The trailer of Naachiyar ends with Jyothika whacking a man on his head, mumbling ‘Thevidiya Payavuha’ (sons of prostitutes).
And Twitter and Facebook caught fire, right on cue.
From ‘So What’ to ‘How Could She’
Director Bala’s upcoming Naachiyar is full of interesting casting choices. GV Prakash, the (good) music director turned (bad) actor, grips you with an Avan-Ivanget-up. But Jyothika, who made a comeback with 36 Vayadhinile and then Magalir Mattum (ladies special), is surprisingly hardcore in the movie.
Why the Hullabaloo?
That the cuss would turn heads and strike up conversations is exactly why director Bala chose to leave it hanging at the end of the trailer.
The word ‘Thevidiya’ has gone from a word associated with devotion and purity to one of ordinary parlance to one that incites violence in some communities.
It did not always mean prostitute, nor did prostitution invite such moralistic ire from the Tamil society.
Bharatanatyam aka ‘Thevidiya’ Cutchery
In the movie Sabapathy (1941), the in-laws alight from their motor car and on hearing music from inside the bride’s house, exclaim:
“Oh! I wonder what the occasion is. They are having a ‘Thevidiya’ Cutchery!”
The word itself had come to mean ‘prostitute’ quite a few centuries ago. But dance and music was still under the aegis of the Devadasi community, until it was revived and brought out of the temple. What was ‘Sathurattam’ gradually evolved to Bharatnatayam under the likes of E Krishna Iyer, American dancer Ragini Devi (earlier known as Esther Sherman), Rukmini Arundale (who founded Kalakshetra), and more recently, Padma Subramanyam.
But till the late 1950s, it was called Thevidiya Cutchery.
Haridas (1944) ran full house for three years and remains one of the most successful films to date. The word ‘Thevidiya’ is used liberally all through the movie to mean ‘prostitute’, and also as a swear word.
Clearly, there was a time when the word itself had more than one connotation. And all of the meanings – prostitute, dancer, artist – were all widely used. The word itself wasn’t problematic, but context was everything.
From ‘Thevidiya’ to ‘The…’
In Mani Ratnam’s Agni Natchathiram (1988), a motorist yells at Karthik, the protagonist, to watch where he’s going. Just as he says ‘Thevidiya Payale’, there is the sound of thunder, muting everything, except ‘the…’. The sound effects to cover the word were akin to what one would hear in TV serials when the villain enters the scene to the shriek of a defenseless heroine.
By the 1980s, the word ‘Thevidiya’ was adult content in Tamil movies, and couldn’t be used anymore. Which is why the Naachiyar trailer itself is considered ‘adult’ by some.
It’s interesting how very few Tamil speaking people know the Tamil word for ‘prostitute’ before Thevidiya came to denote the trade.
The Bhakti Movement; ‘Servants of the Lord’
1003 AD. Rajaraja Chola begins construction of the Brihadeeswara temple, with over 130,000 tonnes of granite sourced from land some 100 kilometres away. He brings in artisans, architects, and workers from all over the land.
And to keep them entertained, Raraja Chola invites musicians, dancers, and performers to pitch camp at the temple construction site.
The temple is completed by 1010 AD. By then, Thanjavur has become the cultural hub of Tamil culture, while the Brihadeeswara temple acts as the largest platform of talent.
This was when the Bhakti movement was at its peak
Within a few years, with the help of the Saint Nambi Andar Nambi, 600 years of Shaivite philosophical writing is found, compiled, and made available.
Both men and women ‘offered themselves as slaves to the Lord.’
Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu) would brand their shoulders with the mark of a conch and discus, and Shaivites seared their shoulders with the mark of the Trident and Nandi (sacred bull). Many would then follow this up by giving in writing that they were the slaves of the Lord (Thevar – lord, Adiyar – slaves) for seven more births.
The men would then go on a pilgrimage across the country to the temples and rivers of their chosen deity. The women would offer themselves to one temple, one Lord, and serve as per their individual capacity – as sweepers, cooks, dancers, or singers. A portion of the temple offerings (food, clothes, ration) and donations (money, land, houses) would be allocated for their upkeep.
But devotion and renunciation aren’t hereditary, and in some cases, not permanent either.
Gradually, by the 13th century, the local officials of the temple, village elite, and officials of the King’s administration patronised the women, while the women curried favour with them to improve their lot.
There are references to sex for money as a profession, even in the 3,000-year-old Sangam literature. It was then predominantly a matter of choice.
Parappai was neither a servant of the Lord nor someone’s wife, nor a prostitute. She would take one man to be her own, either permanently or for a certain time, and consider him her husband.
One of the most enduring legends of Tamil literature is that of Kannagi, whose husband was in a relationship with Madhavi, a Parappai.
Varaivin Magalir, as mentioned in Tirukkural – one of the most important works in Tamil literature – are women (Magalir) without boundaries (Varaivin). They do not ascribe to any rules in relationships. They usually do not marry.
Thalichcheri Pendugal were at one time dancers, singers, and artists of repute. They were part of the retinue of over 400 dancers, singers, and musicians that Rajaraja Chola brought in from various parts of his kingdom to settle close to the Rajarajeswara temple.
Devadasis, as a community, originated after the Thanjavur Naikars (16th century), established by the Vijayanagara kings, defeated the Madurai Naikars.
Devadasis (Lord’s servants) too would accept the deity of the temple as their husband, and tie the ‘Thaali-Bottu’ (Telugu version of the mangal sutra), but were forced to cater to the local landlords and Zamindars. It was only in 1930, thanks to Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, that the Devadasi system was abolished.
The Indignation is Not Universal
Depending on which part of Tamil Nadu, or even Chennai, you go to, the use of the word ‘Thevidiya’ will range from casual parlance to NSFW. In Madurai, for example, this would invite trouble, but not so much in Chennai, especially in workplaces, when the boss is not present.
The question, therefore, is not whether director Bala was right in using the swear word in the trailer. In the absence of context, this is idle talk. What is more important is to understand the context of this word culturally, historically, personally, and then choose whether to use it, abuse it, or do nothing.