3. Footwork following music

The day dawned with the backdrop of the blue hills that appeared like a galloping horse. The Koothanaar group took leave of their hosts, the cowherd family. They walked along the royal streets of the ancient town Arayam of King Paali, viewing the magnificent palaces and mansions. The broad streets, with the thronging crowds of people looked like the river Periyaaru. They saw several gardens with flowers decked in morning dew that glistened in the rays of the rising sun.

The people of that ancient town were friendly and stopped to chat with the group who were clearly outsiders. Hearing the purpose of their visit, the locals wished them well, blessing them to get handsome gifts from the palace. On both sides of the path they saw some interesting sights.

Not only was the city bustling with people, it had plenty of domestic and exotic pets as well: antelopes caught in the Konrai forests, elephant calves, bear cubs, mountain goats, sturdy horned rams, mongooses to keep snakes in check, chameleons, peacocks, and colourful cocks in addition to the usual cats and dogs. There were several kinds of fruits such as mango, jack fruit, plantain and various kind of berries, garlands made of kaandal, Nagam, and Thilagam flowers, cooked vegetables with added green pepper, freshly distilled toddy, thick curds made from buffalo’s milk, iral fish: all these were being sold in the prosperous looking shops.

Passing through these scenes of the city, the Koothanaar group reached the courtyard of the palace. When the king entered, the viraliar played a soft morning raga (Neermai) to the accompaniment of the siru yaazh (small lyre). They sang a song to greet the king in their well-trained sweet voices. Then Koothanaar recited a beautiful poem set for such special occasions.

The King appreciated the fact that the artists had travelled bearing the many hardships of the road for several days and weeks. “Welcome good musicians! Your arrival with your beautiful music brings joy to my court! Please come to our Naalolakkam” the King said, referring to his day court.

At the Naalolakkam, the King was seated on his throne while ministers, army heads, and other courtiers were seated in their seats appropriate to their ranks. The emissary of the Chozha country who had just arrived the previous day was also seated there. Panmozhi and Yaazhini recognized him as the warrior on horseback from last evening.

At a signal from the King, Paandaram Koothanaar was ready to start his programme. Nediyon was sitting behind, ready to play his Peri yaazh (big lyre). This yaazh had 21 glittering golden strings well-tuned for Mandara, Madyama and Tara sthayees (low, middle and high octaves). There were seven swaras for each octave, and each string was tuned for the seven notes respectively called, Kural, Thutham Kaikkilai, Uzhai, Illi, Vilari and Tharam. Notes were set in such a manner so as to play the tunes based on Paalai yaazh.

In front of Nediyon, Cheyyon with his Aambalam Theenguzhal (the flute whose end resembles the petals of a lily flower) was sitting ready to play his flute.

Polankuzhai was sitting with the cymbals in her hands and was tuning her voice to the pitch of the yaazh. Koothanaar was minutely tuning the right side of his Thannumai to the pitch of the singer.

Muzhavu Thalaiyan was ready to accompany the singer with his Muzhavu drum, which is made from a bull’s thick skin stretched across the mouth of a pot. Idakkai (Aamantrigai, another percussion instrument) was by his side. He played that for certain special effects.

Panmozhi and Yaazhini dressed in their colourful dancing costumes were at the side-lines, ready to enter the stage for their dance performance as soon as they got the starting beats of the Thannumai.

The King nodded his head, indicating they could start. Koothanaar played the thannumai, Cheyyon played the pann (tune) called chempaalai, sweet music of the lyre following the flute. Polankuzhai started singing the mangala vaazhthu (auspicious greetings). Panmozhi and Yaazhini entered the stage from the sides. They saluted their dance teacher Koothanaar, the singer Polankuzhai and other players of the music group at the stage in the traditional way – by touching the feet of the elders and reverentially put their hands on their eyes. Then they commenced their performance. The song of mangala vaazhthu praised the God of the fertile Kurinji land, the King Cheyyon and the Velmaan dynasty started by Nannan. The choreography and expressions of the dancers enchanted the audience.

Following that was aatru vari, a song in praise of a river in raaga koottipaalai. The lyrics described a river, any river: the river starting from its origin at the peak of a mountain, its youthful frolicking over the rocks and ravines, then its sedate phase, flowing through the plains making them fertile, until finally it merged with the sea. The fluid motions of water playfully bounding downhill, falling in graceful waterfalls, flooding the plains, then slowing down and walking towards the sea… all of these were brought to life beautifully by the dancers through their special bharatanatiyam hand gestures, abhinayam or facial expressions, and fast footwork. The footwork was especially enhanced by the rhythmic sound of their salangais, or traditional anklets that they wore, made with five rows of brass bells shaped like a partly open flower-bud with four petals, all set on a pair of leather belts worn around each ankle.

Next item was pandhuka vari, a song about playing ball. The lyrics described a game of girls playing ball. The stage was their playground and the two dancers enacted this ball-playing song with their well-rehearsed choreography. They captured the hearts of the audience. Strangely, inexplicably, as she danced, Panmozhi’s eyes sought the Chozha emissary-warrior.

Next up in the itinerary was another song called yer mangalam in the joyful raaga padhumalai paalai. It was Koothanaar’s poem praising the plough, set to music. The song and accompanying dance depicted the process of farming: from ploughing the land, sowing seeds, to reaping the harvest.

Then came the oosal vari (playing swing). This was set in mullai pann, followed one after another in the ragas Indhalam, Pazhan Thakka Raagam, suddha Dhanyasi like a garland. These ragas are derived from the same pann by the kural tirippu method.

The last piece was in Senthuruthi pann. The song praised Maayon, the god of forest land. Koothanaar concluded the programme. The deafening sound of applause and appreciative noises from the audience continued for a long time.

The King Paalivel of Kodagu country praised and greeted the artists and requested them to stay a while longer in his capital, conducting more performances. Koothanaar agreed happily and gratefully. The king instructed the officials to provide the travelling artists with shelter and all the comforts that they wished for.

Panmozhi’s eyes again searched for and found those of the messenger-warrior. She blushed and lowered her head in shyness.

After paying obeisance to the King, Koothanaar and his group retired to their allotted resting place. With the messenger of Chozha Perunarkilli announcing the news of performance of Rajasooya yagna by the Chozha, the King’s court commenced the business for the day.

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