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Art, rare and revered

CHITRA MADHAVAN

Srinivasarangachariar Swami from Srivilliputtur performed Araiyar Sevai at the Ashtalakshmi temple.

Photo: K.V.Srinivasan.

Rare event: Srinivasarangachariar performing Araiyar Sevai at Sri Mahalakshmi Temple, Besant Nagar.

Visitors to the Ashtalakshmi temple in Tiruvanmiyur on Thursday evening had the pleasant experience of witnessing a rare event — performance of Araiyar Sevai, a service rendered by traditional Vaishnavite families of Araiyars who sing and rec ite devotional hymns (pasurams) from the Nalayira Divya Prabandham.

This art form which was widely performed in many Vishnu temples, large and small in ancient and medieval Tamil Nadu is now confined to select temples such as those at Srivilliputtur, Srirangam and Alwar Tirunagari.

The Araiyar Sevai ritual at the Ashtalakshmi temple was performed by Srinivasarangachariar Swami from Srivilliputtur, who belongs to a family of Araiyars who have been rendering this service for centuries. Wearing the traditional attire of panchagacham and the unique conical headgear called Araiyar Kullai, and wielding the cymbals, he performed “Muthukkuri Vaibhavam” in front of the processional deity of this temple.

Moving forward and back, singing select verses of the Azhwars, he enacted with zeal the role of the kurathi or gypsy soothsayer in predicting the marriage of Goddess Lakshmi with Vishnu. This special theme is elaborately dealt with only by the Araiyars of Srivilliputtur and is performed on special occasions such as the days immediately following Pongal, Panguni Uttiram and Aadi Puram.

Nearly 80, Srinivasarangachariar Swami still has great enthusiasm for this ancient art form, which, as he says is a combination of music and dance infused with devotion. He performs regularly at the Srivilliputtur temple and also travels to other Vaishnavite temples in south Tamil Nadu like Azhwar Tirunagari, Tirukkurungudi, Tirukannapuram and Azhagar Kovil to perform Araiyar Sevai.

He explains that Nathamuni, the Vaishnavite preceptor who lived in the ninth century A.D., collected all the 4,000 pasurams of the Azhwars from near oblivion and taught them to his two nephews at Srirangam along with music and dance in order to disseminate these devotional hymns. This was the beginning of the Araiyar Sevai tradition which was subsequently made a part of temple ritual and performed regularly on certain occasions.

Rigorous training

From Nathamuni’s two disciples began the two traditions of Araiyar Sevai called the Melai Agathu Azhwar parampara and the Keezhai Agathu Alwar parampara. Srinivasarangachariar Swami adds that it takes a minimum of eighteen years of rigorous training to become proficient in the Araiyar Sevai and perform in temples.

The performer must be well-versed in all the 4,000 hymns of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, the commentaries on the Azhwars’ hymns and must have a thorough knowledge of abhinaya as well. In the past, the Araiyars were honoured and venerated by the royalty and common man alike and enjoyed a special place in the temple hierarchy. There are many inscriptions etched on the walls of temples, beginning from the Chola age and also of the Pandyas, which speak of the endowments made to the Araiyar families for performing this ritual at Vaishnavite temples.

Ramanuja, Vaishnavite preceptor, who was instrumental in bringing about many reforms at the Srirangam temple, had special regard for the families of Araiyars. Srinivasarangachariyar Swami laments the loss of patronage due to which many members of Araiyar families have given up this art form and turned to other professions. However, he adds with pride, that his family at Srivilliputtur still practises this profession as his ancestors have done over the centuries. His two sons perform Araiyar Sevai and grandson aged twenty is also learning this art.

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