Dalit struggle and a legend

Print edition : April 25, 2003

The Legend of Nandan: Nandan Kathai by Indira Parthasarathy, translated from the Tamil by C.T. Indra; Oxford University Press; pages 82, Rs.195.

DALITS, who constitute a little over one-sixth of India's one billion people, have for generations been at the very bottom of the social ladder. They are kept outside, and subservient to, the four-tier hierarchical caste structure sanctified by Varnasrama Dharma.

Accounting for over 80 per cent of the landless agricultural workers and doing menial jobs for the rest of society, Dalits have been victims of class-related economic exploitation by upper-caste landholders. Contrary to the expectations generated among people during the freedom struggle, Independence has not brought any significant change in their lives.

Dalits' attempts at upward mobility are often scorned and there has been no let-up in the violence against them. In a gruesome incident that took place at East Venmani in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district on December 25, 1968, 44 Dalit agricultural workers, including women and children, were burnt alive by the land-owners of the village because they demanded higher wages and were increasingly assertive as members of the farm workers' union led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It shocked the State, and Tamil writers of the period recorded their anguish and anger in stories and poems. Scholar, writer and cultural historian Indira Parthasarathy was one among them. His Kuruthippunal, serialised first in Kanaiyazhi, a literary magazine based in Delhi at that time, and later published as a novel, was well received. The novel won for the author the Sahitya Akademi award in1977.

Indira Parthasarathy soon followed it up with a play, `Nandan Kathai' (The Legend of Nandan), based on his reinterpretation of a story that has been in circulation among Tamil-speaking people for over a thousand years. The story is about an 8th century Dalit farm worker and temple servant, whose only ambition in life was to enter the Siva temple at Chidambaram (about 150 km from Chennai) in order to "enjoy the beauty of Nataraja's cosmic dance" from close quarters. (Dalits were denied entry into temples until recently. Even those among them assigned temple-related work were expected to perform the duties without entering the temple. For instance, these people were used for supplying articles such as flowers and musical instruments made of leather to temples, for constructing temple ponds, and so on.)

"Nandan Kathai", published in 1978, has had to wait for over two decades to see its English version. Translator C.T. Indra deserves to be commended for having accomplished the arduous task of transcreating the play interspersed with numerous songs rendered by Saivite savants and Gopala Krishna Bharati, keeping the beauty of the author's `stylised prose' intact. The fact that the play in its English version, staged in Chennai and Hyderabad, was received well by the audiences, speaks for the success of the translation. A brilliant introduction and a scholarly critique of the play by the translator enhance the value of the publication.

In her "Critical Theory and a Reading of Nandan Kathai: Hindu Culture as Text", Indra gives a detailed account of the post-Deconstruction critical theory of New Historicism, "which combines the spirit of deconstruction with the ideological orientation of Marxism and post-Marxism". In the light of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, she examines Indira Parthasarathy's "Nandan Kathai". She writes, "The playwright himself becomes a New Historicist and a Cultural Materialist in the play because he brilliantly rehistoricises the original legend'' about Nandan.

HISTORIANS relate the segregation of a section of people in Tamil Nadu as "outcastes" and "untouchables" to the process of Aryanisation of southern India. Dalit isolation grew in intensity in pace with this process. "The Aryanisation of the South was doubtless a slow process spread over several centuries. Beginning probably about 1000 B.C., it had reached its completion before the time of Katyayana, the grammarian of the 4th century B.C., who mentions the names of the Tamil countries of the extreme south." (K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India)

In his Slavery in the Tamil Country: A Historical Overview, historian S. Manickam observes: "It is difficult to say when the institution of slavery originated in the South. Perhaps the conquest of southern India by the Aryans and the consequent fusion between them and the inhabitants of the land could have been the possible cause of the birth of Caste System and the institution of slavery which is closely allied with the former."

