Finally, the day of Chittira Pournami was here. The city was abuzz, looking forward to the dance performance of the evening. It was suppressed nervous excitement in Koothanaar’s house that day: they were well rehearsed with their act, and Koothanaar urged all of them to rest before their big evening. This was of course difficult with all the excitement around them, especially for young Cheyyon.
It was about three naazhigais since the full moon rose above the hills on the eastern horizon and bathed the landscape in its gentle, cool rays. People were flooding to the moonlit arena of the palace grounds, to see the dance performance of the Koothanaar kuzham. The king and royal ladies were seated in the fore front.
The performance began on a gentle melodious note, with Cheyyon playing Kurinji pann on his flute. Next was Muzhavu Thalaiyan beating on his thudi drums to create a dramatic effect, the sound backdrop for Paandaram Koothanaar’s awe-inspiring dance. The audience was totally engrossed in the performance, oblivious to the passing time. The performance was close to the heart of the people here, especially as Koothanaar brought to life their beloved Kurinji God Cheyyon with his victorious spear right after having annihilated the evil demon Sooran. Koothanaar had a standing ovation at the end of his act.
Following that came a more mellow piece by Panmozhi and Yaazhini. With exquisite feminine tenderness and skilful abhinayas in their dance, they enacted the emotions described in the song “painchunai pootha …” – one of Kapilar’s aham poems, sung in the beautiful, melodious voice of Polankuzhai in the padhumalai paalai pann.
In the aham school of Tamil poetry, most of the themes and emotions are romantic. Some of these were now enacted by Yaazhini as the hero, and Panmozhi as the heroine. For instance, Panmozhi did an abhinayam fluttering her eyelashes like that of the lily flower bud blossoming slowly. Aham poetry has a lot in praise of different creatures from nature, such as the beauty of the dancing peacock, and the elegant grace of the swan. Not only simple praise of the creatures, but usually comparing them to the beauty of a woman, as seen by her lover – her grace, her elegance, or the alluring way she walks with swaying hips. For another song called “silambu kamazh …”, the hero, played by Yaazhini, sat on a seat while his lover, played by Panmozhi, came up stealthily behind him and covered his eyes playfully. The hero says, “O! Who can it be but my dearest, with soft fingers like the kaandal flower, and soft shoulders like tender bamboo shoots! Don’t I recognize the feel of your hands, my princess, my beloved who has stolen my heart?” Panmozhi and Yaazhini mesmerised the audience with several such anecdotes between lovers, bringing to life the romance of the poetry.
The final item for the evening was the kudai koothu, or umbrella dance performed by the sisters. One can trace today’s kaavadi dance back to this ancient kudai koothu. The kaavadi is danced in Murugan temples of Tamilnadu, by devotees carrying a wooden construction that is carried over both shoulders. This wooden object is called the kaavadi, and so is the dance. The kaavadi is made of a straight log of wood with another wide strip of wood arched over it and decorated elaborately with lemons to ward off the evil eye, and saamandi flowers (orange chrysanthemums) which are considered auspicious for Lord Murugan. However, coming back to the original kudai koothu by Panmozhi and Yaazhini, Koothanaar had composed music for that in a folk tune called kaavadi chindu. Even today while carrying the kaavadi in temples, this tune is played in the naadaswaram.
The memorable and enjoyable performance came to an end to a most enthusiastic ovation which went on for several minutes. In that calm moonlit night, the uproar reverberated in the hills. A crowd of avid fans surrounded the performers with admiration. After the King’s retinue left, the crowd slowly melted away.
One man followed Koothanaar to his lodgings. He was one of the pujaris (priest) of the Murugan temple. He tirelessly praised the artists and invited them to watch the Veriyattam at the Murugan temple on the same night. Cheyyon and Yaazhini were enthusiastic, and they persuaded Muzhavu Thalaiyan and Panmozhi as well to go along. Koothanaar, always ready to watch dance performances, took a small break, had a quick meal, and they all left with the pujari. Polankuzhai and Nediyon decided to stay behind and rest.
On the way to the Murugan Temple they crossed the small water fall, the stream lined by kadhamba trees and the elephant rock. Yaazhini whispered something Panmozhi’s ear, that made Panmozhi blush and pinch Yaazhini’s cheek in mock anger.
