Re-reading Indira Parthasarathy’s Legend of Nandan from the Millennial Perspective: A Saga of Pain and Pathos
Nandan is a legendary hero in Tamil literature, whose story is first mentioned in by one of the Saivite saints, Sundarar in the 8th century. His story has been sung by many poets down the ages. The slender skeletal story of Nandan is expanded and enhanced by Sekkizhar. According to the myth Nandan belongs to the lower caste of the society who has an ardent love for Lord Natrajar at Chidambaram temple. Owing to his lowly birth he dared not to enter the temple premise. In his dream, the Lord commands him to purify himself in the fire of immolation and cast off the sin of his birth. Nandan after self-immolation emerges as a Muni or Saint with a sacred thread on his chest. After purification, he walks into the temple and seen by none thereafter. Indira Parthasarathy, a renowned playwright has deconstructed the Legend of Nandan in his play with the same title in 1978. This paper explores how the dramatist has deconstructed the legend to encapsulate the society suffering from the most toxic social evil of casteism. The prime objective of this paper is to inquire how the author has portrayed Nandan as a representative voice of the voiceless and suppressed. Indira Parthasarathy recreates the character of Nandan, to reveal how burning casteism sets human ablaze and turns humanity into ashes.
Key words; Deconstruction, reading against the grain, casteism, social evil.
“The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever” (Berger, 1999). Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “a secular state does not mean an irreligious state: it only means that we respect and honor all religions giving them the freedom to function” (Nehru, quoted in Hasan, 1992). On another occasion, Nehru defined a secular state as “One where there is free play for all religions, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of our state” (Gopal, 1980). In spite of westernization, industrialization, and secularization, untouchability one of the most abhorrent practices of Hinduism is prevalent in India and Tamil Nadu is no exception.
According to The Hindu article dated March 05.2019, more than 200 alleged hate crimes against marginalized people, including 87 killings, were documented by Amnesty India’s interactive ‘Halt the Hate ’website in 2018. About 65% of the crimes were against Dalits. As claimed by the website the term ‘hate crime’ is generally applied to criminal acts against people based on their real or perceived membership of a particular group, such as caste, religion or ethnicity, among others.
Of the 218 documented incidents, 142 were against Dalits, 50 against Muslims, and eight each against Christians, Adivasis, and transgender people. There were 97 incidents of assault and 87 killings reported. Of the 40 incidents of sexual violence, Dalit women were victims in 33 cases. For the third straight year, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of reported crimes, with 57 such incidents. Gujarat, with 22 incidents, and Rajasthan, with 18 such cases, came next on the list. Amnesty has been tracking hate crimes since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015. It has documented 721 such incidents since then.
Most recently this year in Mumbai on May 22nd , a post graduate student of gynecology Dr.Payal committed suicide after casteist slurs by three of her seniors. Those seniors have taunted Dr.Payal about her caste and securing her PG admission through the reservation. Hours before Dr.Payal died, she told her mother that she was unable to bear the torment from the trio who have been torturing and harassing her constantly based on her caste. Dr.Payal is basically from the tribal category, she had worked hard to get a seat in the MBBS and PG courses. “My daughter was extremely strong but this constant abuse eventually broke her,” says her mother to The Hindu dated 27th May. All her dream to work as a gynecologist in the rural area was shattered into pieces and her most precious and dear life was taken because of the evils of casteism.
Despite being under the influence of a strong social reform movement for many decades, Tamil Nadu continues to grapple with casteism. The first Dalit doctor from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai village for an interview to the News Minute regrets that there is one disease that cannot be cured: Casteism. Arul Raj an orthopedic doctor, has witnessed cast showdowns in his village as a 14-year-old boy. In an interview to the News Minute, he states that “my biodata is an ordinary piece of paper but all the scrutiny over it (because it says I am SC) makes it clear that my place in society as a doctor is being challenged. To date, we are not allowed to enter the temple in my village. Be its school or college your caste identity looms over you”. Even today, when someone from a lower start of society strives to come up with the attitude of the upper caste is one of “Oh, he is trying to reach us!”. More than mere discrimination in the name of caste heinous crimes were committed against men, women and even children.
