6. Rehearsals at Koothanaar’s

Koothanaar was conducting rehearsals at the house they were staying in. The programme was to be on the subsequent day. Koothanaar as always, gave his full concentration to the practice session, devoting his thoughts carefully to the themes, the order, the details of each piece. As Kaarvannan entered their place the rehearsal stopped for a while, and he was greeted with respect and warmth.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt! I would like to watch your rehearsals, please don’t stop!”, he requested. Koothanaar offered him a seat and the programme continued.

The item was “Valli koothu”, the theme was the love story of Valli, a kudava girl of Koda Nadu, with Murugan, God of Kurinji. This was a victory celebration, a group dance. Like the Kuravai Koothu, it had the distinct flavour of the Kurinji land. It linked the religious and social elements of the Tamil people. Since it was a koothu with drama, there were elaborate costumes. Panmozhi played the role of Valli the heroine, and Yaazhini played that of Murugan the hero. Koothanaar had written the lyrics and set them to appropriate music.

Next came a beautiful performance in the Aham classification, portraying emotions and feelings through abhinayam, or special gestures in dance form. The act portrayed a scene with a young girl and her mother in their house. A thirsty passer-by stops at their door, asking for drinking water. At her mother’s word, the daughter brings him water. Their eyes meet, and it is love at first sight. Playfully looking into her eyes, he grabs her hand. She is shy, she is flustered, her heart beating fast. Half flirting, half in mock complaint, she calls out “Thaye! Look, he’s doing something strange!” Her mother rushes to see what’s going on. Meanwhile the girl regains her composure and explains away her alarm by saying “When he was drinking water he hiccupped, and I was alarmed!” Her mother, relieved that it is nothing serious, but unaware of the under currents, walks away. The man acknowledges her play-acting and conveys his warmth and thanks through his eyes. She blushes and lowers her head.

For this item, Panmozhi played the part of the mischievous hero and Yaazhini, the sweet, shy heroine. After the rehearsal Panmozhi’s eyes turned naturally towards Kaarvannan. Like the hero of the dance, his eyes laughed mischievously and embraced hers. Taking on the role that Yaazhini had just depicted, Panmozhi blushed and lowered her head. This subtle exchange did not go unnoticed by Yaazhini, who suppressed a smile and gently nudged Panmozhi.

“O Kaarvanna! You are well travelled and have probably witnessed many dancers in the great Chozha’s court. What is your opinion about our dance?” asked Koothanaar.

“Under your expert guidance, the choreography and performance of your girls was excellent! If the Chozha King sees the artistic skills of your group, he would not want to let you out of Kaveri Poompattinam!”

“O! You mean that he will imprison us! Uncle, then let us not go there!” Yaazhini giggled.

“I am curious about the word “viraliar”. I suppose it means experts in the art, or especially skilled?” Kaarvannan asked Koothanaar.

“I think the word stems from “viral” or finger: it literally pertains to the hand gestures and actions, with particularly expressive fingers.” Koothanaar said.

Kaarvannan appreciated the word-play of the word “viral” in Tamil, with two slightly different pronunciations – a more guttural “r” that changed the meaning to “skill”, and the softer “r” sound made its meaning “finger”.

“Anyway, tell me Ayya, how do you come to be called Paandaram-Koothanaar?” asked Kaarvannan.

“There are eleven types of dances attributed to the Gods. One of those is paandarangam. This is nritha, a pure dance-form in which the body movements get prominence as opposed to hand gestures and abhinayam. For this form of dance, though there is music, there are no lyrics expressing sentiments or emotions. It is considered a traditionally male dance form. Lord Shiva, who burned three flying forts by the fire of his third eye, was said to be an expert at nritha. Lord Shiva is said to have performed another form of dance, the koothu, wild and fearsome, with the backdrop of a mayaanam or crematorium, smearing ashes all over his body. Some stage dance performances like “pura koothu” are based on aspects of the koothu, with a forbidding backdrop (“Kavin Ezhini”) and fearful make-up (“oppanai”).

