Devotion as drama
Any literary work, once it is branded as a sacred religious text, gets stagnated as such, relieved of its possible other multiple aesthetic dimensions, that it can be read as a play and as glorious poetry.
‘Tiruvaimozhi’ by the ‘vaishnavite’ saint Nammazhvar is one such work that, in fact, transcends its ‘branding’.
In ‘Tiruvaimozhi’, the poet has delved deep into the several layers of consciousness for a mystic experience of God that is expressed in various dramatic forms. To start with there is a vision and the devotee wants to experience this moment stretched into eternity. But, interrupted by the values of space and time, the vision recedes to make this separation a vital, dynamic force, to crave for achieving it more and more. This is what that gives the work a dramatic form. There are romantic confrontations, dramatic tensions, pathos, reconciliations and finally a resolution in the form of bliss, all emotions captured at various psychological levels.
The dramatic theme of separation and union is used alternatively; separation leading to alienation and union to spiritual ecstasy. The ‘hero’ (God) has many roles to play; his incarnations used as a motif for this purpose. The exploits of these incarnations can be shown on the stage as beautiful visuals. The ‘heroine’ (‘Atma’) is multifaceted, joyous, sad and angry, but solely dependent on the hero (God) for her sustenance. Like the ‘cut radar’, the poet intervenes on appropriate occasions, to describe the hero’s various attributes – this reads like a dramatic interlude - to provide the reasons for the heroine’s insatiate desire for the hero. There are also other characters like the foster- mother of the heroine, the heroine’s companion, and the various birds those are requested to go on a mission to the hero, carrying the heroine’s message of love for him.
After having written the first three works, (“Tiruvirutham’. ‘Tiruvaciriyam’, and ‘Periya Tiruvanthathi’), Nammazhvar could have composed ‘Tiruvaimozhi’ to integrate the individual elements of these poems in a comprehensive manner to produce this masterpiece, which, in its total and holistic form reads like a play.
‘Tiruvirutham’ deals with the theme of love in a dramatic form in the true ‘Sangam’ tradition. ‘Tiruvaciriyam’ dramatizes the various forms of worship. And, ‘Periya Tiruvanthathi’ dramatizes the divine vision and continuing happiness in this terrestrial life itself. In ‘Tiruvaimozhi’ the play of divine love is enacted to make the human life on earth as a unique meaningful dramatic experience.
Here is a short scene in ‘Tiruvaimozhi’.
The heroine in the state of ‘separation’ from the hero, runs after a snake and cries ‘oh! It is my lover’s bed’ (‘Vishnu’ in snake-bed). Later, she showers all her body with mud and says, This is the earth, my lover measured with one step’ (Vamanavatara). Like this. she goes on visualizing all earthly objects as manifestations of her hero and as such, the earth is the holiest place for any dramatic adventure. ‘The world is a stage and every object in this earth has a dramatic meaning in relation to God. Everything is the body of God and all have God as their self. Everything exists for Him and He exists for everything. Let us enact this play and be blessed’.
The concept of metaphysical truth is dramatized in material form to capture the popular imagination and perhaps, to relieve it of its intellectual abstraction. The Indian aesthetic theory of ‘rasa’ is largely responsible for dramatizing our religious concepts. ‘Bkakti’ is described as a ‘rasa’. Etymologically, ‘rasa’ means anything that can be tasted or enjoyed ONLY in drama; the various aspects of rasa can be fully realized and as such, the bhakti poets, for whom, devotion was more a drama than a religious experience.
‘Bhakti’ is a Dravidian concept (Dr. Gonda, Dr. Zimmer) The early ‘Tamil way of life and its philosophy’ is very earth oriented, as evidenced by the ‘sangam’ poems. As most of the major ‘puranas’ was compiled in the South, according to Dr.Zimmer, they were able to translate the spontaneity of blissful living in a mystical and dramatic idiom. This helped evolve a humanistic concept of God, which is the bottom line of romantic love and aesthetic devotion for divinity.
Saint Ramanuja, who held, that the Tamil ‘prabhandas’ were equal to the ‘Vedas’ in content and quality, chose to call ‘the Eternal Player, for whom the ‘Universe is a stage’, as ‘Bhuvana Sundara’. A new ‘avatara’ was introduced called, ‘arcavatara” (a new character in the eternal play) i.e. the incarnation of God in the icons. This led to an experience of aesthetic joy, which found expression in the innumerable festivals, and such artistic forms as music, dance, and drama in the temples.
Ramanuja is said to have initiated a new dance-drama genre called ‘Prabhanta Natyam’ that dramatized the sequences found in the love poetry of the ‘alwar’ hymns. Sadly, this dramatic form is now extinct.