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Tamizhin Kathai – A journey in Language and time
During the pandemic, while many of us obsessed over the perfect rise of sourdough bread or hand-wrestled other shoppers over the last roll of toilet paper, Bharatanatyam exponent Nirupama Vaidhyanathan buried herself completely in her personal passion – Tamizh literature. Over the past three years, she read only Tamizh books, novels, commentaries, and poetry.
It was a complete immersion.
What emerged from this submersion was a novel, extraordinary storytelling idea – Tamizhin Kathai: The Story of Tamizh – the biography of a language, its literature, and history interpreted through dance. Tamizhin Kathai transports its audience back in time to 2500 years ago and then gradually weaves its way to the modern era.
The Story of Tamil made its debut on April 1st at the Sunnyvale Community Center in Sunnyvale.
Tamizh – poetry for the ages
Tamizh has had an unbroken spoken culture for 2500 years. Vaidhyanathan told India Currents that her intention was to explore, “Sangam poetry, the Dravida Veda of Shaivite and Vaishnavite poetry, the Tamil Ramayana by Kamban, nationalist and activist poet Subramania Bharathiar, and contemporary poets Sujatha Vijayaraghavan and Vairamuthu.”
Vaidhyanathan’s dramatic theater production moves organically through a timeline that stretches from Sangam poetry in 250 BCE through the thevaram and prabhandham bhakti poetry of the 5-10th centuries, all the way to modern writers like Sujatha Vijayaraghavan. She accompanies the performance with a narrative in English and supertitling. It’s very accessible to non-Tamil speakers.
An enthralling performance
Vaidhyanathan undertook the gargantuan task of sifting through 2500 years of a rich literary culture with two goals in mind. She wanted to capture large shifts in language either by a creative collective or a single influential poet and choose topics that resonated deeply with her.
The result is an enthralling journey that explores ancient devotional poetry like the Kamba Ramayanam that focuses on Rama and Seetha in the forest, to modern introspections of Rama by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan in 1994 after the 1992 Babri Masjid event.
Four of Vaidhyanathan’s senior students, Priyanka Chary, Abirami Murugappan, Uma Lakshminarayan, and Haritha Rajasekar collaborated with her in developing the program and expertly accompanied her on stage.
A performer viewpoint
Priyanka Chary told India Currents that the unique program allowed her to look at her art through a different lens. “I am used to seeing and taking part in dance programs in either a traditional maargam format or in a thematic format where all the songs in a repertoire are either on the same deity or in some way similar.” Chary has been a dancer for almost 20 years.
It was very important for Chary to understand the rationale behind each piece in the production, which illustrates the biography of a language.
“For example, a medley of two Tirupugazhs was presented to show the versatility within one genre of Tamizh poetry. In one Thirupugazh, Arunagirinathar fit many syllables per line creating an upbeat mood in the song, while in another Thirupugazh at the same tempo, a leisurely mood was created. Understanding the context of the piece in the program was vital to my practice, and I needed to tailor my practice sessions to make sure I was able to emphasize this contrast.”
Abirami Murugappan, a seasoned dancer said it meant a lot to convey the depth of Tamizh, a language she holds dear. “It’s almost ironic because literature is specific to a certain language, but dance itself is a universal language.” Murugappan is proud to be part of a production that takes Tamil poetry and conveys its meaning through dance to an audience that included non-Tamil speakers.
A Continuum of Ideas
Vaidhyanathan is no stranger to developing innovative dance productions. Through the Sankalpa Dance Foundation which she founded in Fremont, she has taught South Indian classical dance through performances, workshops, and lecture demonstrations since 2000.
Vaidyanathan’s expertise in Tamil literature, creative, and artistic development, culminates in the flawlessly executed ‘Story of Tamizh’ which takes traditional Bharatanatyam storytelling to new heights.
As a native Tamizh speaker, I was stirred when I heard the beauty of the language conveyed in poetry during the production and yearned to hear more of it.
“The movement of language reveals a continuum of ideas – poets and writers read with great interest the works that came before them and then stamped their own ideas on new creative ventures,” adds Vaidhyanathan.
With Tamizhin Kathai, Vaidhyanathan makes her own, indelible stamp in the pantheon of Tamizh language and literature.
The Story of Tamil
- Dancers: Priyanka Chary, Abirami Murugappan, Uma Lakshminarayan, Haritha Rajasekar
- Musician: Nattuvangam Vocal and Music Composition: Swamimalai K. Suresh
- Mridangam: Shakthivel Muruganandam
- Violin: N. Sikhamani
- Flute: Sashidhar
- Sound Engineer: A. L. Thukaram
- Research, Concept and Choreography: Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
- Guest speaker: Smt. Rhadha from Chennai.
Images by Prasanna Ranganathan