With the pujari leading the way, they reached a small temple of God Murugan set amidst a bunch of kadhamba trees. There was an auspicious spear, the symbol of Lord Murugan, at the centre, smeared with sandal-paste and decorated with a garland of kadhamba flowers. Lord Murugan is also known as “Velan”, or the man with the “vel”, which is the Tamil word for spear.
One of the priests of the temple typically danced the veriyattam, holding the spear, and is seen as the personification of Lord Velan Murugan himself, and hence is referred to as “Velan”. Here he was, holding his spear, fully outfitted to resemble Lord Murugan. A beautifully decorated spacious stage or kalam, was setup for this dance.
A horrific tradition called for a sheep to be sacrificed and its blood to be dripped all over the stage. Over that were strewn newly harvested thinai plants and fragrant flowers. It was midnight. Percussion instruments like the thudi and muzhavu started sounding in a low key, to raise the tension and build the atmosphere to an elevated pitch.
In contrast to the calm and romantic ending of the Koothanaar group’s performance, there was a different kind of mood being set here – the sheep sacrifice, the war-like costume of Velan, predominantly bright red, the threat of the drums beating a low cadence as if waiting for something bad to happen … a fearsome, almost sinister ambience.
“Who is dancing the velan aattam today?” asked Koothanaar.
“The chief priest of this temple. There are severe regulations for this Veriyattam (or ecstatic dance). This velan had done severe penance, fasting for several days for self-purification. In the name of purity, women having their periods are prohibited from being around this stage. When the velan is possessed by God, he will speak only the truth. There is a tradition of young women asking him for predictions about their love-lives”, the priest explained.
Yaazhini glanced meaningfully at Panmozhi, who pre-empted her with a friendly punch, saying “Don’t even think about it!”
Soon the performance began, with singing the praise of the Kadhamba tree, and the brother of Lord Murugan, the Elephant God Ganesha, who is invoked for the success of all ventures. Then the actual Veriyattam started. The muzhavu set the pace. The louder and faster the muzhavu beat, the more fanatic and vigorous the dance of Velan became. The third quarter of the night has already started. There was complete silence among the watching crowd, partly from reverence and partly from fear.
Koothanaar, unfazed by the atmosphere, was focussed completely on the technicalities of the dance – the body movements and footwork of Velan. In a quiet undertone, he gave his expert commentary, explaining the intricacies to Panmozhi and Yaazhini at intervals.
The priest who accompanied them pointed out the moment when the God will descend on the Velan. The thudi now raised a thundering sound and it reverberated in the surrounding hills and valleys in the dead of the night.
“Moo iru……..veriyum ulavey!”
The Velan sang those lines, as if torn from his lips without his conscious will. His dance took on a terrible aspect – a sort of animal power was unleashed, as the God descended on him. His body shivered and trembled. Onlookers thrilled with awe and reverence. Cheyyon was struck with fear and he buried his head in Panmozhi’s lap. Panmozhi and Yaazhini were rattled by the bizarre scene. Meanwhile several people asked velan for his predictions on their apprehensions on their future, and that especially of their unwed daughters.
“When will this koothu end?” wondered Panmozhi, filled with a nameless fear and disgust.
The pujari replied that it would continue until dawn. Koothanaar understood his children’s feelings and decided to take them back home. He took leave of the pujari, with a slight regret that he could not stay for the full Veriyattam. He escorted them up to the waterfall and they walked towards their lodging place. The sound of the muzhavu and thudi haunted them as they walked back, before gradually fading out. The moon was descending behind the western mountains.
“Appappa! Terrible koothu!” remarked Cheyyon.
“Yes … even worse is what we did not witness today. In this Veriyattam tradition, I have heard of the terrible treatment of lovelorn girls: the velan, when possessed, accuses some unfortunate girl of being possessed by a female devil, and they try to beat the devil out of her …” said Panmozhi, remembering other horrible stories she had heard.
“Compared to this bizarre scene, how beautiful is the Valli koothu which narrates the love story of Murugan so pleasantly!” commented Yaazhini.
“But perhaps Yendhai’s imagination is running wild, figuring out how this Veriyattam can be transformed into another Thandava Koothu that he can himself perform”, predicted Panmozhi, almost reading her father’s mind.
Smiling, Koothanaar confirmed her guess.
“There are several good aspects in this Veriyattam, my child! Fine adavus! (dance pose). I am thinking of assimilating these aspects in my thudi koothu – they will be apt!” When they reached their lodge, it was the end of fourth quarter of the night. They heard a cock crowing, signalling the morning.