At the core of Margazhi is saint Andal’s Thiruppavai. And at the core of its veneration in performance, is renowned artiste M L Vasanthakumari’s rendition of Andal’s poetry.
Margazhi thingal madhi niraindha nannalal...
On the full moon day of the month of Margazhi, those of us who set out for a holy bath, the young girls of the prosperous Ayarpadi town, the son of Nandagopan, who wields a sharp spear, the young lion cub of Yashoda with beautiful eyes, the black hued, red eyed lord, who shines like the mid-day sun, it’s that, only that Narayana, who will give us the boons. Girls, let us join the world in praising his glory.
Thus sang Andal, the only woman among the 12 alvar saints of south India. The alvars are known for their affiliation to the Sri Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism. Andal is credited with great Tamil works such as Thiruppavai and Nachiar Tirumozhi that are still recited by devotees during the winter festival season of Margazhi.
The Thiruppavai is a garland of 30 stanzas (pasurams) written in Tamil by Andal (also known as Nachiyar), in praise of Lord Perumal – Vishnu. It is part of Divya Prabandham, a work of the 12 alvars, and is an important part of Tamil literature. Known as Kodhai Devi or Goda Devi, Andal incarnated on Earth in the 98th year from the onset of Kali Yuga (3102 BC). She performed an intense vratham, or vow, called Dhanurmasa vratham, to tell us that by practising it, one can attain all materialistic happiness along with the eternal bliss. The simplistic approach to this vratham is that if young unmarried girls performed it for the whole month, they would get married soon by finding a suitable husband. What did this vratham include? An early bath before sunrise, making the garland or vyjayanti malai, the prasadam being venn pongal – salted khichri made of moong dal and rice seasoned with cumin and black pepper. Puja included chanting of shlokas related to Vishnu or Krishna, with the main part being the recitation or singing of the Thiruppavai pasuram for that day. The period, from when the sun moves into the constellation of Dhanur-rasi or Sagittarius, and until it moves out to the constellation of Makara-rasi or Capricorn, is known as Dhanurmasam.
The vyjayanti malai is one of the most significant elements of this vratham, in fact, for the Tirupati Brahmotsavam, garlands offered to and worn by Andal in Srivilliputhur temple, are sent to Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati. These traditional garlands are made of tulasi, sevanthi and sampangi flowers. These garlands are worn by Lord Venkateswara during Garuda seva procession. Every year, Tirupati Venkateswara’s garland is sent to Srivilliputhur Andal for the marriage festival of Andal. She is believed to have worn the garland before dedicating it to the presiding deity of the temple. Periazhwar, who later found out about this ‘ritual’, was highly upset, and reprimanded her. But, Sri Vishnu appeared in his dream and asked him to dedicate to him only the garland worn by Andal.
Srivilliputhur Andal’s hand-crafted parrot is made with fresh green leaves each and every day. The parrot that is perched on the left hand of Andal, takes approximately four-and-half hours to make. A pomegranate flower for beak and mouth, bamboo sticks for legs, banana plant, petals of pink oleander and nandiyavattai help make the parrot.
Andal taught us this Dhanurmasa vratham because she wanted us to spend these auspicious days in contemplation of Krishna. This vratham was performed for Krishna. Krishna means happiness. Andal performed this vratham desiring the eternal god. She desired and attained him. Goda Devi or Andal instilled a faith through her pasurams (poems).
The Margazhi month celebrates the poetry of Andal in the dual emotion of shringara bhakti. Shringara — romance that blossoms, and bhakti, devotion that lends a spiritual connect to the activities of the month.
Thiruppavai belongs to the pavai genre of songs, a unique Tamil tradition sung in the context of the pavai vow (vratham or ritual observed by young girls) observed throughout the month of Margazhi. Sri Vaishnavas sing these stanzas every day of the year in the temple as well as in their homes. This practice assumes special significance during Margazhi, each day of this month gets its name from one of the 30 verses. There are references to this vow in the late Sangam era Tamil musical anthology Paripadal.
