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The story of that Indian dancer who is believed to be the last link of the Devadasi system

Report- Archana

Pudukottai: Girls appointed from a very young age to serve in temples are called Devadasis or Devaradiyars. These girls were well versed in dancing and singing for the deities as their servants in the temple. The early music tradition in Tamil Nadu started under the leadership of Devadasis and their dance styles were called Sathir and Dasi Attam.

On the occasion of festivals, Devadasis used to entertain the people worshiping the deities by presenting stable dances. Thus, ‘Mathukannammal’ used to perform dance for Lord Murugan in the Viralimalai Subramaniaswamy temple. Mathukannammal, 85, currently exists as the last link in the devadasi system and is one of the 32 devaradiyars recognized by the king of Pudukottai.

Mathukannammal hails from Viramalai in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu and was awarded the Padma Shri last year for her contribution to this dance form. ‘My whole family is Sathirattam (Sthira Dancers). I did not initially embrace Sathir dance until I heard it from my father, Ramachandran Nattuvanar. He is also my guru’, Mathukannammal said. He further said, ‘As far as Viralimalai is concerned, our family mostly performs Sthir dance. I started static dancing at the age of 7. At that time we were a total of 32 people who were employed in the service of the temple. My father taught static dance to all 32 people.

‘We would have to go up 400 steps every morning and evening to worship Subramaniaswamy and then come down the same amount during which we danced and sang sathir. Eventually, we started performing static dance in the temple functions. In those days, there was no system of lighting like today. Only Petromax used to be there. Sathir, Kummi and Kolattam dances are made on sight,’ Mathukannammal said. According to him, Rajagopala Thondaman, the Maharaja of Pudukottai, gave him all the facilities he needed. Maharaja Rajagopala Thondaman was the Sarvesarva of the Viralimalai temple at that time and he was also respected by the community.

Mathukannammal said, ‘As far as singing and dancing are concerned, Sathir is very widespread and a large number of people used to come to see and hear it. At this time Bharatnatyam has taken the place of Sathir. Our lives have changed a lot since independence and it is said that Sathir is now banned in temples. After this, the rule of the Maharaja also came to an end.

‘After this we never presented Sathir in the temple. However, some people who know this art came to me and asked me to teach it. In this way, I taught it to actress Swarnamalya. Then, some people came from Karnataka and learned this art from me,’ Mathukannammal said proudly.

Despite the fact that devadasis were prohibited from marrying, Mathukannammal had a life partner who fell in love with her after seeing her dance. To go with her, he put only one condition – she will not stop dancing. Since Mathukannammal could no longer dance in the Viralimalai temple, she had to work as a rice thresher (Aatu Kallu) to earn a living and support her children. Apart from Padma Shri Award, he has also received Kalamshu Kala Puraskar and Dakshin Chitra Puraskar for his contribution in the field of arts.

Tags: Traditional Folk Dance of India

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