The "Pulaiyars'', the "Paraiars" and the "Pallars" are some of the large Dalit communities. Many historians have shown that large sections of original inhabitants (the Pallars and the Paraiars, for instance) were alienated from their land. Manickam contends that the Aryanisation process reached its peak during the period of Imperial Cholas under state patronage and this led to a form of slavery, mainly associated with land. The distribution of land as gift to Brahmins by the kings during the Pallava and Chola periods brought about changes in land relations. Brahmins, who were until then mostly advisers and purohits to the king, became landowners in several places.

Nandan, in a way, has been the symbol of the Dalit aspiration for liberation since the 8th century. The evolution of the story of Nandan, from a brief reference to his inner piety by the Tamil Saivite seer and poet Sundarar, one of the 63 nayanmaars of the Saivite order, ("chemmaiye Thirunaalaippovaarkkum adiyen") to Indira Parthasarathy's Nandan Kathai, through several re-interpretations is interesting.

Sundarar in his Thiruthondar Thogai, a compilation of information on the 63 nayanmaars who spearheaded the Bhakti movement by propagating the ideals of the Hindu religion, particularly of the Saiva sect, makes a one-line reference to Nandan, also one of these nayanmaars. He does not even give his original name and simply calls him Thirunaalaippovar, which literally means `one who will go (into the temple) tomorrow' to denote his devotion to Nataraja of Chidambaram and his longing to go into the temple. Sundarar's version does not explain how Nandan got that name or what hurdles he had to face in entering the temple.

Three centuries later, Nambiandar Nambi, another Tamil Saivite savant, gives some more details about Nandan in his Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi. One stanza in the collection of poems on the lives of nayanmaars says that Thirunaalaippovar belonged to Aadhanur and was by birth a Pulaiya (one who did menial services relating to the needs of the temple and lived outside the town). The poem, also says that he visited the Chidambaram temple "by God's grace" and "three thousand Brahmins of Chidambaram saluted him (Thirunaalaippovar)."

Sri Lankan Tamil critic K. Kailasapathy finds a significant difference between the approaches of Sundarar and Nambiandar Nambi to Thirunaalaippovar. While Sundarar in his brief reference highlights the inner purity of Thirunaalaippovar's devotion to God, Nambiandar Nambi, even as he applauds his unquestionable devotion, thinks it fit to mention his caste and the disability his caste identity caused him. Kailasapathy attributes this to the socio-political compulsions of the period in which the two Saivites lived.

The entrance to the Siva temple at Chidambaram.-V. GANESAN

Sundarar belonged to the Pallava period (7th to 9th century A.D.) when Hinduism had to confront Buddhism and Jainism. The Bhakti movement, which was launched to face this challenge, was at its peak. The need of the hour as perceived by Sundarar was to promote unity among Hindus and play down the caste differences among them. But during the Chola period, when Nambiandar Nambi wrote his poem, the threat to Hinduism had receded substantially, thanks to state patronage, and, perhaps, the caste-based social order had regained its importance in the perception of Saiva savants (Adiyum Mudiyum, pages 263-265). Kailasapathy also points out that during the period people's reverence for the nayanmaars had swelled. But it appears that in the popular perception some of the nayanmaars had been less than equal to others. Kailasapathy, however, does not go into the possible reasons for this. (The point to be noted here is that among the nayanmaars a few were from subaltern societies.)

A more elaborate narration of the story of Nandan was provided by the 12th century Tamil poet Sekkizhar in his Thiruthondar Puranam. Sekkizhar's work gives information not only about Nandan, but also about the living conditions of `untouchables' in segregated colonies outside the village or town. As epic-writer, he weaves Nandan's life into an absorbing story, which details his devotion to God and intense desire to visit the Nataraja temple. Yet, Nandan's mindset, conditioned by centuries of serfdom, makes him feel that it will be improper for him to transgress caste boundaries and visit a place meant exclusively for "Thillaivazh Anthanar" (Brahmins). Although he reaches Chidambaram after a long mental struggle, he is unable to muster courage to enter the prohibited zone. He simply goes around the temple and blames himself for his "low birth". God appears in Nandan's dream, as the story goes, and directs him to "have a dip in fire and reach me". God also appears in the Brahmins' dream and asks them to arrange for the fire ordeal. "Nandan enters fire and reaches the feet of God," so ends the story.

