landscapes have also been identified with the dance and musical modes peculiar to them.
Tamil Nadu’s visual motif is the kolam drawn outside the door of every household. During Margazhi, the patterns are particularly intricate. The large circular designs made by dribbling rice flour between thumb and forefinger create exquisite designs in curves, squares and circles. Some academics talk about the synergy between the cosmos, the sun, moon and the movement of planets in the designs, but there is no rational basis behind this assumption.
The motifs do not follow a calculated form, but are the result of a spontaneous effusion. The dots etched first create a mathematical base, which once again, is purely creative. The imagination creates a riot of patterns.
This is perhaps due to the fact that the instant art of kolam does not permit reflection or correction. It allows great freedom and scope for originality. The circles and squares remain constant, but no pattern can be reproduced in its exact permutation and combination. Walk around villages and city slums during Margazhi or Pongal, the harvest festival, around the middle of January and you will find some startlingly creative kolams in front of even the poorest homes.
Margazhi is also the month when Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, reverberates with the sound of classical music and dance. It was in December 1927, that the Congress party met in Chennai (then known as Madras) and organised a series of music concerts by well-known performers as part of the meet. This marked the beginning of the season of music concerts in the month of Margazhi. Of course, the fact that it is the only month when Chennai experiences good weather (the rest of the year is too hot) is another reason for holding cultural events during this period.
Musicians and dancers vie with each other to perform during the music season. They approach various sabha (organising bodies) secretaries to get an opportunity. Several NRIs make it a point to be in Chennai to enjoy the music festival. Every year a new sabha makes a debut amidst complaints about dwindling audiences for classical art. More and more young men and women join the ranks of musicians and, in some cases, tickets are sold out days in advance. Bharatnatyam recitals are extremely popular these days-the dance form has gained recognition in several parts of the world.
The ones far away from home have no recourse to the traditional accoutrements. They have to make do with period costumes. At home, there is a great deal of experimentation. From here, the most revolutionary movements have taken root.
The credit for institutionalising bharatnatyam, earlier associated only with devadasis in temples, goes to Rukmini Devi Arundale. And Balasaraswathy took bharatnatyam in its traditional form, worldwide. An art form, was taken worldwide. Two streams of thought opposed to each other in terms of content, style and teaching method took root. One with the traditional hereditary practitioners and nattuvanars and the others who learnt dance only as an art form. There is also the iconoclast Chandralekha who took traditional dance techniques further by revolutionising them. She is both eulogised and reviled for her experimentation.
Tamilagam, even half a century ago, stood only for a lingui-cultural region and was not a political entity. This was even before the Emathian conqueror subdued the Punjab. The Tamil people were developing strains of character, which became inseparable parts of an ethos that no amount of foreign cultural pressures have succeeded in completely rooting out.
Tamil is a language that has grown independently of Sanskrit and claims an earlier origin. It has only 12 vowels and 18 consonants. The economy in the letters does not confuse those who speak the language.
The Tamil language had its own ancient alphabet, which accepted some modification for the representation of non-Tamil words. Since it is a living-and therefore a growing language-the people of Madurai laugh at the Madras Tamil spoken in the capital. Tamil has dialects and regional variations, with different cultural groups and castes using a distinctly different vocabulary for specific objects and functions.
There is a standard literary form of Tamil known as Sentamil. The educated classes use it in writing, in formal speeches and occasionally in conversation. Since there is a big difference between spoken and written Tamil, an outsider finds it difficult to learn the language.
Tamil Nadu is diverse in folk and classical traditions. The Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjavur, the Meenakshi temple in Madurai and the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, observe age-old traditions in the method of worship. There is much emphasis in music and dance as a form of prayer.
The Tamil country is intriguing in its complexity but endearing in its ability to embrace anyone wishing to enter its very unique culture.
The author is a cultural activist, art critic and educationist based in Chennai.