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Of Predawn Prayers, Early Winters, and Vivid Nostalgia

The blue mist of dawn brings a faint strain of melody with it. It is a call to prayer and a song of love. 

It’s the voice of a young girl, bright and bell-like. It wafts along the village’s mud streets, climbing in through windows and merging into the sounds of the ground being swept and watered before the kolam (rice-flour pattern) can be drawn. She sings each of her friends awake, beseeching them to accompany her to the temple.

Today marks the last day of Maargazhi, the most auspicious month of the Tamizh calendar. Lasting between mid-December to mid-January, some call it the queen of all months, for its pleasant weather and traditional significance. During this month, Andal, the 8th-century poet-saint from Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu composed the Tiruppaavai, an anthology of thirty devotional poem-songs dedicated to Lord Ranganathar. 

Andal was one of the twelve Alvars. Legend has it that Vishnuchittar (the saint, Periyalwar) found her in a Tulsi garden as an infant and brought her up along with his wife, Vrajai, as his own child. She was named Kodhai, meaning “baby-girl dearly and heartily loved’ and “a girl having beautiful curly hair.” She was an intelligent and devout young girl, and her parents doted upon her. 

A daughter, found as though by miracle. Life is wonderful. Daily, he makes garlands of flowers and tulsi leaves for the deity of the temple. One morning, Kodhai, out of curiosity, wears the garland meant for the deity and admires herself in the mirror. Her urge to adorn herself with the garland becomes a habit, and the priests of the temple begin to notice how its flowers are just a little more colourful, the leaves a little more fragrant than before. This goes on, until one day, Vishnuchittar catches Kodhai with the temple-bound garland around her neck, and chastises her for polluting it. She will not repeat the sacrilege. 

The fragrance is gone; the priests are perplexed. The Lord appears in Vishnuchittar’s dream one night. “I shall not accept a garland that has not been worn by Kodhai,” he tells him. Chudikoduttha Sudarkodi, she begins to be called. The one who offers him the garland she has worn. As she grows up and awakens to her deepening love, she composes the songs you marvel at centuries later.

It is early winter, and Maarghazhi is here. You wake up at five in the morning, bathe and light lamps at the threshold of your house. You sing the verses she sang, ages ago and miles away, but something remains the same. The romance of predawn worship, a song, low and lilting, a litany of verses, as familiar to you as the backyard you walked your first steps in. The first five verses declare Andal’s intention to perform a month-long nombu, a penance. They detail out the do’s and don’ts of this sustained and intense worship-period of Lord Krishna. The next ten verses sing out to companions, to girlfriends who will accompany her to the Temple while singing his praises. Each verse describes how Andal reaches each of the girls’ houses, wakes her up, and implores her to join the group. 

Detailed descriptions of the environment abound; mentions of buffalo-sheds and lamplit mansions feature alongside her eloquent praises of the Lord’s glorious feats and features. In your backyard, the red pond-lilies have loosened their petals, even as the night-lily closes. Ascetics donning brick-dust hued robes are making their way to the temple, to blow the conch; will you not rise? In the sixteenth verse, Andal and her friends reach the entrance of the Lord’s temple and beseech its guard there to let them enter. The next four verses gently wake the Lord and his consort Nappinnai. As the Lord awakens, opening his lotus-eyes, the following verses sing eloquent praise of his various great qualities and victories. The very last verse, the phalashruti, conveys the blessings that one is afforded upon reciting the thirty songs of the Tiruppaavai faultlessly. 

Andal is considered an incarnation of Bhudevi, the Earth Goddess. I think about how the Devi, the goddess, has always been associated with the Earth. Sometimes, the Goddess is the earth: the Mother that sustains, the music that is made by rivers flowing over rocks, and the scent that is born of rainwater mingling with soil. Sita was found in a furrow; Andal was found in a Tulsi grove. And the rules of men have never been for those born of the Earth. 

Often, I imagine myself at the threshold of a house. Or more accurately, the gate of a compound with five houses, in which live five brothers with their families. Their wives rise before the winter sun and step out into the cold morning to milk the buffaloes. The sheds are an indigo shade of freezing, and the yard soon fills with the sounds of milk rhythmically pouring into vessels. Dream-like, yet a real enough memory, these scenes surface in me, as though from another lifetime; one before pandemics and a painful awareness of privilege that is a millstone around your neck, bent from hours of staring into a soulless screen.