According to the poem, the symbolic undertone in Andal’s entreaty to her friends to wake up and seek Krishna, subsumes the essence of the three basic mantras in the Vaishnava tradition — the tirumantram, dvayam and charama shloka, that signify the truth of the paramatma or the supreme being who dwells in everything. There is a hidden meaning in the 27th pasuram, where Andal explains the importance of an acharya, whose guidance is mandatory for a disciple to get the trio of mantras. If the meaning is taken literally, it appears that Kodhai Devi is asking for some of the ornaments for the vratham, but the hidden meaning explains the importance of these three mantras in a symbolic way. Every pasuram has this detailed undertone, which must actually be realised. Thiruppavai is said to be Vedam Anaithukkum Vithagum, meaning, it is the seed of the vedam. The entire essence of the vedas hidden in Thiruppavai can be revealed only under the guidance of an acharya or a guru, who is well versed in vedic scriptures. This hidden essence is mentioned in Andal’s verses in the form of poetry.
Andal’s 30 songs contain the principles of Vaishnava dharma during the month of Marghazhi. Andal assumes the guise of a cowherd in these 30 verses. She appears intent upon performing a particular religious vow to marry the lord, thereby obtain his everlasting company, and inviting all her sakhis to join her.
The first five stanzas provide an introduction to the main theme, its principle and purpose. According to Andal, one should give up luxuries during this season. Sincere prayers to the god would bring abundant rain, and thus, prosperity. Offering Lord Krishna fresh flowers would expiate sins committed in the past and those that may be committed in future.
She invites her friends to gather flowers. She essays the ambience at her village, the chirping of birds, colourful blossoms, the musical sound of butter-churning, herds of cattle with tinkling bells, the sounding of the conch from the temple.
She visits each household and wakes her friends up to join her for a bath in a nearby pond. She also praises the incarnations of the lord. She desires to render Suprabhatham, gently, to wake up the lord. The group appeases the temple guards, enters the temple and recites prayers extolling the parents of Lord Krishna and begging them to wake up Krishna and Balarama. Then, they approach Neela Devi, the consort of the lord, to have a darshan.
The last nine stanzas are on the glories of the lord. On receiving his blessings Andal lists her demands; milk for the vratham, white conch, lamps, flowers, and rich costume and jewellery, plenty of ghee and butter. The concluding stanza describes her as the daughter of Vishnuchitta, who made this garland of 30 pasurams and says those who recite with devotion will have the lord’s blessings.
The iconic music comprising the 30 pasurams was composed by Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who set them to tune, and M L Vasanthakumari, through her inimitable rendition, took Thiruppavai to every household — making it another Suprabhatham that welcomes the dawn during this special month. M L V Amma’s Thiruppavai was released by the Gramophone Company of India.
Andal’s poetry, and her devotion to Krishna has inspired several artistes. Renowned artiste Dr Vyjayantimala Bali has delved into the intertwining of the month of Margazhi, Andal and her celebration in performance. In her note “Andal and the devotee”, she says: “when we think of the month of Margazhi, the thought of Andal automatically flows in our mind. Thiruppavai was the vratha (penance) performed by Andal. What was the reason for such a vratha? As the sacred basil — thulasi or thiruthulai is filled with fragrance even in its sprouting stage. So was Andal from the date of appearance in this world, possessed with an ardent desire for Lord Krishna. She eternally envisioned Him as her husband. Superficially, the verses may seem to be about Sri Andal’s love for Krishna, but at the metaphysical level, they represent the soul’s inner craving to redeem itself and reach the Lord.”
If one ever thought of Andal, her beautiful innocent face and the andal kondai or hairdo, the one and only icon who fitted the bill to the letter is Dr Vyjayantimala Bali. Her tryst with the role of Andal resulted in her performing it numerous times starting at a tender age until recently. What was it that attracted her to this female saint poet? It is evident that she truly loved the poetry and the goddess herself. Here she tells us in her own words why Andal is so precious to her.
She writes about her initiation into the works of Andal and her fascination for the saint. “Born in a very conservative family deeply steeped in Vaishnavism, I grew up in an atmosphere charged with sacred chants, soulful music and reverence for tradition. My grandmother, Yadugiri Devi was emphatic about the spiritual meanings inherent in scriptural stories and even as a little girl, I was particularly fascinated by Andal or Kodhai, an incarnation of the divine Goddess Earth – her child-like innocence and intensity of devotion for Lord Krishna.”
