Friday, October 30, 2015

Araiyar Sevai: Sacred Recitals of the Vaishnavite Faith

Credit: Bharathwaj Thirumalai Ananthanpillai
Although it is 1200 years old, not many people know about Araiyar Sevai, a sacred art form of Tamil Nadu.

Araiyar Sevai is centered on the ritual singing and dance-enactment of the hymns of the Naalayiram Divya Prabandham (The 4000 Sacred Verses).

These verses were composed by the 12 Alvars (Poet-Saints) in praise of Vishnu, and were compiled in their present form by Nathamuni during the 9th–10th centuries. These hymns are still sung extensively today. However the enactment / performance of these hymns by the Araiyars is now increasingly rare.

Araiyar Sevai is usually performed in the presence of the temple utsavamoorty, i.e., the temple's processional deity.

Although temple inscriptions suggest its performance was once widespread, it is today only performed in a few temples in Tamil Nadu. These include the main temple at Srirangam, the Azhagiya Manavala Perumal and Alwar Tirunagari Temples near Trichy, and the temple of Andal at Srivilliputhur.

The performers are known as the Araiyar, and like all such traditions in India, it is a group of hereditary performers, who train from childhood to become proficient in the art. The photo below is from Srirangam:

An araiyar sevai begins with a ritual summons, where the officiating priest calls upon the araiyar to come before the deity. The araiyar replies with a formulaic response and puts on the araiyar kullai (a conical hat) as he approaches. He then sounds a few strokes on the cymbals and begins the performance.

Each verse is performed in three steps. In the first, the araiyar sings the verse. In the second, he dances a few steps which, through a system of ritualised gestures, give expression to the literal meaning of the verse. In the third step, he explains the inner meaning of the verse, as explained in Tampirāṉ paṭi, a traditional commentary on the Divya Prabandham.

In this video you can see a performance: see the high musical quality of the story-recital: 

Here is another performance, this one is quite different and I enjoyed watching the slow progress of the dance steps. The mudras and the footwork definitely have similarities with the other classical dance forms of South India, thus establishing their roots in the Natya Shastra.
In this video, you can see how a program begins: 

In this video, I was happy to see a young Araiyar, although there is not much happening in the video by way of music:

The tradition is dying. Why? Because, frankly, we don't reward any of our performing arts. There is no patronage system that will entice a young man to adopt the way of life of his ancestors. We neither know about these arts, nor do we actively encourage them.

Here is the story of 83-year old Araiyar Srinivasa Rangachariyar, which I found on a blog. He has been peforming since the age of 13. I was delighted to see his grandson being trained. But there is simply not enough income! And yet the responsibility of keeping the art alive is on the shoulders of this young man. How will he manage?
Blog by Prabhu S:

1 comment:

  1. Your write up here is worth many appreciations. Yes, they need to be honoured and encouraged. There are just one family doing it at Srivilliputtur and few at Srirangam.