Unlike in some later versions, Sekkizhar's account of Nandan's life does not mention any conflict between Nandan and others (of the dominant castes). Nor is there any mention of resentment among people of his own caste over his boundless devotion or obsession with visiting the temple.

These differences are significant, writes Kailasapathy (Adiyum Mudiyum). He feels that the lack of adequate information may have been the reason for this. Prior to Sekkizhar there have not been many literary references to Nandan. Barring a sculpture at Darasuram temple, which shows Nandan undergoing the fire ordeal, and another sculpture on a wall of the Chidambaram temple, which shows Nandan as a singer, there is no other valid evidence other than literary relating to Nandan.

From the early versions of the story of Nandan one can infer that any aspiration for liberation on the part of Dalits could have been only at the individual level. Living in segregated colonies outside the village and working as bonded labour for upper-caste landholders, the "untouchables" could hardly be expected even to think of liberating themselves from the caste rigidities of the time. Centuries of oppression and indoctrination could have hardened their frustration and made them believe that they were destined to suffer as slaves and that there was no escape other than through the religious route. Religious discourses to which they could have had access might have convinced them that their salvation lay in attaining `mukti' (the feet of God) through `bhakti' (devotion). And this would liberate them from the `low birth', which Nandan holds responsible for all their ills.

The temples constructed during the Pallava and Chola periods (from 7th to 11th century) with all their architectural grandeur and splendour, besides the music and dance associated with them, could have stimulated individuals' aspirations in this direction.

"During Pallava rule the temple was an active centre of religious and social life and played a multiple role of religious, social and cultural activities. Gifts and endowments to temples all over the Pallava kingdom enabled these temples to play an important role in the economic life of the village" (C. Minakshi, Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas). There is historical evidence to show that regular feeding houses were attached to many of the temples, but who benefited from this arrangement is a moot point.

Indra points out that none of the first three versions saw Nandan's life "as an attempt to subvert received social order in his longing to have darshan of Lord Nataraja, although as a Paraiar he was forbidden from entering the town". "These accounts," observes Indra, "highlight Nandan's mental purity, elevating him above his irredeemable social status and project him as a metaphysical entity untouched by the material conditions of his existence."

A dancing Natraja idol.-

SEVEN centuries later came the fourth version of the legend - Gopala Krishna Bharati's musical opera `Nandanar Charitra Kirtanai'. It came in print in 1861. The opera took a totally different view of the story.

Much had changed at the politico-economic level and in social relations during the 10 centuries that separated Nandan's time and the period when Bharati's opera appeared. Between the third and fourth versions there was a gap of 600 years. Tamil Nadu was successively under the rule of the Pandyas, the Nayaks, Muslims and the Europeans. It was the British rulers who brought about fundamental changes in the traditional economic system. As a result there were tremendous changes in the lives of different sections of society. The class differences between the landholders and the farm workers, who were mostly bonded labour, were more noticeable now. Bharati, therefore, had great scope to interpret the story of Nandan.

He introduced a new character, Vediyar, a Brahmin landlord. In the opera, Nandan was shown as a bonded labour of Vediyar, attached to the land. The conflict between Nandan and his master gets reflected in their dialogue. Vediyar saw Nandan's bhakti and desire to get into the Chidambaram temple not only as undesirable and irreligious, but also as a serious threat to his social status. Nandan's bhakti and desire to enter the temple was resented even by the Pulaiyars, who considered it violative of the sampradaya (traditional social norms) "prescribed" for them. Vediyar was shown as being irritated at Nandan's insistence on going to Chidambaram, and tried to make him change his mind. "Your first and foremost duty is to your family and be practical," Nandan was told. When Vediyar failed to dissuade him, he became restless and even used violence against Nandan. Nandan was asked to do the impossible - work all night to finish farm operations by dawn - if he was to go to the temple the next morning. Nandan's protest was more a lament about his helplessness and his master's obduracy than a rebellion against the system that stood in the way.