She adds: “Kodhai’s hymns are set to be the height of bridal mysticism. The fulfillment of my heart’s desire came when I presented Thiruppavai for the first time way back in the 1950s under the name of Sri Andal’s Sanga Tamizh Malai, a garland of Tamizh verses, conceived and choreographed by me and also an artistic accomplishment which was never attempted by anyone so far in the history of dance. Sri Andal aspires for an inseparable association with Him and abide to serve Him forever – to attain fulfillment of the highest objective of dedicated service to Him and with this happy note the Vratha comes to a close.”
Among the many disciples that M L V Amma produced, Sudha Raghunathan is considered a star today. She grew up with Amma, virtually lived with her and her music. She recently celebrated the 90th birthday of MLV at the Music Academy, Chennai. Since Margazhi meant Thiruppavai and Thiruppavai meant MLV, it was imperative to speak to Raghunathan about MLV and Margazhi.
Raghunathan believes that “MLV amma’s tryst with Margazhi is very significant”. Here is her account:
She reigned supreme as one of the top-ranking artists who was featured in almost every sabha during Margazhi. When I became her disciple in 1977, I would ask her why she had to go through so much of effort and strain and sing close to 15 concerts in a span of 30 days. Her response simply would be ‘Only if we support them can they also grow’! Such was her generosity… the thought behind those actions and her selflessness was so obvious for all to see. Besides her concerts, her contribution to Margazhi was a milestone, with her recording of the Thiruppavai, that was almost on the lines of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s tuning. But then, MLV Amma, in her own inimitable style, made it more pulsating and more vibrant, with her voice weaving all the ragas together for the 30 verses of Thiruppavai. She became a household name and every temple, even today, plays her rendition of Thiruppavai for that particular day, at dawn. Most of us who were students and now performing musicians ourselves, follow her rendering of Thiruppavai. In less than two minutes she would bring the entirety of the raga into that verse. The pace was brisk, yet we never realised it was so short – that was how she would bring completeness to that particular raga in each verse. In concerts that she sang after 15 December, during the Margazhi season, she would mostly include that day’s Thiruppavai in the performance.
MLV was a part of the great trinity of Carnatic vocalists – M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal and M L Vasanthakumari. MLV’s music embedded a sense or perspective of dance in it. So a scholar who had a fair understanding of both music and dance only could comment on MLV’s music. Renowned artiste Nandini Ramani has been involved in the rich legacy of her texts, deeply, mainly due to her father, renowned Sanskrit scholar Dr V Raghavan’s contribution to the world of south Indian arts. Here are some of her thoughts on MLV:
MLV can best be described as an embodiment of “Manodharma sangitam (M) creative music laya nypunyam (L) master of rhythms and vaichtriyam (V) abundant variety”. Her scholarly music captured so many intricate nuances, especially she was a class apart for unique pallavi rendition. I recall her close association with my father Dr V Raghavan and all of us in the family. A memorable occasion remains etched in golden memory when she sang a beautiful composition composed by my father on the occasion of the bi-centenary of Sri Syama Sastry at the Music Academy’s annual festival. That year, she was the recipient of the Sangita Kalanidhi award. A standing ovation followed her mesmerising rendition of that piece set in Sama raga by Vidvan Professor B Krishnamurti. MLV Amma’s music was of oceanic dimensions and among all female musicians of her times, she not only occupied a unique place in the musical firmament, but also in the hearts of innumerable music lovers, who adored her matchless musical genius. She was a unique blend of humane, and generous artiste, who encouraged many upcoming musicians.
The concluding or 30th song of the Thiruppavai mentions the benefits that accrue to the devotees when they recite all the songs. It is an assurance to the effect that either sung along with Andal in real time or sung in the days to come, the Thiruppavai songs bestow divine grace.
The reference to churning the ocean of milk has a definite purpose. The Vaishnavite belief is that appeals to god for his grace are best answered when made through Lakshmi, his consort. And Lakshmi has been one of the incidental outcomes of the churning of the ocean of milk for the sake of obtaining amrit, which was believed to bestow immortality.
Moreover, the god who went to the extent of taking the form of a tortoise to support the mountain used as the churning rod will certainly grace the maidens with his gifts. Both ways, the reference to the churning of the ocean of milk is very much in context in this song. That the maidens are beautiful in form and determined in devotion, is indicated by thingal thirumuhathu cheiraiyaar – moon-faced and bejewelled maidens. The gift acknowledged in the 30th song is the ultimate gift of being blessed with divine association for seven births indicated in the 29th song.