Saint-poetess Andal's Tiruppaavai has inspired seekers, artists, and the common man for centuries. It is now being presented in the form of a coffee-table book with elaborate commentary by Jeysundhar D and the famous illustrations of Keshav.
A diplomat by profession, Jeysundhar shares his journey of creating the book Maalyada: The Sacred Garland.
What got you started with Tiruppavai as a subject?
I grew up listening to the songs of my grandfather Sadhu Shri Pithukuli Murugadas. Among his memorable and innumerable renditions were four pasurams (couplets or songs) of the Tiruppaavai. To my young mind, they were poetic, musical, and most importantly, easy to sing along. As I grew up, I understood that the Tiruppaavai is one of the most lyrically beautiful and philosophically profound parts of the Naalayira Divya Prabandham (a collection of 4,000 sacred Tamil verses composed by the 12 azhwars).
In 30 deceptively simple songs of eight verses each, Andal captures the essence of what later acharyas would come to propound as Rahasya Trayam — the ashtakshari, dvaya mantra and the charama shloka.
The ashtakshari (Om Namo Narayanaya) finds manifestation in the very first pasuram of the Tiruppaavai in the line Naaraayanane Namakke Parai Tharuvaan. For the dvaya mantra, which captures the unified singularity of Vishnu and Lakshmi, Andal dedicates three pasurams (18-20).
The Tiruppaavai, both in parts, and in its entirety, repeatedly reinforces the concept of surrender personified by the charama shloka of the Bhagavad Gita. This ability of the Tiruppaavai to simultaneously present the magnificence of the Lord, while also remaining easily accessible to all, is what got me interested in the Tiruppaavai as a subject to write Maalyada: The Sacred Garland.
There have been several commentaries on Tiruppaavai in the past. Any specific work that influenced you deeply?
One of the earliest commentaries on the Tiruppaavai is by Periyavachaan Pillai, of the Vaishnava Guru Parampara. He is venerated as Vyakhyaayana Chakravarti, for the numerous commentaries he has written. Along with this commentary, the Upanyaasams of Shri Velukkudi Krishnan were a rich source of inspiration for this book.
Would you like to talk about the challenges you faced while writing the book?
Apart from the ever-present self-doubt on whether I should be attempting something of such complexity, there were several other challenges.
While the project originated as a thread on Twitter, now X, turning that thread into a book required a significant change, not only in language, but also format and content. Keeping in line with the Upanishadic and Puranic texts and the Bhagavad Gita itself, I chose the format of a conversation between Andal and the other girls performing the nonbu with her.
While this made the text readable with philosophical concepts mixed with banter, it presented its own set of challenges. The text had to provide sufficient space and pretext for every single word of every pasuram to find its place in the chapter dedicated to it, while also managing to keep the conversation between the girls cohesive and flowing.
While choosing the paintings, there was a problem of plenty as Keshav’s work is so beautiful that it was near impossible to pick one painting while choosing to keep five or six other paintings aside. Once completed, the text had to be aligned with corresponding paintings.
Then, the challenge was to find the right publisher.
Thrice in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna “Ma Suchah” — Do not worry. Similarly, as I began the project and wondered if Shri Keshav would consider it worthy to collaborate with me, I felt Andal by my side saying “Ma Suchah”. I soon received a positive response from him.
As I struggled to find a publisher, Andal once again said “Ma Suchah”. Keshavji advised that I speak with Shri Badri Seshadri of Oxygen Books and Kizhakku Pathippagam, who immediately agreed to the proposal and encouraged me further to look at the possibility of a Tamil translation as well.
After the book was ready, we planned a launch event and began to worry if we would be able to convince worthy guests to preside over it. For the third time, Andal said, “Ma Suchah”. The launch event was graced with the presence of the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Isaignaani Ilaiyaraaja, and senior journalist, Shri Rangaraj Pandey.
Keshav’s art works have been hugely popular over the years. Did his art influence your writing in any way?
This project was also an attempt to bring out the layered interpretations of the elements in Keshav’s paintings of the Tiruppaavai. His paintings were not only an influence, but also an important source of inspiration for writing the book. There are aspects in Maalyada that are directly drawn from elements in his paintings, making the text and paintings complement each other.
Despite several commentaries being there, do you feel the knowledge about Tiruppavai is restricted to Tamil Nadu?
The Tiruppaavai is definitely popular in Tamil Nadu, but the knowledge about it is not restricted to the Tamil-speaking audience. In fact, Krishna Deva Raya wrote Aamuktamaalyada, the epic poem about Andal, in Telugu.
She is called Goda Devi and is venerated by Telugu speakers. It was during and after the Vijayanagar Empire, that separate sannidhis (shrines) to Andal became part of Vaishnava temples.
The connection between Andal’s hometown of Srivilliputhur, and the temple of Tirupati is quite well known. The popularity of Tiruppaavai actually extends beyond the borders of India, to Thailand, where it is sung during the various ceremonies, along with the Tiruvempaavai.
But yes, as the songs are primarily in Tamil, they are sung more often and the knowledge and interest about them is higher in Tamil Nadu.
Do you think Andal's assimilation into the arts such as dance, music and paintings have made her the most popular among the azhwars?
Andal’s work, as with that of the other azhwars, is very amenable to singing and performing as dance. The popularity of the Tiruppaavai comes from a variety of factors. With its 30 songs, the Tiruppaavai lends itself naturally to be sung during the 30 days of Maargazhi.
The songs are sung by a young girl, and seem appropriate for girls of the same age group to learn during Maargazhi. But, I believe what has made the Tiruppaavai popular is not only its musicality or lyrical simplicity. It is the profundity that is hidden in those seemingly simple verses.
Let me demonstrate this with an example. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna,
Sarva Dharmaan Parityajya Maam Ekam Saranam Vraja |
Aham Tvaa Sarva Papebhyo Mokshayisyaami Maa Suchah||
After 700 verses of the Gita, Krishna concludes by saying “Abandon all other notions of Dharma, and surrender only to Me. I shall liberate you from all sins. Do not worry.” This is the concept of saranagati or surrender. Andal takes this charama shloka, and gets to the core of it, the message of surrender, as captured in “Maam Ekam Saranam Vraja”.
She goes further, and looks at the first part “Maam Ekam”, with the strongest sound being “Ae” of “Ekam”. Andal brings this “Ae” sound from Sanskrit to Tamil. This “Ae” sound, when suffixed with nouns and pronouns in Tamil, conveys the meaning of “only”, or “Ekam”.
Thus, the “Ae” from “Ekam” of the charama shloka becomes, “Narayanane Namakke Parai Tharuvaan” — conveying that Narayana alone can grant us parama pada, thereby emphasising the supremacy of Narayana, as expounded in Sri Vaishnavism. While we’re on this verse, it’s also important to note that within the four words, Andal covers all five aspects of the Artha Panchakam.
Narayanane Namakke Parai Tharuvaan — Naarayana alone can give us Parama Pada.
With this emphasis on Narayana, she draws our attention away from all other distractions, thus completing all five aspects of the Artha Panchakam in just four words. And that is just one verse of the first pasuram of the Tiruppaavai. Imagine the philosophical profundity of these songs we sing along. I believe this is the reason why the Tiruppaavai is so popular.
The writer is a journalist, storyteller and film researcher.
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