Practicing at his terrace on East Chitra Street in the backdrop of the Vellai Gopuram
Bharathwajan Araiyar of Srirangam has a unique profile. Professionally, he dons the role of a Pilot having coming out with flying colours in the Aviation course he undertook. And away from the aircrafts, he is seen presenting with great devotion the 1000 year old rare art form of Araiyar Sevai at the Lord Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam and creating a special devotional experience in the people’s minds with his performances.
He was just five years old in 1986 when he started learning the art from his father Lakshmi Narayana Araiyar (who was a bronze medalist at REC and was a star employee at BHEL) and his uncle Sampath Araiyar. The very first Prabhandham he learnt was Thondaradipodi Azhvaar’s Thirumalai.
Such was his interest that as a young school boy he would make his elder sister sit in front of him in the backyard of his house and present Abhinaya of the sacred verses of the Azhvaars visualising her as Lord Namperumal.
First Araiyar Sevai at the age of 10
His debut Araiyar Sevai was a presentation of Periyazhvaar’s ‘Aatrilirunthu Vilaiyaaduvongalai’ verses as a 10 year old on the 2nd day of the Pagal Pathu Utsavam at the Lord Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. His hands were shivering when he presented for the first time.
Bharathwajan when he was four years old
Later that year he was heartbroken when his uncle refused to permit him to present a solo Araiyar Sevai on the 7th day of Brahmotsavam citing his age as a reason. Unable to bear this rejection, Barathwajan Araiyar started shedding tears of devotion right there in front of the Lord. His true devotion for the Lord prompted the Archakas of the day to persuade the boy’s uncle to permit him to perform and he presented with tears of joy the verses of Periyazhvaar’s ‘Thinnar Ven Sangudaiyaai’.
In 1993, as a 12 year old he presented Araiyar Sevai, of the ‘Thodakka Paasurams’ of the Tiruvoimozhi verses, on each day of the 10 day Nam Azhvaar Utsavam, quite a significant achievement indeed.
Dull student at school!!!
He rarely liked school and would often skip classes at Ranga Matriculation School (Srirangam) to be present with the Lord on festive occasions. Every Ekadasi and Amavasya was a time for him to be with the Lord on processions.
He had been a dull student at School and it was the popular RSV (now 80 years old) teacher who took special interest in him and helped him with Maths. He would often say ‘I teach Maths but your Math is with God’. All his teachers, both in School and College, saw him only as an Araiyar and as one who performed service to God.
Persuades his father to allow him to present at other Divya Desams
Wanting to also present before the Lord in Thiru Vellarai and Woraiyur Divya Desams (two temples near Srirangam), the young boy once woke up his father at 5am (his father would leave for his work at BHEL at 6am every morning) and persuaded him to hand over the bus ticket charges that day so he too could make it after his school to join the Senior Araiyars.
Since only the senior Araiyars presented there, they did not want to incur extra expenses to take this boy along and they would often tell him that the Utsavams were all over and that he should focus on his studies. But his persuasion paid off. And he won over his father with his devotion and presented Araiyar Sevai in those temples as well even as a school boy.
In those days there was only one tube light in the temple. It was only oil and ghee lamps all around and they presented with Bhakti amidst the sacred light emanating from those lamps.
Brahmotsavam and falling sick
Every year during the annual Brahmotsavam, he would invoke Lord Namperumal’s blessings to make him sick so he could stay away from his school. And then he would quietly cycle around to find the location of the Lord (on his procession) much to the surprise of his father and uncles. Such was his devotion to the Lord.
On the 1st day when the ‘Kodi Etram’ was to take place just after 3am, his father and uncles would not wake him up as he was a small boy and did not want to disturb his sleep. When he woke up at 4.45 am to the realisation that the Kodi Etram had taken place in his absence, he would shed tears for hours leaving him swollen eyes and cheeks.
During that period, he performed a lot of Kainkaryam at the temple. He would fold the Vastrams of the Lord, would get the Dhoopam ready and performed selfless service during Thirumanjanam.
