The Nandanar Charitam Is So Famous, But Why?
Bharati was an ardent devotee of Shiva and wrote three operas in honour of various Nayanar saints. Though Bharati was himself an upper caste Brahmin, he was a crusader for the rights of the Dalits. While Sekkizhar exalts Nandanar's devotion to Shiva, Bharati presents the grim reality of ostracization that the Nayanar suffered.
Bharati's Nandanar is "not a rebel, but only a protester". The Nandanar Charitam focuses on the atrocities that Nandanar and Dalits as a whole had to suffer at the hands of upper castes. The opera Nandanar Charitam was embedded with the social message that Shiva grants emancipation irrespective of caste.
The play starts with the term "May I come", a warning to higher-caste people that Dalits had to cry out before entering any street, so as to not pollute the higher caste members. The Nayanar first clashes with his own Dalit brethren.
They oppose his devotion for the Lord of Chidambaram, whom they call a Brahmin god. The Dalit elders — headed by Pariyakilavan — define his duties as a pariah and advise him to not confront caste rules. They tell him to worship the folk deities of the pariah, instead of Shiva, the god of Brahmanical Hinduism.
The Dalits also feel that Nandanar needs to abide by the social norms and give up his taboo idea of entering a temple. A villainous Brahmin landlord Vetiyar (Vediyar) appears in Bharati's tale. He torments his bonded labourer Nandanar and chastises him repeatedly for trying to go beyond caste norms. Vetiyar sees Nandanar's bhakti and desire to enter a temple "not only as undesirable and irreligious but also as a serious threat to his social status."
Vetiyar refuses to grant him permission to Chidambaram and even resorts to violence. After much persuasion, the Brahmin relents on the condition that the saint does an impossible task of cultivating and harvesting the field in one night.
Aided by Shiva's attendant ganas, the saint completes the task. The Brahmin realizes the piety of the Nayanar, apologizes to him and lets him go.
Bharati retained the final confrontation with the Brahmins of Chidambaram and his ritual purification by fire. Bharati concludes in a poem saying that "it is said in the epics that the Lord worshipped by Gopalakrishna granted salvation even to Untouchables!".
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