The plight of this suppressed, voiceless people was depicted by the Tamil writers from the early 20th century. Nandannar is the first known legendary character in Tamil literature representing the Dalits, whose story is first mentioned by one of the Saivite saints, Sundarar in the 8th century. Nandan is also referred to as ‘Thiru Naalai Povar’ (one who will go tomorrow); as he believed every day that he would go and have darshan of the dancing Nataraja the next day. Though many poets who came later have sung about Nandanar it is Sekkizhar (12th century) who greatly expanded this skeletal story and rendered it in 37 stanzas. According to the Legend, Nandan is an untouchable farm laborer and devotee of Lord Shiva. Owing to his lowly birth, he was not allowed to enter the premise of the Temple. He was crowned as a divinity after he immolated himself in front of the Nataraja Temple as dictated by the Brahmin priests who claimed that Lord Shiva appeared in their collective dreams to proclaim that Nandan is admitted into the temple after a purification ritual by fire. Nandan gained access to the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram as a reward for his saintliness.
19th century Gopala Krishna Bharati’s version in Nandanaar Charitra Kirthanai is different from the earlier version. He introduced the Brahmin and supernatural element in his creation. He used the story to criticize the upper caste ploys to keep the lower class in subjection. Way back in 20th century Indira Parthasarathy renowned Tamil play right, literary critic and historian have deconstructed the legend of Nandan in his play Nandan Kadhai which was published in 1978. Basically, trained as a rigorous classical scholar in Literature Parthasarathy has retold some of the Tamil Myths and Legends, including history like Aurangazeb (1974), Nandan Kadhai (1978) and Ramanujar (1996), to make them relevant in the context of contemporary values.
Nandan Kadhai was Trans created in English by C.T. Indra with the title The Legend of Nandan (2003). In her Critical Theory and a Reading on Nandan Kadhai: Hindu culture as text C.T 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 Kadhai and writes, “The playwright himself becomes a new historicist and a cultural materialist in the play because he brilliantly historicizes the original legend about Nandan” (C.T.Indra, 2003)
The play is a story about Nandan and not Nandanaar; according to Indira Parthasarathy “-aar” is not an honorific but a cross to bear. The play right has retold the story that the martyrdom of Nandan was engineered by the caste Hindu landlords and the Brahmins. Indira Parthasarathy has introduced not one but three Brahmins besides two more upper caste Hindus referred to by the names of their communities Mudaliyar and Udaiyar. They all conspire to put down the rise of Nandan belonging to the lower caste who strives to liberate himself and his clan from the impurities of their birth. Being born as a ‘Paraiyan’ (a general term used to refer low -class people) they are considered untouchables. Untouchability is a term, which denotes a rich ritual ‘uncleanness’ and hence untouchables deserved to be shunned. Nandan is disgusted with the paraiyan way of life and wants to educate the men and women of his community into a refined way of life which he finds among the upper caste society. While his fellow men and women are happy with their tribal gods and life of squalor and servile existence which they lead, Nandan feels deep discontent with it and offers an alternate vision of beauty and decency. He aspires to improve the tastes and habits of the paraiyans by exalting the beauty of Lord Nataraja over the gods and goddesses worshipped by the outcasts offering liquor and sacrifice.
Woman 3: All that we need to do is to change our birth.
Nandan: It’s enough that we change ourselves.
Woman 4: how do we change ourselves?
Nandan: Let’s go to the paarpaara temple
All of them together: You devil
Nandan: Let’s try worshipping Beauty
All of them together: What happens then?
Nandan: we ourselves will become Beauty.
Woman 2: What is Beauty?
Nandan: Being human.
Woman 2: Aren’t we human beings?
Nandan: No … we are beasts we must become human. (Indira Parthasarathy, 2003)
Nandan in this play aspires to break all the taboos related to religion, not because he is defiant but because he seeks spiritual knowledge and salvation. Nandan consciously tries to elevate himself to the dignity and the fullness of the self which is a privilege of only the higher-caste Hindus. Nandan persuades a few among his community to turn their backs upon drinking country liquor, meat -eating, sacrificing animals to their tribal gods and become civilized. the upper-caste Hindus who depend on the physical labour of the paraiyan for farming, begin to feel threatened by the rise of Nandan as a challenge to their hegemony. The Hindu landlords felt that this might loosen their hold and the economic power they had been enjoying. This is construed as a definite attempted subversion by the privileged and enlightened class of Mudaliyar, Udaiyar and Brahmin communities and they all band together and devise a ploy to finish Nandhan.