“Fascinating Ayya! You mentioned eleven divine dances… could you please tell me more about them all?” Kaarvannan asked eagerly.

Kapalam” is yet another of Lord Shiva’s dances. It is also called Kaani Koothu. There is an anecdote attached to it. In Thiruvaalankaadu, there were two demons called Nimba and Shumba, who were troubling the people of the town. Parameswara (Lord Shiva) produced Kaali from his fiery third eye on his forehead to annihilate them. Kaali killed them as decreed by her master and creator. But then her power made her proud and she started to harm people. Lord Shiva, not wanting to kill a woman, decided to teach her a lesson through challenging her to a dance competition. He danced the Kapaala Koothu which is a violent and fierce demon-dance, holding a skull in his hand for best effect. Kaali matched him step for step, and would not give in. As part of the grand finale, Lord Shiva gymnastically raised his leg up fully to the vertical. In the times of these legends, it was considered improper and unthinkable for a woman to do so. Thus, Kaali had no choice but to accept defeat.

“Uncle, this is foul-play by Lord Shiva!” cried Yaazhini, fully immersed in the legend and supporting Kaali.

“The point is not a technical one about dance, my child! Though Kaali was created by Lord Shiva himself, she got out of control – that made it the duty of her creator to put her in her place.” said Koothanaar.

“O uncle! You always justify the Gods’ tactics with profound philosophy!” said Yaazhini lightly, and the two girls laughed.

“Another dance of Lord Shiva is called “kodukotti”. In my opinion, this is the most difficult of all the dances: it requires strength, stamina as well as grace.” continued Koothanaar, warming to his subject.

“The Kodukotti is a curious ferocious yet graceful dance, depicting male and female forms in one body. Here, Lord Shiva assumes the form of ardhanaarishwara – half-male, half-female, vertically split. In this bodily form, where He represents his own self on the right side, and that of his consort Parvathi or Uma, on the left side, Lord Shiva is also called Umai-oru-baagan. The skill required in this dance, is to be able to show distinct male and female characteristics of dance on the right and left sides of the same dancer as if independent of each other – when playing Lord Shiva’s side, the dancer must only use his right side, the left side being kept motionless; then while playing Parvathi, only the left side of the dancer must move, not the right side. The dance gets its name from the continuous and violent clapping of hands throughout its performance. Another thing special to this dance is that there is no music – people refer to such pure dance forms without music as mei koothu, or true dance-form”.

“Mama can perform this dance so well that it feels as if Siva Perumaan has himself descended to earth and is performing …”, said Yaazhini enthusiastically.

Kaarvannan begged to see Koothanaar’s performance of the kodukotti dance.

It had been quite a while since Koothanaar had performed. Nowadays mostly he choreographed for the two girls and did not perform himself. After a little hesitation, though worried about his rusty skills, Koothanaar agreed to perform. Requesting the rest of his troop to accompany him on the drums and with clapping their hands, he took his position at the centre of the room. Muzhavu Thalaiyan alternately played the muzhavu for the part of Lord Shiva, and the thannumai for the part of Goddess Parvathi, while the ladies played cymbals or clapped their hands to keep the beat.

Once he started, Koothanaar lost himself to the magic of the dance, forgetting to worry about his performance, or his audience. His steps flowed beautifully to the drum beats, and almost on auto-pilot, each side of his body responded only to the muzhavu or to the thannumai. Now he was Lord Shiva incarnate, furious, ferocious, energetic. And now he was gentle, beauty itself, depicting Goddess Parvathi, everything that is soft and feminine. It was wonderful to watch this elderly man transformed into a sublime level of existence.