At eighteen, I had got the opportunity to visit Ranekpar in Western Gujarat. It was my first experience of a village that went beyond whizzing past green and yellow fields in a train, or passing through hamlets with a handful of woven-leaf huts in a creaky interstate bus. Environmental Perception is a three-week course of the foundation year at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Each year, the batch of first year students is divided into three groups and each taken to a village in Gujarat, to understand it through visual documentation and drawings. Beginning with mapping out the entire village, one gradually narrows down one’s focus to a locality, a landmark, a compound, household, and members. As they spend time with a single family, communicating through a bizarre mix of broken Gujarati, Hindi and body language, a bond is forged. Years later, these students will still refer to them in conversations as their “EP family.”

It is this family of mine that I think of fondly, and the yard that appears so often in my dreams and daydreams belongs to them. And it belongs to me, in memory. When I think of the slant of lemony sunlight filtering in through a neem canopy and how it warmed me as I sat laughing with the women around the open chulhas, and when I think of the glowing coals casting a vermilion glow against the darkening evening sky and shivering purple leaves. It belongs to me as I remember the songs we sang, and the stories we exchanged, and the music that was the life and routine of these large-souled people. 

I wonder if Andal grew up in such a village. Srivilliputtur, were you as warm in the winters  as my Ranekpar was to me? 

Andal imagines herself in Ayarpadi, the village of Krishna and his Gopikas. To the son of the soil of Madurai of North, to the lamp which illuminated the cowherd community , to the one who lives beside the Yamuna of pure and abundant waters, we call out. All my life, I have moved around the country and called several places home. Long, tree-lined autumn avenues of Delhi, the silver fog of Kanpur mornings, the trembling breeze of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati, the shimmering squares of Bangalore’s billion windows, so many memories of winters abound. And yet, sometimes, a rustic, dusty place called Ranekpar, where I spent a mere hundred hours of my life, stands out above them all. I wonder if it is possible to feel nostalgia for something you’ve barely had a taste of. Was it stories, or songs? When I read the words that evoke the imagery of a far-away place and era in her songs, I wonder, was it sheer imagination that inspired Andal to spin poetry about a place she had never lived in? Is it possible to fall in love with an idea? The idea of somewhere, of someone, of something? When I give it some thought, I find that I suppose we do it all the time. 

I imagine having lived a lifetime in a city with narrow streets and grilled windows through which emanate the sounds of harmoniums being played and early morning riyaaz. In the blue darkness of a community room in college, I sit, eyes half-lidded, my back stooping from a sleepless night. But there is something charming about listening to Birendra Krishna’s Mahishasura Mardini with a dozen others as the sun rises slowly above the Sabarmati on Mahalaya. The glowing crimson-gold nights of Garba begin, strung-lights, grassy open fields and earthy drum-beats begin. Early winter has arrived, but with the heady warmth of twirling circles and swaying arms. 

Like the mouth of  a tinkling bell, like the petals of a lotus, would not your pink-tinged pure eyes open, little by little, and look at us? sings Andal. Would not your eyes open? The idea of solemn worship, of a devotion, is exhilarating to me. Maargazhi, morning riyaaz, Mahalaya, the rhythm of milking buffaloes, they’re made of the same music. The pre-dawn melody of a love, a habit that clears the mind. In my sleep, I hear my father’s deep baritone, mingling with my mother’s silky pitch as they recite the Tiruppaavai in the kitchen, and I can’t tell how much of the achingly-beautiful rhythm is a dream and how much of it a blessing that has come out of having to be at home. I stir groggily at the chant that is both a call to prayer, and a song of love. I wake. 

Featured Image Credits from the author.

Experience Further: Thoomani Maadathu  by Agam is a rendition of the 9th Paasuram of Thiruppavai by Sri Andal, composed by Sri. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890 – 1967) in raagam Hamir Kalyani, set to Aadi taalam. I have found it a powerful piece of art imbued with the lyricality of Andal’s mysticism, the charm of Carnatic vocals and the appeal of contemporary instruments; a hard song to stop listening to once you fall in love with it.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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