Thursday, June 28, 2007

Araiyar Sevai

It looks like the renowned Araiyar Sevai, a visual song and dance enactment of the ‘Paasurams’(4000 Divya Prabandham verses) that has been performed at Divya Desams for over 1000 years, is seeing a slow death. A ritual which was once performed at all the Divya Desams today exists in only three temples in Tamil Nadu- Srirangam, Srivilliputhur and Alwar Thirunagari (near Tirunelveli).

Origins of Araiyar Sevai

The famed Araiyar Sevai is said to have originated from Thirukkurungkudi, the Divya Desam about 40kms from Tirunelveli. Legend has it that the Lord used to listen to Araiyar’s Abhinayam hiding behind a wall in Bashyam Street (South Mada St). In recognition of this significant event, even today, one can see the name of this street in Tirunelveli’s Gazette.

Who are the Araiyars

Araiyars (King of Music) are descendents of Nathamunigal, who is believed to have introduced the Araiyar Sevai. It is believed that Lord Ranganatha himself gave the Araiyars the right to perform the unique musical chanting at the temples and presented them with the cone-like red cap, two cymbals, the sacred garland (which they wear around their neck when they perform).

Araiyars have been bestowed the special right to start as well as end the Paasurams in Vaishnavite temples through their special song and dance sequence.

The Araiyars first recite the Paasuram, then explain its inner meaning and finally perform the Abhinayam, a unique art/dance performance with their hands and legs explaining the Paasurams with special musical effect.

The Araiyar Sevai (Vyakyaanam) requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the Paasurams and its inner meaning. It is not an easy art, as can be seen from the fact that it takes one nearly 20 years to learn and perfect the Abhinayam.

Araiyar Sevai during Margazhi

One of the ‘Araiyar Sevai’ occasions that is of particular significance is during Vaikunta Ekadesi (the winter month of Margazhi)- The Paghal Pathu (10 days) and the Era Pathu(10 days)- when one is treated to a real spectacle with the Araiyars enacting the ‘Story of Andal’ growing into a young beautiful girl through the Abhinayam.

Will Araiyar Sevai become a thing of the past?

Of real worry,though, is the fact that only a handful of Araiyars are keeping this most difficult art going. Their plight, especially the Araiyars at Srivilliputhur, is difficult to digest. With no salaries, the Araiyars there are finding the going tough, making it difficult for them to even provide basic education to their children.

(In the last couple of years, a corporate chieftain in Chennai has been helping out the education of one of the kids of the Araiyar.The kid has secured top rank in the first two years of the college education).

Says Bala Mukunda Araiyar of Srivilliputhur, who is one of the few Araiyars still practicing this difficult art, “It has been a great honour for the Araiyars to be performing the ‘Abhinaya’. I learnt from my father for over 18 years and have tried my best to keep it going and pass on my knowledge to the next generation. I have also managed to do the Arangetram of my son. However, It will be a pity if this 1000 year old art dies because of lack of support.”

Awards have been bestowed on artists in various fields but the Araiyars have sadly been left out of this, despite delighting devotees with their unique recital of the Divya Prabhandam. One feels it is time that they were given the recognition that has been due to them for years.

Call for Help

One of the popular depiction of the Paasurams - the art of enacting the Divya Prabandham- could be lost to the world, at least in Srivilliputhur, if immediate action is not taken. While music and dance artistes have been recognized through various art associations, even the basic financial needs of these artistes (the Araiyars), who have put their heart and soul in this devotional performance, have been ignored.

Despite delighting the devotees with their beautiful performance, the Araiyars of Srivilliputhur are living in financial ruins and in a house that could collapse anytime.

It is time one looks at a face lift to the art and also a source of income to the Araiyars that would help them keep this unique art going for future generations to enjoy.

Only time will tell if the devotees, charitable institutions, private companies as well as the Government will come together in reviving the Araiyar Sevai across the Divya Desams. It is something too precious to lose and one hopes that it is not yet late to bring the Araiyars back to their glory days. Otherwise Divya Prabhandhams and Thiru Pallandu recitals in this unique art form will be a thing of the past, soon.

The Araiyars at Srivilliputhur can be reached on 94438 67345.

Postal Address:
Bala Mukunda Araiyar
35 Periya Perumal West Mada Street
Srivilliputhur 626 125(TN, India)


Madhavan said...

Very nice, Prabhu! Reads like a publishable story and great material for a documentary film

PRabhu S said...


Hi! Thanks for the comment. Yes, there have been several offers/demands made to the Araiyar to sell their art for a fee...from international (research) organisations as well as from some of the leading movie producers in Tamil Nadu. Kamalahaasan is said to have asked them to perform( the art) for his forthcoming movie 'Dasavathaaram'.

The Araiyars have thus far resisted the temptation to sell their art for a fee to such organisations...

For the moment thats good news. However, with commercialisation every where, dont know how long the resistance can sustain, especially with no salary from the temple and very little financial contribution from the audience, except appreciation for the work