“I saw Lord Siva on your face. You danced like Siva. It was amazing,” said an old lady as the young dancer wiped the sweat from his face. With folded hands, the dancer acknowledged the lady’s comment.
It was a pious evening at a temple in Polichalur near Chennai. The dancer kept the devotees spellbound for half an hour by performing the Pradosha Thandavam.
The Pradosha Thandavam is a form of dancing which is noted for the difficult mudras and leg movements. It’s based on the myth of the churning of the Palazhi. Lord Siva swallowed the kaala kuta visha (poison) - which emerged during the churning - to save the world. Parvathi tried to prevent him from swallowing it by holding his throat. Siva asked her to remove her hands. And he began to dance the Thandavam, standing in between the horns of Nandhi.
The thandava postures are depicted on the idols of many temples in Thanjavur and Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. These postures inspired a young Bharatanatyam dancer named Udumalai Senthil. He studied these postures in depth. Ganapathi Sthapathi, the sculptor of the Valluvar statue in Kanyakumari, helped him in his research.
Senthil made use of these postures or rather he revived them in dancing. He mastered them with continuous practice. Usually, it is very difficult for a man to perform these postures. A woman can easily perform them as her body is more flexible. “But women are not supposed to perform them because of certain leg movements which include raising the leg above the head, ” Senthil says.
For Senthil, the Pradosha Thandavam is his own method of worshipping the deity. He performs it in the evening (pradosham) and so it is called the Pradosha Thandavam. (The story of the churning of the Palazhi says Lord Siva danced the Thandavam in the evening.) Usually, it is performed on the 13th day after each full moon and new moon. “It is not a stage art. It should be performed in front of the deity,” Senthil insists.
Senthil studies the idols of the temples he is dancing at. Depending on their postures, he makes necessary changes in his performance. For example, when he performed at the Pallikonda Peruman Sivan Temple in Suruttapalli in Andhra Pradesh, Senthil incorporated the lying posture of Siva into his dancing. (Here Siva is in lying position. He lies in the lap of Parvathi as if he is dead. Siva did it to teach the gods a lesson who left him as soon as he had swallowed the poison.)
Senthil uses recorded instrumental music for his performance. Ghata artiste Dr Karthik composed the piece for him.
Senthil has performed in all the four southern states. “I will perform only once at a temple. I will not come back here to perform again. I won’t, even if you give me one crore rupees,” Senthil said as he removed his make-up after his 168th performance.
As Senthil said ‘thanks’ and ‘bye’ to the temple authorities, I felt the want of something. “Why didn’t they pay you,” I could not help asking.
“It’s not for money I’m performing. It’s my way of showing my devotion to god. I should not think about money,” he replied.