Nandan’s spirituality poses a threat to the brahmin community traditionally regarded as the enlightened segment of society. They sense that Nandan is fast becoming a saint and is being worshipped as a healer too by the lay. This makes them realise that Nandan and his followers were a threat to their religious and spiritual authority which they have been enjoying unprecedently. To stop Nandan’s meteoric rise they exploit Nandan’s pious orientation and spiritual aspiration to his own disadvantage. They all together draw a plot to trap Nandan in his own piety.
Vediyar 1: Do you know the news about Nandan?
Vediyar 2: He is trying to turn Paraccheri into an agraharam!
Vediyar 3: He talks of Sivapooja.
Vediyar4: He talks of Chithambalam.
Vediyar 1: Sankaranti for a fox in the burrow
Vediyar 2: Must nip it in the bud.
Vediyar 3: We are finished if this is allowed to go
Vediyar 4: The parayan will start flaunting a sacred thread. (Indira Parthasarathy, 2003)
Nandan’s subversion is effectively ‘contained’ by an ingenious but gruesome stratagem devised by the clever Brahmin called Vediyar at the instance of Mudaliyar and Udaiyar who feel threatened not so much by Nandan’s insubordination as by his uncompromising piety. The play shows how these three upper caste men fan Nandan’s spirit of bhakti and devotion to the dancing Lord Nataraja, giving him the impression that he is ripe for redemption, thereby making him feel that he is a cut above fellow paraiyahs. Nandan was made to believe that he could perform miracles by the grace of God. Although Nandan is frightened at this awesome prospect, he is so deeply entrenched in the situation that he cannot now retract. On a chosen day, in front of a huge gathering, Nandan and Abirami enter the fire to the trepidation of the paraiyans watching the sight. The upper caste hail Nandan as sanctified and canonized and call to the other paraiyans to follow Nandan, but the latter flee for their dear lives, listening to an inhuman wailing apparently by the burning Nandan and Abirami. He entered the fire only to become a victim of the establishment that always succeeds ultimately. The fire engulfs Nandan turning him into ashes. Nandan symbolizes each and every Dalit who is fighting for the restoration of his dignity as a human being. Nandan pays a dear prize of his life and beloved for trying to Brahminize himself and his clan.
According to the legend, Nandan gets purified himself in the fire of immolation and cast off the sin of his lowly birth. After the self-immolation, he emerges as a saint with the sacred thread on his chest. But Indira Parthasarathy’s Nandan is an ordinary human who was conspired by the Brahmins to have extraordinary power as a gift of his devotion. Nandan falls prey for this and throws himself into the fire believing he will attain salvation but turns into ashes. The dramatist throws into relief what is happening even today to the Nandan’s in the corner of Indian society. He also stresses the point, however, that the term Brahmin does not refer to any unchanging fixed caste; it points to any hegemonizing force at any given point of time.
Indira Parthasarathy is interested in a reconstructive use of Nandan story to offer a trenchant critique of social inequity. He introduces the characters of the Brahmin (Vediyar) and the other upper caste Hindus, the Mudhaliyar and Udaiyar with the intension to show how vested interest brings them all together to halt the social mobility of the untouchables. All the upper caste whose interests are jeopardized by the rise of new leadership like Nandan’s are denoted by the author as Brahmins. He also presents the master of Nandan as a degenerate feudal landowner so familiar in colonial India.
The play is a pungent attack on the regressive forces of the caste- ridden society. The dramatist deconstructs the legend to satires the oppressive caste system which does not allow the upward mobility. It is a play espousing the Dalit cause, the cause of the oppressed and downtrodden classes and castes. Contemporary Dalit leadership can find a forerunner in Nandan’s voice. As M.N Srinivas notes, “Only those who live in the villages know how suffocating and traumatic day to day life can be for those at the bottom of the ladder”. (Srinivas, 1997)
Indira Parthasarathy’s play graphically dramatizes such a state of affairs prevailing in Nandan’s time. Even in this 21st century, things have not completely changed. Casteism is a chronic disease that affects the mindset of the individuals and groups, which is a menace to the humanity. Discrimination, caste bias, and antisocial activities in the name of religion are still prevalent in every nook and corner of our society hampering the growth of humanity. Indira Parthasarathy recreates the story of Nandan, the marginalized by humanizing the tough war hero by highlighting his emotional drama in this compelling work that brings Nandan to life. Indira Parthasarathy has desacralized the very canonization of Nandan. Through his play, he exposes the bitter truth of how casteism sets human ablaze turning humanity into ashes.
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