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Joy Ho / Jawn

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Kavadi Attam

10 Things is a series of three short animated videos, each focusing on a lesser known traditional artform – Dikir Barat, Kavadi Attam and Nanyin. In the second part of this series, we share 10 things about Kavadi Attam. The video features the work of illustrator Joy Ho and animator Jawn, as well as music, sound and lyrics courtesy of K Veeramani Rasu and Pavalar Patheral Ilamaran.

The accompanying text below, prepared by Nirmala Seshadri, includes more facts for an in-depth look at the form.

1. The Kavadi Attam (Burden Dance), is a ceremonial sacrifice performed as an offering by devotees of the Hindu deity Muruga. Generally performed collectively during Hindu festival Thaipusam, the bodily movements of Kavadi Attam serve to activate the Kavadi as an extension of the body in the ritual worship. Its structured movements and performative quality renders it an important form of community dance.

2. Origins: Kavadi Attam originated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in a small town called Palani. The ritual dance is rooted in the tale of a giant Idumban who is believed to have carried the Palani hills across his shoulders in the form of a Kavadi. Following a scuffle with a child in which he was defeated, Idumban realised the child was none other than Muruga, the ruling deity of the region. In seeking pardon, he sought the boon that anyone who visited the hills henceforth to worship Muruga with an object similar to the two hillocks suspended by a load bearing pole, may be granted their heart’s desire. While granting Idumban’s wish, Murugan is also believed to have said that he would bless those who carry in the kavadi, items such as sandalwood, milk and flowers, in a kavadi.

3. Current Locations of Practice: Kavadi Attam is performed widely in the Muruga temples all over Tamil Nadu & Kerala during the festival seasons, including Thaipusam as well as Panguni Uthiram. It is now also practiced by the diasporic Tamil community in various parts of the world, including Singapore and Malaysia.

4. How the form came to Singapore: The dance form came to Singapore over a hundred years ago via religious worship in Hindu temples, especially those dedicated to the deity Muruga.

5. The movements and music: All the movements of Kavadi Attam are performed in such a way that the body aligned is with the base of the Kavadi. Facing the centre, the performer moves in a circle or sways forwards and backwards. They may twist and spin in a row. They gradually move in a frenzy, in step with the rising beats of percussion instruments like udukku, chenda, etc, accompanying the procession. Sometimes nadaswaram, a wind instrument, is also used. Movements of the peacock, believed to be the vehicle of Lord Muruga, are incorporated into the dance motifs. Devotees proceed to the shrine in groups, performing these movements. When heavier kavadis especially with piercings are used, the movements tend to be more restricted. The Kavadi Attam in temples is often performed in a state of trance; the movements are not learned but performed through the memory of having witnessed or experienced the movements during the ritual. The movements largely hinge on the acts of balancing and controlling the kavadi. Steps and formations from other folk forms are also visible in Kavadi Attam.

6. The lyrics that accompany the dance are generally folk songs with fast rhythmic tempo known as Kavadi Chindu, dedicated to Lord Muruga and composed mainly by Tamil poet Annamalai Reddiar. Kavadi Chindus are sung by devotees, to ease out some of the strain and physical exhaustion of the ritual.

7. Costumes & Props: Women are generally dressed in bright yellow, saffron or red saris, while the men wear a saffron coloured dhoti (lower garment) and are often bare chested. Wearing a garland around the neck, devotees performing Kavadi Attam smear sacred ash on their bodies. Each devotee carries on his shoulder an ornate kavadi. This is a long bamboo pole, suspended with weightless bamboo pails at both ends, that are filled with flowers or other items. This is made to rest on the shoulders of the devotee, swinging and swaying to the walk and dance of the devotees. Kavadis are usually of different sizes and shapes, each with its own significance. A Pookavadi is one decorated with brightly coloured artificial flowers, a mayilpeeli kavadi decorated using only peacock feathers and ambalakavadi, one shaped like the gopuram (tower) of a temple. A kavadi can rise up to a height of 10-18 feet.

8. Distinctly Singaporean aspects: In diasporic temple locations such as Singapore and Malaysia, body-piercing kavadis are carried – the dancing tends to be restricted to slow circular movements. The kavadi attam that is performed outside temples tends to be influenced largely by cinema in addition to classical dance forms.

9. Audience and staging: In Singapore, Kavadi Attam is performed at temples as well as for entertainment at regular performance venues such as at community centres, school events and at the Singapore Youth Festival. It is sometimes presented as part of solo and group Bharatanatyam recitals, evoking sentiments of celebration and religious devotion in the performers and audience. At these regular venues, the dance with the regular arched kavadi is depicted. While audiences at external performance venues view the simulated Kavadi Attam, at the temples the audiences play a role in sharing the lived experience of penance and pain of the kavadi bearer.

10. Conventions, rituals, superstitions: Kavadi Attam in the context of the temples is a votive offering to the Hindu deity Muruga, who is also known as Subramanya or Karthikeya. Carrying the Kavadi is believed as an endurance test to all the devotees to receive the blessings of Lord Murugan. Pilgrims perform various ceremonies and austerities 6 weeks in advance including fasting, before performing this ritual.


Resource List

10 Things is part of a series by ArtsEquator supported by the National Arts Council. To read other parts in the series, click here.

Nirmala Seshadri is a dancer, choreographer, movement educator, researcher and writer. She began training in Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, rhythm and vocal percussion in Singapore, and went on to further her training in dance, dance theory and music from eminent teachers in India. She graduated with an M.A in Dance Anthropology (distinction) from the University of Roehampton. She conceived and curated the International Conference on Bharatanatyam in Singapore. An adjunct lecturer at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, she is a member of Dance Nucleus, Singapore.

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