As the holy month of Margazhi in the Tamil calendar begins, it is time for prayer, contemplation and celebration. As we come to the end of this year, it is just another reason to thank god or the powers that be for having given us the opportunity to see through this year and hope the next one would be a better one.
I don’t have to go into the life story of Andal. It is well known by anyone remotely interested in Vaishnava history and is available all over. In brief, she was found as an infant in a tulasi (holy Basil) garden in the temple town of Srivilliputtur. As a young woman she fell in love with lord Vishnu. In his love, she wrote some of the finest poems ever written in the history of Tamil language. Collected into two famous compilations titled "Thiruppavai" and "Nachiyar Thirumozhi", the writings of Andal have inspired generations of artistes and devotees.
Towards the end of her life, Andal is supposed to have merged with her lord. Andal’s life epitomized ideas of devotion, feminism and empowerment way back in that century. She continues to be hailed as a heroine and saint. The only easy equivalent to Andal in North India is the Rajasthani princess who turned into a poet Mirabai.
This season is even more special because it was in Margazhi when Andal is supposed to have composed a poem a day. Keeping with that tradition, across the Shri Vaishnava temples in south India, a poem is recited a day through this month. This way by the end of the month, the entire book is completed.
In Carnatic music there have been several renderings of the "Thiruppavai". The first one that comes to mind is by the legendary vocalist Aryakudi RamanujaIyengar. It was a staple recording played in several temples this season.
Later other vocalists like Palghat K V Narayanaswamy also recorded it. But what became a huge hit was the rendering by the Carnatic diva M L Vasantakumari, fondly refered to as MLV by her fans and followers. MLV’s version became a standard and continues to be played in scores of Vaishnava temples across the land. Much like Subbulakshmi’s rendering of Venkateshwara Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasranamam, which no other vocalist ever managed to match. Listen to one of the many poems being sung by MLV here :
In the recent past several works of art have been produced to celebrate Andal and her immortal poetry. A favourite topic among classical dancers, in the past we have seen legends like Vyjayanthimala Bali epitomize the poet saint.
In fact for the longest time a little booklet of Andal’s "Thiruppavai" would be circulated, the cover of which would have Vyajayanthimala dressed as Andal. After that, several other dancers produced these poems in their works.
Here is a glimpse of the famous Bharatanatyam and Indian contemporary dancer Dr Anita Rathnam performing excerpts of the text. She takes the traditional form of the Kauthuvam and recreates it with the poetry of Andal to make an "Andal Kauthuvam".
Hailing from a family of staunch Shri Vaishnavas, Anita has dealt with the works of Andal in several other creative dance productions over the years. All of them give different insights into the life and works of the poet saint.
Some very excellent translations of the "Thiruppavai" and "NachiyarThirumozhi" have been around, for those interested to read them. There are translations into other Indian languages like Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. Among the English language translations available in the market, very few merit the literary quality and poetic elegance in comparison to the original text.
"In Andal’s Garden: Art, Ornament and Devotion in Srivilliputtur" by Archana Venkatesan is one of the finest scholarly books on the subject. The book not only looks at the biography of Andal but also see how the legacy of Andal is remembered year after year in the various different ceremonies held in Srivilliputtur.
With some stunning images by the renowned photographer Claire Arni, this book, brought out by the Marg foundation is a collectors’ edition. Having grown up in Tamil Nadu and absorbed so much of the local culture, Claire has a perspective that is unique. Her understanding of tradition is integral to what she captures through her lens. In this book she manages to capture some outstanding moments and give you a visual delight.
For the lay reader is Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar’s translation "Andal- The Biography of a Goddess", published by Zubaan Books, earlier this year. Priya is a poet, essayist and translator with a large body of work. Having grown up in a Shri Vaishnava family herself, she easily understands the finer nuances of the culture, customs and tradition with a different kind of passion. Priya’s own sister, the famous Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai has also performed Andal’s poetry in several dance productions down the decades.
There are various academic studies, PhDs and more on the topic of Andal. She has been studied through the lens of feminism, anthropology, gender studies, history, mythology, oral traditions, poetry, creative fiction and many such fields. She continues to inspire artistes with her works.
Andal was one of the first women poets in the long Indian tradition of the Bhakti movement. Several other women saints like Akka Mahadevi from Karnataka, Janabai and Sakkubai from Maharashtra, Lal Ded and Rupa Bhawani from Kashmir echoed similar sentiments of devotion.
As we get into another Margazhi, Chennai is preparing for the annual classical dance and music festival, for hundreds of visiting tourists and art lovers; Andal becomes the center of attraction year after year. Her devotion is a reminder for us to rethink the way we manage our lives. Her immortal poetry continues to inspire everyone around. It is that time of the year for us to remember the glory of Andal and celebrate.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images courtesy: Ramachandran, Vivek Krishna