As a Bengaluru Malayali, Mithun Shyam’s childhood in the Garden City bloomed with the Lord Ayyappa stories that elders in his family kept retelling. Then, during school holidays in his father’s Palakkad village, it was about another Hindu god the boy would learn from closer quarters.
That was because the ancestral house at Kottayi has a vintage temple with the deity of Sudarshanam. How Vishnu’s disk-like weapon became the idol is backed by an interesting legend that also features one of Mithun’s forefathers. Of another era, he used to pray daily before the blue lord’s avatar of Rama at the famed shrine in Thiruvilwamala, walking 18km westward.
Almost in an extended replica of that routine medieval trip covering riverine plains and then scaling hills, Mithun annually takes up an arduous pilgrimage in the 21st century. That is to Sabarimala, where Ayyappa sits in a yogic posture that has stimulated the young man’s spirit as a dancer. As the shrine in south-east Kerala forests reopens this Sunday for the post-monsoon Kannimasa puja, the 35-year-old Bharatanatyam artiste basks in the satisfaction of an Ayyappa-story production he has choreographed afresh and presented on stage to renewed acceptance in the cultural circuit.
‘The 18 Golden Steps’. That is the name of the hour-long production that has graced the south Indian classical dance recently. The title, obviously, refers to the holy steps that have been covered with five-metal panchaloha alloy since 1985. The significance of the number is backed by reasons that vary: the total hills around Sabarimala, 18 are the number of Puranas, of the weapons Ayyappa surrendered in his path to renunciation and of the 18 mental features the devotee should shed on his scaling up for the darshan.
A rudimentary version of ‘The 18 Golden Steps’ emerged on the Bharatanatyam scene in 2006 when Mithun scripted and staged a dance item called ‘Mahishi Mardanam’ in his city. “The venue was close to my home. At the Ayyappa temple in Banaswadi (of northeast Bangalore),” says the artiste, a corporate professional-turned dancer trained the Vazhuvoor style known for its emphasis on lyrical body movements while keeping the facial emotions subtler. “After that it took a long break.”
Then, early this year the theme came back to Mithun amid controversies around women’s entry to Sabarimala and a high-level litigation surrounding it. “Now that the Supreme Court is hearing the case, it won’t be wise to comment on the legal aspects. All I’d make is a general statement: the ban on the entry of women (between the ages of 10 and 50) in Sabarimala is not necessarily anti-feminist. It’s just a tradition that shaped up for reasons that are anything but patriarchal,” says the disciple of Padmini Ramachandran (1944-2016). A native of Kerala’s Mavelikkara, she was raised in Chennai as a pupil of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai before marriage and motherhood led her to settle in the Karnataka capital, where she set up a dance institution in 1974.
To Mithun, who studied in a Christian missionary-run school, it is now a matter of “individual choice” for women to enter Sabarimala, where he has been going for the past 15 years. “Left to me, I believe not many devout young women are yearning to enter that temple. If there is a shrine that traditionally bars entry for males, will men rebel against it? I don’t think so,” says the artiste, whose mother hails from Edamuttam near another temple town: Triprayar in Thrissur district. “We avoid footwear. We generally respect tradition. In Kerala, for instance, men remove their shirt.”
It was in one such temple Mithun staged ‘The 18 Golden Steps’ this mid-summer. That was near Cherthala in coastal Alappuzha district. At the Dhanwantari temple in Maruthorvattam in April. Mithun did the role of Mahishi, the buffalo-faced demoness, who Ayyappa kills in a fight that helps her regain form as a woman. She wants to be wife of the lord, who clarifies his celibate status. The woman, Leeladevi (daughter of sage Galava), eventually earns a special shrine at Sabarimala, where she is named Malikapurathamma.
“We couldn’t carry the 18 steps to Maruthorvattam. The stage there had its space constraints,” says Mithun about the 100-kg iron-made set that can be moved on wheels and detached/reassembled. Then, last month, coinciding with the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Vaishnavi Natyashala he founded in Bangalore, Mithun staged the ‘The 18 Golden Steps’ as the concluding item of a nonstop 11-hour dance show. The production, with two dozen dancers (14 of them women), also features Pulikkali, Kerala’s folksy tiger dance, given Ayyappa’s closeness with that wild animal.
The lyrics which are largely in Kannada, with streaks of Sanskrit, have been given music by composer Praveen D Rao. “The artiste who plays Ayyappa is as young as 12 years, while the eldest dancer is a 50-year-old disciple of mine,” says Mithun, who has been into Bharatanatyam since 1990 when he, along with the two siblings, took preliminary classes under Iravathi Naidu for two years.
Simultaneously, academic lessons at Seventh Day Adventist School in Frazer town had inculcated in Mithun ideas about Christianity. Biblical themes filtered into the boy’s mind as richly as Hindu mythological stories did as a child. Much later, in 2014, Mithun got an invitation to perform on Christmas day, he chose to present an item that had the crucifixion of Jesus as the focal theme.
“The 15-minute piece was named ‘Yesu Padam’. It did get tremendous response,” he notes, least keen to tout anything ‘secular’ about such work. “I just went by emotions there as well. If the story is from another faith, so be it,” he shrugs. “A couple of years thence, in 2016, a disciple of mine had it in her arangetram (debut show). A Bengaluru Malayali named Sherry Susan Idicula.”
It is not just religion that Mithun tries to negotiate in his ways forward with Bharatanatyam. Another of his production, ‘Purushantaragatah’, seeks to unveil the idea of gender fluidity. “See none of us is 100 per cent masculine or feminine. We all have elements of both genders in us,” he notes, in tacit salute to the Supreme Court’s recent verdict on sexuality in favour of the LGBT community. A five-judge constitutional bench had on September 6 nullified the Raj-era Section 377 of IPC that said gay sex was a punishable offence.
‘Purushantaragatah’, nevertheless, relies on an ancient Hindu legend to reiterate the normalcy of alternate sexuality gaining currency in contemporary psyche. The theme is about the legend of Shiva dressing up as the mother of a woman to midwife a devotee’s delivery after her mother couldn’t turn up owing to sudden floods around the Cauvery. Thayumanaswami, which is the lord’s name in story, has a temple up the Rockfort in Tiruchirapalli on the banks of that river in Tamil Nadu.
“Shiva, incidentally, is the father of Ayyappa as well,” Mithun reminds. The boy, crucially, was born to Vishnu in replayed disguise as a seductress before the asuras who had snatched the nectar gods had churned from the celestial Palazhi. Fascinating are the good old interconnections, which is one factor that enables the dancer to update his artistic career with fresh ideas.
The Sabarimala Temple will reopen after the August deluge on Sunday.