As I called Kannamani, the sounds and the sense of celebration and the busy comings and goings of people to congratulate her mother and dancer, Viralimalai R Muthukannammal, could be felt here in Chennai, far away from her picturesque but modest home located in Viralimalai, Trichy. Muthukannamal, now 84, is the recipient of the Padma Shri award this year – one of India’s highest civilian awards.
Muthukannamal hails from a hereditary Isai Velallar family of dancers and musicians who had relationships with two interconnected institutions, the Pudukkottai Royal Court, and the Shanmuganatha temple in the town of Viralimalai in Tamil Nadu. She is the last member of an unbroken familial record of seven generations of hereditary performers, and is the daughter of the late Ramachandra Nattuvanaar (1890-1988).
She is one of the last few women who identify themselves as ‘devadasi' or 'devaradiyar' from the hereditary dancing communities of Tamil Nadu. Devadasi is a Sanskrit term, an inheritance of the social reform that outlawed dancing by hereditary women performers. The hereditary communities were involved in the performance and practice of the artform that is popularly known as Bharatanatyam today.
She makes the social and political choice of calling her artform Sadir, making her the only Sadir exponent today. Her performance brings forth the unique aesthetic of singing while dancing, something that is spoken of with nostalgia by older connoisseurs of the art.
But despite her courtly lineage and the legitimacy it offers to her art, Muthukannammal has largely remained in the margins of ‘re-invented’ Bharathanatyam. Muthukanammal continued to dance across rural Tamil Nadu’s temples and private events even after the ‘reform.’ Her repertoire is vast and deep.
Sadir exponent Muthukannammal. Pics courtesy: Davesh Soneji (2005)
Muthukanammal is the keeper of a number of rare and historically relevant pieces of music and dance (like the “Modi” or snake charmer dance in Hindustani and Tamil; the Irish “note swaram,” a large swath of courtly pieces from the Tanjore repertoire; localised temple wedding songs such as unjal, lali, nalangu, and many others). The Viralimalai Kuravanji dance-drama and the compositions have been exclusively performed by the hereditary dancers of Viralimalai, and are a part of their cultural heritage.
Her father, Ramachandra Nattuvanaar, was trained by Pandanallur Kumaraswami Nattuvanaar of Tanjore, and also had a long-standing professional friendship with the famous Padmashree Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, in a manner my maternal great-grandfather. This relationship led to the entering of the Viralimalai Kuravanji dance drama excerpts into the common parlance of the sabhas, where re-invented Bharathanatyam is performed today. Today, we can see many video recordings of Padma Subrahmanyam performing the Viralimalai Kuravanji.
In the year 2019, Films Division Director Shanmuganathan released the biopic entitled “Devaradiyar in Sadhir: The Life and Art of Muthukannammal.” Despite my own nattuvanar lineage, I had learnt of Muthukannammal only after reading about her in a chapter from Professor Davesh Soneji’s book Unfinished Gestures around 2012. I was attempting to understand the complex, problematic, and, in my case, deeply personal history of present-day Bharatanatyam.
This represented a turning point in my own understanding of our pasts, as it would have for many other young women from my community.
I met Muthukannammal during a performance and award ceremony at Chennai’s DakshinaChitra, where I also had the opportunity to interact and dance with her while she taught a Kummipadal. So when I was contacted by Shanmuganathan, it made me happy to be a small part of the documentary on Muthukannammal.
His relentless efforts to bring Muthukannammal into the public eye, and to sensitively understand the politics of the complex issues around hereditary women performers must be lauded.
I later met Muthukannammal on several occasions and found her to be warm, and delightful to spend time with. When I called her to congratulate her on receiving the award, she was brimming with pride and expressed her gratitude to the blessings of Murugan, the presiding deity of Viralimalai. She told me it was his blessing that brought her this award. Kannamani, Muthukannamal’s daughter said, “This is an acknowledgement of my mother.”
Nrithya Pillai with Muthukannammal
Muthukannammal joins a handful of Isai Velallar women who have been recognised from Tamil Nadu. Thiruvarur PR Thilagam received the Padma Shri in 2007. There have been many congratulatory messages on social media from many of her admirers, particularly her disciples who have had the privilege of learning from her. Amongst them are professor Hari Krishnan (Wesleyan University), Dr AP Rajaram (Presidency University, Kolkata), dancer-academic and actor Swarnamalya Ganesh, dancers K Manivannan and Sasisekharan.
Watch: A video clip on Muthukannammal
While we must celebrate such recognition and visibility, we must resolve to work harder to ensure such recognition is not reduced to tokenism. Let us hope that many more women from the community continue to have their labour, art, and selfhood recognised and celebrated not only by the state but also by non-state forces.
As a young practitioner of ‘Bharatanatyam’ from the same hereditary families, the news of her award makes me feel empowered and extremely happy for this recognition that was long overdue. This is also a proud moment for the people of Tamil Nadu, that as a Bahujan artist who performs an art form here is being recognised.
Nrithya Pillai is a hereditary Bharathanatyam dancer and a writer.