Devarattam – A Beautiful Folk Dance of Tamil Nadu Surviving Through Generations

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Photo – Rekha Vijayashankar

India is a vastly diverse country in terms of culture, ethnicity, language, and geography. Though the nation is divided into states based on the predominant language spoken in that area, there are still zones within a state where there is a strong foothold of people from different ethnic backgrounds, who speak different languages. In Tamil Nadu alone, there are villages and towns occupied by people speaking languages such as Saurashtra, Marathi, Telegu, and many more. 

History of Devarattam Folk Dance

According to Historian Thurston. E, many communities migrated from the Vijayanagara empire (parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telengana) to Madurai and surrounding areas after the fall of the empire in 16th century fearing Muslim invaders. The Nayaks, governors of the mighty Telugu empire Vijayanagara were ruling the Tamil country then.

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Photo – Rekha Vijayashankar

One such community was the Kambala Nayakar community. They usually lived in pastoral areas and did hunting, cattle-rearing, and fortune-telling for their livelihood. There are 9 sub-castes in the community and all of them worship Sakkadevi or Goddess Jakkamma. These people have indigenous cultural practices and customs practiced only within their community. Devarattam a beautiful folk art form of Tamil Nadu, also known as the celestial dance of the Devas(demigods) is an indigenous dance form of the Kambala Nayakars. It is performed for their various religious and life-events such as childbirth, puberty, marriage, and death. It used to be an integral part of the community. There were even specific dance movements in Devarattam that loosen the body for hunting or martial arts. 

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Photo – Rekha Vijayashankar

My native is Zamin Kodangipatti village in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu. My ancestors had been living there for as long as I remember. Though we haven’t been out of Tamil Nadu, our mother tongue is Telegu. There is a line in our prayer verse that mentions our deity Jakkamma was from Bellary. We have never been to Bellary either”, said Mr. Kannan Kumar, a septuagenarian who teaches Devarattam and other folk dance-forms in Chennai.

Costume in Devarattam Folk Dance

Men, women, and children alike wear stringed brass bells or Salangai on their ankles and dance to the various tunes of the Deva Dundubhi. The men usually wear turbans and shirts during the Devaraattam performance except during the worship of Jakkamma. Sometimes they even wear costumes like a king, warrior, God etc., during the act. With time, Kamabala Nayakars begun worshipping Gods like Mariamman and Vishnu. It has now become a common practice to perform Devaraattam during temple festivals, especially during the festivals of Vaishnava temples.

Music in Devarattam Folk Dance

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Dundubhi – Rekha Vijayashankar

What is Deva Dundubhi? It is a percussion instrument that is essential for Devarattam performance. The dance cannot be performed without the beats from deva dundubhi, also known as urumi. It is a two-sided hollow structure, narrow in the centre and wide at ends made from vengai (Indian kino) wood. The ends are tied with goatskin. Two different sticks made from different woods are used on either end. The instrument is tied with a string on both ends and is worn by the player similar to a garland. 

The music that arises from the traditional drum deva dundhubi is of high decibel that there is no need for an amplifier. The left stick is wiped on the left side of the drum to produce a deep moaning sound. It is accompanied by rhythmic beats on either side. Together it produces a sound like no other and would make anyone dance to its beats. One can notice a black sheath-like mark on the left side of the drum formed by the constant movement of the left stick. “Devarattam has no lyrics. Its dancers just dance to the beats of the urumi. In the olden days, it was performed as a welcome dance to invite the kings and also as a motivational dance for the army before leaving for the battle-field. Devaraattam was traditionally performed by men, but these days even women are dancing,” shared Kannan Kumar, who began performing Devarattam along with his father from the age of ten.

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Photo – Rekha Vijayashankar

The veteran dancer said that his students are no longer from the Kambala Nayakar community. They are performing in various events, including the Republic Day parades, and are not restricting them to religious and community events. He had even conducted Devarattam workshops to students from Germany, Iran, Canada, Spain, and the USA. The dance form, once that was performed within a community has taken wings and is adapting itself to suit the needs of the changing society. 

Kannan Kumar Master is keen on taking Devaraattam lessons and workshops. He can be reached at 99411 19358.

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