Stories that inspire

Devaraattam – Dance to The Beat of Urumi

The dance of the Gods or the Devas is Devaraattam. It is a dance form that is deeply rooted within the Kambala Nayakar community, a Telugu-speaking community who settled in Tamilagam in the sixteenth century.

History

Areas of present-day Tamil Nadu were under the control of Nayaks, generals of the Vijayanagara empire in the 16th century. Their mother tongue was Telugu and were staunch Vaishnavites. After the fall of Vijayanagara empire to Muslim invaders, many Telugu-speaking communities migrated further south from the Bellary district, now in Karnataka. They settled in areas in and around the districts of Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Dindugal, Theni, Tiruchirapalli, Salem, Dharmapuri, and Coimbatore ruled by the Nayaks.

One such community is the Kambala Nayakar community. They worship Sakkadevi or Goddess Jakkamma as their main deity. Their inhabitants usually live on pastoral areas and their occupations include hunting, cattle-rearing, and fortune-telling. In Tamil Nadu, one must have noticed a ‘Kuduguduppu Karan,’ a fortune teller with a ‘udukkai’ (a small drum with a rattle) saying, ‘Nalla kalam porakkudu, Jakkamma solra,’ meaning – good fortune awaits, says Jakkamma. These fortune-tellers are usually from the Kambala Nayakar community.  ‘Sozhi josiam’ or prediction using the fall of cowrie shells and exorcism are other occupations of these people. Now their descendants are mainly practicing agriculture.

Indigenous dance form

Performers dancing with a cloth as an accessory

Kambala Nayakars have indigenous cultural practices and customs, including a dance form Devaraattam. The dance form was not taught initially to people from other communities.

Devaraattam is a part of their day-to-day lives. It is woven seamlessly with the people in the community. They danced for both religious and life events, such as childbirth, puberty, marriage, and death. Devaraattam was even performed before leaving for hunting and wars. There are specific dance movements that makes their body flexible and agile for hunting and martial arts.

Devaraattam was performed as a welcome dance to invite the kings and also as a motivational dance for the army before leaving to the battlefield.

Urumi – the essential percussion instrument

Urumi or Deva Dundhubhi, the  percussion instrument essential for Devaraattam
Urumi or Deva Dundubhi

Devaraattam cannot be performed without the beats from the percussion instrument Deva Dundubhi or Urumi. It is a two-sided hollow structure, narrow in the center 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 beats that arises from Deva Dundubhi is very loud that there is no need for an amplifier. The sound from the instrument resembles a roar or ‘urumal‘ of an animal. Hence Deva Dundubhi is also known as Urumi.

The stick on the left is wiped on the left side of the drum and it produces a moaning sound. Rhythmic beats are made using both the sticks on either side. One can notice a black sheath-like mark on the left side of the drum formed by the constant movement of the left stick.

Just the beats

Devaraattam has no music or lyrics. The dancers just dance to the beats of the Urumi. The sound of the percussion instrument is unique and refreshing. It is believed in the community that the sound from the instrument make the Gods happy.

People belonging to the Mala caste, a sub-caste of the Kambala Nayakar community played Deva Dundubhi generation after generation. They are also experts in making the instrument.

There is no proper training given to learn Devaraattam in the community. Children just learn by observing the elders in their family.

Costume and accessories

Rhythmic movements of devaraattam to the beats of urumi

Men, women, and children alike wear stringed brass bells or Salangai on their ankles and dance to the various tunes of the Urumi. The men wear turbans and shirts during the Devaraattam performance, but during the worship of Jakkamma, they don’t wear a shirt. Women mostly wear sari. Sometimes the dancers even wear costumes and dance.

Performance in temples

Over course of time Kamabala Nayakars begun worshipping Gods like Mariamman and Vishnu. It has become a common practice to perform Devaraattam during temple festivals, especially during the festivals in Vaishnava temples.

Master Kannan Kumar

Kannan Kumar Master playing the Urumi
Kannan Kumar. Note the sheath like mark on the left side of the urumi

70 years old Mr. Kannan Kumar from Chennai has made this indigenous dance form Devaraattam commonly available to all people. He is teaching Devaraattam and other folk-dance forms under the banner of ‘Bharathi Gramiya Kalai palli’.

I learnt Devaraattam from watching my father perform. Usually, dancers follow the lead of one dancer who has a good memory of the steps.

The people who are dancing in Kannan Kumar’s troupe are no longer from the Kambala Nayakar community. They are also performing in various events and not restricting themselves to religious and community events. He has even conducted Devaraattam workshops for students from Germany, Iran, Canada, Spain, and the USA.

People assume that no skill is required to learn folk dance. However, they are mistaken. It is not easy to perform Devaraattam or any other folk dance for that matter without practice. My sincere wish is that more people from the younger generation should learn the dance form and perform regularly. This way our indigenous dance form will sustain for several years to come.

Kannan Kumar Master conducts regular folk dance workshops at Dakshinachitra Museum. He is also keen on taking Devaraattam lessons to interested people. He can be reached at 99411 19358.

Photos courtesy: Rekha Vijayashankar of Dakshinachitra Museum.

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