Presentation just after 3am
As a 15 year old, Barathwajan Araiyar stayed awake the whole night awaiting the knock on his door by the temple staff at 3am and went there to present 40 verses of Thiruppavai and Thirupalli Yezhuchi. His uncles would insist to be present along with him though he wanted to present this all alone. He then practiced for hours at his house with his sister playing the role of an Archaka and convinced his relatives that he was confident of presenting this on his own without their presence.
No Excursions No Vacations
While all his classmates went on excursions, he would be practicing Araiyar Sevai at home. Even when his relatives went on their annual trip to Tirupathi, he would be the lone boy staying back home as he was keen to practice and master the Araiyar Sevai. Each year during the summer vacation, he would continuously practice the art throughout the two month period. At the school and college, he was seen presenting lectures to his teachers on the role of Araiyars and the significance of Araiyar Sevai. His teachers saw him as a devoted Araiyar whose mind was always on the Lord and went out of their way to help him out in his education.
Inspired by the movie Bhakta Prahalada, which he watched when he was a young boy, Bharathwajan first played the role of Prahalada when he was still not into his teens on the 7th day of Era Pathu Utsavam when the Araiyars present the entire episode of Hiranya Vatham. Since then, he has been the devotees’ favourite over the last two decades for this role. He has always wanted to be like Prahalada in the pursuit of Bhakti and devotion to the Lord.
Becomes a Pilot
As he grew up into a teenager in the 1990s, his interest for driving different vehicles increased. Every Sunday he would go to a mechanic shop in Thiruvanaikaval and help out in the repair of two wheelers and cars. When vehicles broke down in Srirangam at odd hours, people knew whose help to seek. It was also during this period that his interests expanded to aeroplanes. One night he took his father’s car and drove it all alone around the Chitra Streets when all others were asleep. And then he displayed his driving skills to his father the next morning by driving him to the Gunaseelam temple
Once he also sat through the night next to the engine driver in the train from Srirangam to Madras.
After graduating in Computer Science from National College, he worked for a few years in a private firm in Tiruchirapalli. Bharathwajan Araiyar then joined an Aviation course and completed it in 2years. Once he landed at around 7pm with almost no light at an airport and with only the natural Moon Light to assist him (while he was in the training phase). He also did a solo cross country between Trichy and Madras in heavy rain without anyone inside the aircraft in that training phase piloting the aircraft at a height of just 250 feet above the ground as there was a thick cloud cover above that!!!!
Over the last six years, he has been a pilot with a Chartered Airline.
Straddling between a Pilot and Araiyar Sevai
His father had struggled in his early days with limited facilities and wanted his son to enjoy life. Hence he tried to present everything that his son was interested in and did not stop him from pursuing his other interests.
While Bharathwajan loves the role of a Pilot, his main interest in life continues to be to bring the mystical experiences of the Azhvaars to the devotees through his Abhinayam especially during the 21 day Tamiil Divya Prabhandham (Adhyayana) Festival in Margazhi and to ensure that this art introduced by his fore father Natha Muni is experienced and enjoyed by the devotees.
Araiyar Sevai, he says, is not just about memorising a few verses and presenting them as a song and dance sequence. It is about Bhakti and Devotion to Lord and transforming oneself into that role and creating a Bhakti experience for the devotees much the same way the Azhvaars visualised and praised the Lord in so many different temples.
Bharathwajan, who this year will be completing 25 years of presenting Araiyar Sevai, calls it a great blessing to have been born as an Araiyar and to be able to present Azhvaar’s verses in front of Lord Namperumal. ‘Abhinayam has to come naturally. Self interest has to be high. Expression has to be soft because we have to remember that we are presenting in front of God.’
In recent times he has been travelling across South India to educate devotees on the significance of Araiyar Sevai. Through his Araiyar Sevai, he is hopeful that more devotees will visit and experience this rare art form of presenting the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham.
Bharathwajan Araiyar has just been engaged and will tie the wedding knot in May this year.
Bharathwajan Araiyar has just been engaged and will tie the wedding knot in May this year.
I had written a story several years on saving this rare art
(A version of this story featured today in The Hindu Friday Review)