It seemed like such an innocuous request: "Aren't you Tamil? Please, I need help with translating this song from the Kutrala Kuravanji for one of the group dances. It shouldn't be too hard, I was told that this is colloquial Tamil".
M's dance teacher powered up the portable boombox, slid in the CD and handed me a paper pad and pen in the waiting room at the dance class.
I listened and could make out faintly what the first two verses being sung meant. Then I got to verse #3 and stopped cold.
Aadum araveenumani Kodiveyilerikkum amme
Ambuliyai kavalamenru thumbi vazhi marikkum
What in the world was Araveenumani? This was going to be harder than I thought. I stopped the translation part and concentrated on scribbling down the lyrics, which were a little harder to figure out than I thought, because of the noticeable Malayali accent of the singer in some portions.
Just as I finished, another friend walked in, so I pounced on her, eager for some help. But it wasn't easy for us to come to a consensus even over the stanza above. She said one line referred to playing a game, while I was positive Ambuli was a reference to the moon and could make no head or tail of the overall drift.
I left the dance class after M's class, giving her teacher the gist of the first two verses and promising to research and send her the remaining verses later in the evening.
Two hours and a worn out Google webpage later, I had my translation for the above lines and more, along with a Youtube video portraying the wrong mudras (see around 2:40 in the clip below) to confound things.
I was desperate enough to imagine that the portrayal made sense, at first, till I started googling individual words and found that 'araveenum' meant serpent and suddenly the meaning jumped out at me.
"The dancer with the snake as ornament (Shiva) (Aadum- dance, araveenumani- wearing the snake), with the fiery third eye which blazes with the power of a crore suns (kodi veyil erikkum)
The elephant ( thumbi) (- Ganesha protecting Parvati, possibly?) blocks the way (vazhi marikkum) thinking that Shiva's crescent moon (ambuli) is a mouthful of food (kavalam)"
The dancer in the clip above erred in depicting an ostensibly dancing serpent (aadum araveenum) and the glitter of a gem(mani), instead of the words being split as aadum araveenum ani(to wear).
So it was, verse by verse, that I immersed myself in the history and traditions of the Narikoravas, finding some very interesting essays and commentaries.
Many hundreds of years ago, they claimed hunting-gathering rights in the hills of what are now Tamil Nadu,Kerala, and Karnataka states, as the Kurathi in the song states, awarding the rights over the hills to all her near and dear:
Solluriya swamimalai maami malaiyamme
Thozhimaliai naanjinaattu velvi malai amme
"Swamimalai (the place where the Pranava mantra Om was taught to Shiva - sol refers to Om) belongs to my aunt, the mountain in Nanjil nadu belongs to my best friend- (reference to Kanyakumari district (Nanjil). Velvi means penance, which is what Kanyakumari performed in her desire to marry Lord Shiva."
Now, they have in general, been banned from those very hills, as practitioners of slash-and-burn style agriculture and inveterate hunting, detrimental to the beauty of the forests, never mind that their numbers are too small to cause significant damage.
Veduvargal thinaivithaikka chadupunanthorum amme
Vindhaiyakil kungumamum chandanamum naarum amme
The hunters( veduvargal) jump (chadu/saadu) joyfully as they sow the millet in cleared ground (thinai vithaikka)
All through the Vindhya mountains, kumkum(kungumam) and sandalwood(chandanamum) are so fragrant(naarum).
This Kurathi is singing of a bygone era, and with her husband,the bumbling hunter Chingan, are two major characters depicted in the Kutrala Kuravanji, composed by an 18th century poet Thirikooda Rasappa Kavirayar. The poet was from the ruling classes and his no-longer colloquial verse and language gives some insight into the habits and traditions of the Koravas, the stereotypical portrayals of which live on in Bharatanatyam and folk ('nadodi') dances, . Many in this group have been cut off from their nomadic ways, and lead more settled lives, but at the cost taming the wanderlust which still holds a strong sway over them.
I still remember the harshly musical "Kallukothanundo, ammikal kothanundo, aattukal kuthanundo" that the korava woman used to call out, walking the streets of the neighborhood in her swinging skirts, baby with sun-browned hair peering out of the sling on her back. Despite the life of dire poverty, there was always a gracious beauty to these women, going house to house selling small trinkets or resurfacing granite grindstones with their little stone awls, watched over with an eagle eye by the housewives, who mistrusted their reputation for 'light fingers'. Work done, they would haggle over the price, finally settling for whatever they could extract, milking whatever pity they could muster for their runny-nosed little ones.
They were soothsayers too.
I vividly recall the time when I visited Thiruchendur, a seaside temple, with my parents. We were enjoying the bracing sea breeze one evening when a kurathi came up and insisted on reading my mother's palm. I was about 13 years old at the time. She took a look at my mother's palm and had us close to collapsing in laughter when she predicted that my mother would have another child.
"Look at her," my mother said, pointing to me. "That's my child, and my only one." I was taller than her at this age. "Are you saying that I will have another after all these years?" We were incredulous.
"Amma, I have never made false predictions in my life. You will see. You will be back here in two years to look for me and thank me."
Two years later, we were there... for my baby sister's first birthday ritual hair offering. We looked for the kurathi, but never did find her. She must have moved with the wind, in the manner of her people.