Kaarvannan was enthralled, truly mesmerised. Koothanaar stopped, slightly out of breath, after about 10 minutes of this highly demanding and energetic dance. The drums and other accompaniments stopped. There was a moment of complete silence, broken by Kaarvannan’s vigorous applause. Everyone joined in, and for a few moments there was much cheering and clapping of hands.

Panmozhi fetched a copper tumbler of water for her father and handed it to him as he sat down again, quietly satisfied that he had not lost his touch.

“Koothanaare! I humbly request that you add this item to tomorrow’s programme! I think you should be conferred with the title of “Kodukotti Kootharpiran!” Kaarvannan was all praise for his superb dance.

“I never value such titles, Thambi! No one could be an appropriate choice for such a title except the supreme dancer Siva Perumaan, the all-pervasive almighty”, replied Koothanaar in a voice choked with emotion, full of humility and reverence.

Upon Kaarvannan’s urging, Koothanaar continued to talk further about other forms of dance, especially the ones associated with mythology.

Thudi is a victory dance danced by God Cheyyon after killing Sooran who appeared in various disguises. The name thudi comes from the small drum the dancer carries in his hand and drums upon with his fingers while dancing. God Cheyyon after killing the demons, danced what is known as kudai, which means umbrella, as the dance involves arching one’s body backwards like an umbrella.

In the mythological stories of Lord Krishna, his evil uncle Kamsa, the King of Mathura tries to kill him in several ways. In one instance, when Kamsa sends an elephant to kill Krishna, Krishna kills the elephant instead. After that he performs a victory dance called the “alliam”. In another attempt, when two wrestlers are sent to kill Krishna, he defeats and kills them too – and dances another type of dance called the “mull”. Krishna in another episode, dances the “kudam”, balancing pots on his head, in front of the demon Bana’s house. After annihilating other demons, He dances the “Marakkeal” which portrays riding a horse.

Surprisingly, Goddess Lakshmi who is known for her gentleness, takes the form of a killer goddess and dances the “Paavai”, a fierce dance. Kaaman the God of Love takes the form of a eunuch and dances what is called the “Pedi”. “Kadayam” is another dance by Indrani, the wife of Indra, the King of the demigods.”

Koothanaar was immersed in the mythology and dance forms he was describing, and quite lost to the people around him. Kaarvannan was listening with great interest, but the rest of Koothanaar’s family were beginning to wilt. Polankuzhai tried to suppress a yawn unsuccessfully. Muzhavu Thalaiyan had even fallen asleep.

Panmozhi tried to hint gently about the late hour, by saying “Yendhai is never conscious of time when he talks about arts,” but Koothanaar continued with non-stop enthusiasm towards his equally enthusiastic guest Kaarvannan. Who could stop them?

After a while, the topic turned to Kaarvannan’s parents and his family background.

“My father is Pulavar (scholar) Nedum Kannanaar. I learnt Tamil from him. You could say my love of poetry and the arts also comes from him”, said Kaarvannan.

“I have read some poems of your father Nedum Kannanaar. I am very happy to know that you are his son,” said Koothanaar.

The second quarter of the night was almost over. Kaarvannan took leave of them and retired to his guest house.

As he walked back, Kaarvannan’s thoughts were occupied pleasantly with dance, mythology, and all the stories he heard from Koothanaar. Koothanaar… what a wonderful man! So knowledgeable, so modest. What a cultured family, thought Kaarvannan. And how beautiful! Well ok, particularly one of them… among all these pleasant thoughts, the picture of Panmozhi dancing, her beauty and grace, remained centre-stage in his mind. His heart felt light and full of hope remembering Panmozhi’s eyes and the way they had looked at him.

He reached his quarters and lay down to sleep. He tossed and turned restlessly, then rose and went to the window and stared at the sky. In the northern sky the constellation of saptha rishis was shining brightly. Crickets were chirping, sounding loud in the silence of the night. He listened only half-aware, to other faint night sounds from the forest. Finally, by the last quarter of the night, sleep embraced his eyelids.

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