In Kailasapathy's view, Gopala Krishna Bharati's Nandan was not a rebel, but only a protester. Even his protest was mild and indirect, and only in the realm of religion and not the social or economic plane. Nandan's spirituality is highlighted more than any other quality. Unlike the earlier three versions, Bharati exposes the casteist oppression of the underprivileged and their sufferings, both physical and mental. His characterisation of Vediyar reflects the degeneration of the landholder of the feudal system into an avaricious landowner of the latter-day zamindari system.

A HUNDRED years after Gopala Krishna Bharati's opera came Indira Parthasarathy's "Nandan Kathai" in Tamil (1978). This period, from 1861 to 1978, was very crucial in Indian history. It saw the emergence of some important movements: the national movement led by the Indian National Congress (born in 1885), which spearheaded the freedom struggle; the southern India's non-Brahmin movement from which later emerged the Self-Respect Movement and the Dravidian movement (Iyothee Dasa Panditar's Dravida Mahajana Sabha founded in Tamil Nadu in 1891, was the first organisation to air the grievances of the outcastes and was the forerunner of the non-Brahmin movement and its two successors); the Communist movement which organised industrial and agricultural workers and led their struggles; and lastly the Dalit movement under the leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. All these movements were instrumental in taking the Dalit quest for liberation to a higher plane, highlighting its social, political and economic dimensions. Independence generated hopes among the marginalised sections, and the Constitution provided for a policy of compensatory discrimination that could ensure social justice, which was denied to them for centuries.

The spread of education among all sections of people thanks to the role played by Christian missionaries, the breakthrough in communication with the railway networks, and legislative intervention by the colonial government to abolish disabilities such as serfdom paved the way for broad-based struggles by the four movements. Impressed by the missionaries' empathy for the victims of caste atrocities and the efforts to create awareness among them, the Pallars of southern Tamil Nadu began to convert to Christianity, which promised them self-respect.

Scholar K.A. Manikumar, in his paper "Social and economic dimensions of caste organisations in South Indian States", presented at a seminar held in the University of Madras in 2001, stated that the European Christian missionaries laid the foundation for social protest in India. Besides, the successive famines in Tamil Nadu from 1876 also drove the economically vulnerable Pallars to the fold of Christianity. Manikumar has mentioned "the wave of emigration that swept every part of Madras Province, since the last quarter of 19th century." This provided an opportunity for thousands of people belonging to the oppressed castes to go abroad, of course to work as labour, breathe the fresh air of freedom and enjoy self-respect. "Those who articulated the aspirations of the Pallars initially were religious converts and repatriates," says Manikumar.

Initial efforts by landless agricultural workers to articulate their economic grievances in the wake of the Great Depression, only led to caste agitations in the 1930s. Referring to one such "mass movement" in Ramanathapuram district, Manikumar says, "What was an agrarian revolt was mistaken for defiance of rural authority and sought to be suppressed by violent means." In Tirunelveli and Thanjavur districts, Pallars formed associations to fight for their economic demands, but they could not make much headway. It was around this time (the 1930s) that the Communist movement took root in Tamil Nadu with the launching of the Communist Party of India in 1925. Manikumar observes, "... the caste-class nexus was so overt in Thanjavur that the Communists had no difficulty in organising Dalits on class lines"

The Agricultural Labourers Association led by the Communists, which was formed in 1939, succeeded in getting the bonded labour system abolished and also won a wage hike for farm workers. Legislation on land ceiling and tenancy protection was among the other gains the Dalits of Thanjavur made in their struggle against upper-caste landholders. The period saw the end of numerous atrocities against farm workers, the majority of whom were Dalits. "The prevailing rates of labour wages in the early 1970s were considered the highest in East Thanjavur," says Manikumar. (East Venmani village, in which 44 farm workers were burnt alive in 1968, is in East Thanjavur.)

