In Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam, which is being streamed on Netflix, Johnson (Kumaravel), who crafts percussion instruments for a living, asks his son, Peter (GV Prakash), to deliver a mridangam to his long-term customer and renowned percussionist, Palghat Vembu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu). At the concert, Peter gets a glimpse of Iyer’s prowess as a percussionist and the respect he commands. The kernel of a dream, of performing the mridangam on stage, takes root in Peter.
But the path to that dream is paved with challenges. While Peter impresses the kindly Vembu Iyer with his sense of rhythm, he is unable to dispel Iyer’s notion that the young man is incapable of putting in the intense years-long sadhana that is required to master the instrument.
Peter is dogged in his efforts to be accepted as Vembu Iyer’s pupil, even though he is not even allowed to enter the Brahmin guru’s house that is regarded as a temple for music. Adding complexity to this situation are a bigoted doorkeeper between the guru and his protege, a privileged but less talented contender, and Peter’s identity as a Dalit Christian.
Sarvam Thaala Mayam is inspired by the legend of Nandanar, mentioned in Periya Puranam, a poetic account compiled by Sekkizhaar in the 12th century AD that narrates the glory of the 63 Nayanars, or saint-poets devoted to the Hindu god, Shiva.
Nandanar was a poor labourer, a leather-worker and a maker of drums, born in Athanoor in Tamil Nadu during the Chola reign. He belonged to the Pulayan community, also called Paraiyar, which now comes under the classification of Dalit. (The word Paraiyar continues to be controversial in its use as a slur. The English word pariah has its roots in this word.)
Although Nandanar served temples by making their musical instruments that require leather (for the drum) and gut string (for the veena and the yaazh), he was refused entry into them as he was deemed untouchable. So he stood outside Shiva temples, praying, singing and dancing with devotion, worshipping the deity from afar.
Outside the Thirupunkur temple, however, Nandanar could not get a glimpse of the deity, as the statue of Shiva’s mount, Nandi blocked his line of sight. Among the miracles associated with the legend, the most popular one is that Shiva himself requested Nandi’s statue to shift to one side to grant Nandanar a clear line of sight.
Nandanar’s story has been celebrated in folk performances, and went on to be adapted to a poetic composition called Nandanar Charitram by Gopalakrishna Bharati (1810–1896), used as a kathakalakshepam (religious discourse with music), as well as interpreted for Bharatanatyam dance performances. Gopalakrishna Bharathi added texture, emotion and music to the story from Periya Puranam, and described Nandanar’s identity as a bonded labourer who works in the fields, depicts his social environment as a member of the Paraiyar community, and his ardent devotion to Shiva.
At least three films were made on Nandanar’s life – a silent production from 1933, one in 1935 with the doyenne of Tamil devotional music, KB Sundarambal, playing Nandanar, and the popular movie in 1942 produced by Gemini Studios.
Towards the end of the 1942 movie, featuring MM Dhandapani Desikar as Nandanar, the landlord, Vediyar, craftily grants Nandanar permission to visit the Chidambaram temple on the condition that he completes harvesting all the fields by dawn. The landlord is finally humbled by Nandanar’s devotion when the task is miraculously completed overnight.
At Chidambaram, Nandanar feels bound by his status as an outcast, and stays away from the temple, singing a song of supplication, Varugalaamo (May I come?), for his beloved Shiva who has, in the past, moved stone for him. His devotion is such that Shiva visits the priests in a dream and asks them to escort his beloved devotee, Nandanar into the temple.
The essence of Varugalamo (May I come?) is retained and contemporised in the soulful Varalaama (May I come?) composed by Rajiv Menon and written by Madhan Karky. The song pays rich tribute to both Periya Puranam as well as the 1942 movie on Nandanar in depicting Peter’s adoration of his guru.
In one scene in the song, where the parallels with Nandanar become explicit, Peter is seen waiting outside a Shiva temple that he has been forbidden from entering. He peeks past the statue of Shiva’s mount, Nandi, inside the temple, and observes Vembu Iyer performing the Brahmin thread renewal ceremony for his students. The song goes, “May I come close to you? Will you grace me by your presence? Will you turn in my direction? May I step closer to you, to see you sway to my music?”
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