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Performance as prayer: the ‘Kaisiki’ journey

A centuries-old ritual theatre performance of Tamil Nadu is an exercise in the narrative skill of devotion

A scene from ‘Kaisiki Natakam’. Photo: Vivek Mariappan
A scene from ‘Kaisiki Natakam’. Photo: Vivek Mariappan

I am seated next to a small, elevated square stage. It faces another makeshift elevation at the far end of the hall on which are placed the utsava murtis (procession idols) of the god Vishnu, worshipped as Azhagiya Nambirayar. The hall in between these stages is chock-a-block with the devout who have travelled from distant places to witness this performance, despite the lashing rain and the threat of a major cyclone. At last count, there were at least 5,000 pilgrims crammed into a hall that can hold a few hundred at the Sri Azhagiya Nambirayar temple in Thirukkurungudi. As in most ancient ritual theatre performances, however, the audience is only incidental. The actors on the stage are performing for the gods they face (idols of Vishnu flanked by those of his two wives). What is interesting here is that actors (numbering, in all, about half a dozen) and the thousands assembled there have fasted all day, observing the Ekadasi (the 11th lunar day) on the traditional Tamil calendar. All of them break their fast only after watching the performance and concluding their prayers before sunrise. This was an unbroken tradition from the 15th century till India’s independence. This is Kaisiki Natakam, one of the rare surviving ancient ritual theatre traditions where performance becomes prayer. A true representation of “immersive theatre".

Observing the Kaisiki Ekadasi fast and watching the Kaisiki Natakam are listed as among the must-dos in the Shri Vaishnava tradition of worship. The temple, like most ancient temples in the south, had a long tradition of dedicated performance practitioners who later came to be called Devadasis. Their participation was crucial for every important worship ritual. The biggest was Kaisiki Natakam, which occurred on the 11th night of the month of Karthika. This tradition continued till India’s independence, but when the anti-Devadasi Bill was passed in 1947, scores of traditional performers lost their livelihoods and switched professions. Kaisiki Natakam used to be performed mainly by Devadasi families at the Sri Azhagiya Nambirayar temple.

This sprawling temple complex is situated in Tamil Nadu’s remote Tirunelveli district. Before 1947, it was an extended part of the Travancore kingdom. Counted among one of the 108 Divyadesams, or holy shrines, of the Shri Vaishnavas, the temple was built over several centuries. In the ancient Tamil Divya Prabandham literature of the Alvar poets, about 40 pasurams, or poems, are dedicated to this temple. Thirukkurungudi is also the final resting place of Thirumangai Alvar, the last of the Alvar saints in the 11th century.

By the 1950s, however, Kaisiki Natakam was all but forgotten. Had it not been for the timely intervention of dancer, choreographer and festival curator Anita Ratnam about two decades ago, the theatre art would have been lost.

Ratnam hails from the family that owns TVS Group, whose founder’s roots are in Thirukkurungudi. As a cultural activist, she felt it was important to keep this rare theatrical tradition alive. So, with the help of Prof S. Ramanujam (1935-2015), a National School of Drama graduate who was mentored by Ebrahim Alkazi, natyacharya Herambanathan (who hails from a traditional family of performers), the last of the surviving Devadasi families that performed kaisiki, and several scholars of ethnomusicology, Ratnam worked hard for over three years and managed to revive it. The play’s palm-leaf manuscript, partly eaten by termites, was traced to Madurai. From the restoration of the manuscript to the recreation of the play, everything was a challenge.

The basic plot of Kaisiki Natakam is rather simple. It is a charming tale of a pious low-caste Dalit devotee of god Vishnu, Nambaduvan, who encounters a Brahmarakshasa (a Brahmin cursed to be reborn as a demon) in the nearby Mahendragiri Hills. Nambaduvan is weak and frail from observing the Ekadasi fast. He pleads with the demon to allow him to visit the temple of Azhagiya Nambi, promising he would return to be eaten. After a war of words, he is allowed to go. A man of his word, Nambaduvan returns to the demon as promised. This time, the demon, surprised by Nambaduvan’s piety and honesty, refuses to eat him. Instead, he demands a portion of the merit of his prayers or punyam, to redeem himself from the curse. The devotee who has earned his punyam now has to get out of this tricky deal.

Intertwined in the script of the play are a series of dialogues that reveal fascinating aspects of how progressive 15th century society in the Tamil-speaking regions was. One sees today’s values of women’s empowerment, minority rights, emphasis on truth, leading an austere life, being reiterated through the dialogue as Kaisiki Natakam unfolds. To think that a performance tradition from another era held so many of the modern-day values of inclusiveness makes Kaisiki Natakam unique. Without being preachy, the strong subtext is thought-provoking.

Much like the temple complex, filled with a rich sculptural legacy that has documented various important events in local history, Kaisiki Natakam is yet another tool for documenting cultural history. A study of the fascinating temple sculptures reveals interesting facts about the multicultural and syncretic tradition Tamil Nadu once had. And Kaisiki Natakam took inspiration from the society of that era.

The actual story of the play and the performance pre-dates the 14th century. A local scholar, the nonagenarian Thiru Narayana Iyengar, says there are references in Silappadikaram, a Tamil epic by Ilango Adigal, and that it was standardized, to what it is now, in the early 14th century. With the academic intervention of Prof. Ramanujam, the play gained a new level of sophistication. He trained a whole new set of actors, who have mastered this play over the years. Following the Sanskrit theatre tradition of Purvaranga, the characters enter from behind a temporary curtain before they enact their roles. Such significant additions to the play make it interesting, as the audience remains curious, and it is visually more aesthetic. The hero of the play is Brahmarakshasa, who wants to borrow the merit of the low-caste devotee. The entry of the demon is dramatic in every sense. In days when there was no electricity, watching this by firelight must have been a thrilling experience. Ratnam has been helping to keep the repertory alive.

Today, Thirukkurungudi is a model town. It has won several awards for being the cleanest village in India. The main infrastructure around the temple is maintained by the TVS Group as part of its philanthropic endeavours. It also runs a school for poor children. That the temple is situated in a remote location probably helped sustain this tradition.

It took me two flights from Delhi and an 80km journey by road to get there. Nothing much happens in Thirukkurungudi for the rest of the year, other than what is listed on the temple calendar of events, such as the Panguni Utsavam held from Februrary-March.

On the Kaisiki Ekadasi night, thousands throng to Thirukkurungudi. This is the 19th year since its revival. Recently, the central Sangeet Natak Akademi has recognized it as a rare ritual performance.

Kaisiki Natakam is important to several areas of study, like cultural anthropology, history and performing art traditions. It is an excellent case study to understand a bygone society, documented through performance. In the modern cultural history of India, Kaisiki Natakam holds a unique place.

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