It was in this background that Indira Parthasarathy wrote his Nandan Kathai. He reconstructs the story with some significant changes. First and foremost he shifts the story from the realm of religion to that of culture. His Nandan is more a lover of beauty than a devotee. He is endowed with an aesthetic sense, which drives him to yearn for entry into the Chidambaram temple in order to view "the cosmic dance". Secondly, he introduces a woman character, Abirami, a victim of another decadent feudal institution, the Devadasi system, which was abolished in the late 1930s through legislation. Thirdly, in Indira Parthasarathy's play there is more than one Vediyar and there are also two non-Brahmin upper-caste landholders to stress the point that non-Brahmin upper-caste landlords were in no way less oppressive than the Brahmins. Even while fighting among themselves, Brahmins and non-Brahmins within the caste system had no qualms in joining hands to put down ruthlessly the Dalit uprising, not only to assert their caste superiority but also to protect their class interests.

While deconstructing the traditional story, the playwright does not want to be ahistoric by introducing anything alien to the economic and cultural situation of Nandan's time, as pointed out by translator-critic Indra. However, unlike in the previous versions, Indira Parthasarathy does not conceal his disappointment with Nandan's fellow-Pulaiyars for their lack of understanding and awareness about what is happening around them. The playwright's emphasis was not on Nandan's spiritual quest but his thirst for the finer aspects of life such as enjoying the objects of beauty, for instance, the dancing deity of Nataraja.

Again, the liberation sought is not only for the oppressed castes, but also for women, another section deprived of its freedom and dignity for centuries. The climax scene of the play - the test by fire - has also been woven in a more telling way by bringing in a theory of conspiracy. The Vediyar-priest, the Vediyar-landholder and the two non-Brahmin upper-caste collaborators conspire to do away with Nandan, exploiting his piety and spirituality, which they see as threats to their existence. The Vediyar-priest arranges for a contest between Bharatanatyam, representing the upper-caste culture, and the folk dance of the Pallars and the Paraiyars. Unlike in the earlier versions, no miracle happens, but Nandan is led to believe that a miracle - the harvesting of standing crop by God - has happened, only with a view to persuading him to undergo the test by fire. Nandan and Abirami perish in the fire, as desired by the conspirators. The plotters' intention was to teach a lesson to those aspiring for emancipation.

Apart from this play, the Nandan theme has figured in many more creative efforts in the first half of the last century. A novel, Nandan, by A. Gopalasami Iyengar and G. Aravamudha Iyengar, includes in it a few progressive Brahmin characters who plead the case of Nandan with the orthodoxy and anachronistically incorporates in it several ideas articulated by spiritual leaders such as Ramanujar and Vivekananda, and progressive upper-caste leaders.

A short story by Pudumaipithan, `Puthiya Nandan' is an adaptation of the Nandan story, with characters from contemporary life finding themselves in situations similar to Nandan's. The story reflects critically on the role of the Gandhian movement and `Periyar' E.V. Ramasami's Self-Respect Movement in Dalit liberation. (Periyar, in fact, took part in the temple entry movement demanding that Dalits be allowed into temples.) There was also a film on Nandan, besides articulation of the theme through art forms such as villuppaattu and musical discourse.

Indra points out in her paper how traditional society has found it essential to keep in circulation "the exemplary story of Nandan as a strategy of public management of anxiety". In a significant observation, she says: "In the Essentialist way, Nandan's devotion was cited down the ages to play down the social inequities and play up his spiritual qualifications."

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