Oduvars: A Hoary Tradition of Hymn-Singing

The works of four great saints provide a strong underpinning to Saivite religion in South India. These saints were: Tirugnanasambandhar, Tirunavukkarasar, Sundarar and Manic kavachakar. The first three composed the great hymnal work in Tamil known as Tevaram.' The Tevaram is considered the Tamil equivalent of the Vedas, even as the Vedas propounded in Sanskrit were once called Tevaram. To learn more about Tevaram-singing and the hymnodists called Oduvar, Assistant Editor Muthumeenakshi went to the Dharmapuram Adheenam Mutt, situated near Mayiladuthurai (known previously as Mayuram or Mayavaram). There she met and talked with Sri R. Velayuda Oduvar, a venerable and wise gentleman who is the head of the Tevaram school run by the Mutt. She was introduced by Sri Vi. Sa. Guruswamy Desikar, Principal of the Tamil College there, to Srilasri Gurumahasannidhanam who spoke to her briefly on Tevaram and later on had his comments prepared as a statement for publication by SRUTl (see box). His Holiness instructed Sri Velayuda Oduvar to answer Srimathi Muthumeenakshi s questions in detail. Excerpts from the question and answer session which followed, translated from chaste Tamil by V. Rukmini, are reproduced below.

MUTHUMEENAKSHI: How long has Tevaram singing been in vogue?

VELAYUDA ODUVAR: Tevaram has been sung from the time of Sundarar or about one hundred years after the time of Tirugnanasambandhar and Tirunavukkarasar. That is what the researchers say. Stone inscriptions in the Chola country show that Rajaraja Chola I introduced Tevaram singing in temples. He appointed forty-eight hymnodists to serve as oduvars at the Brihadeeswarar temple in Tanjavur. and also two drummers to play mattalam with them.

Is Tevaram sung in all temples?

Tevaram is being sung in most of the (Saivite) temples (in Tanjavur district). Only in the less affluent temples it is not sung.

Are the Tevaram songs in praise of Siva only or do they praise other God manifestations also?

Most of the songs are in praise of Siva. Even those songs addressed to other deities praise Siva indirectly.

At what times of the day is Tirumurai sung in the temple?

Usually, it is sung during abhishekam of the presiding deity. Following pooja and deepa aradhanai, one song from each of the Twelve Tirumurai is sung in some temples. Sometimes Tirumurai is sung as panchapuranam which is relatively short. It is usually sung during evening worship. In the olden days, oduvars were poorly paid and therefore they sang Tevaram during the evening service only. As their remuneration improved, they sang during the morning, noon and evening services. At festival time, they also sang on the street with accompaniments.

Are raga and tala used in Tevaram singing?

Of course, raga and tala are used; this has been the practice all along. Nagaswara vidwan Tiruveezhimizhalai Subramania Pillai, speaking at a pann research meeting, has said that even the raga should be sung or played with tala and that he never did play a raga without tala. He actually demonstrated this to us. I feel that even if you sing a song without tala, there has to be a rhythmic pulse (nadai) to it. In training oduvars, we emphasize this. We teach hymns with difficult talas.

In ancient times, did they use instrumental music to accompany Tevaram singing?

Yes, they did. It is believed Tiruneelakanta Yazhpanar played the yazh for Sambandhar. Nowadays, violin and mridangam are used.

What were the instruments used in the olden days, besides the yazh?

Muzhavu (drum) and kuzhal (flute) were used besides the yazh (lute). In temples, the yazh alone was used. Now, for the last forty to forty-five years, Tevaram is also sung in chorus, like the Vedas.  

Who assisted the growth and spread of Tevaram singing?

The people of Chettinad did. They were instrumental in spreading it to Singapore and Malaysia as well, and the oduvars acquired fame in those places. Indeed, in the temples in Malaysia and Singapore, worship is not conducted without Tirumurai. The singing of Tevaram in the traditional manner, employing day-time pann or melodies night-time melodies and 'common' melodies appropriate both to day and night, was, a practice maintained in the mutts. This tradition was followed and encouraged in the schools set up to train oduvars. In these places, the hymns were sung usually in a slow tempo only.

How did the oduvars get their name?

Only those who sing Tevaram in temples are called oduvar. Oduthal in Tamil means speaking or hymn-singing. The muslims also use this term oduvar which is mentioned in Tirumurai itself.

Are the oduvars paid remuneration?

Yes, they were paid even in the days of the kings. In what form has this been paid? It has been given in the form of land grants and in terms of specific shares of temple prasadam.

What was the usual practice: was an oduvar succeeded by his son or by a student?

The son or grandson usually did not have the right of succession but in some temples they did, including the right to receive remuneration in terms of land grants and prasadam. They could not be deprived of the remuneration; nonetheless some zamindars managed to do so. As a consequence, Tevaram singing in temples began to decline. To arrest this decline and to revive Tevaram singing, a Tevaram school was opened in Chidambaram about a hundred years ago. Twelve students were trained each year. Of these, a few turned out to be outstanding hymnodists.

Can anybody from any caste or community become an oduvar?

Yes, anybody can, except he should be a vegetarian and should take deeksha (or certain vows). The four sons of the Sivacharya here are enrolled as students in our Oduvar School.

Why do women not sing Tevaram?Have they been prohibited from serving as hymnodists?

They have not been prohibited; in fact, it was a woman who set Tevaram to music. Traditionally, however, a particular group of persons have sung Tevaram and none else. Women got married when they were very young and they became so involved in their families that they couldn't devote time to hymn-singing. There has actually been no taboo.

Are there still oduvars who sing in the traditional manner?

I think the old style is almost extinct. Oduvars today use completely different melodic modes. They have changed the rhythmic structure also and they sing in different kalapramanam ox tempo. I think it is all right if they employ double speed (that is, sing in the second kala), but what they do is just speed up the tempo without regard to kalapramanam. 

I believe that in the Tevaram school, student-oduvars are given special training to prepare them to sing Tevaram in the traditkHial manner. Is that so?

Yes, the students in our school are properly trained and when they graduate, they sing in temples in the traditional manner and they train others to do so.

When you teach Tevaram, do yoo teach Tamil also along with it?

We take students who have passed V Standard in Tamil and we give them further tuition in Tamil language.

What are the qualifications needed to enrol in your school?

We take students between the age of ten and twelve. As far as educational qualifications are concerned, they should know to ' read and write. The students should finish their course at the age of seventeen.

Do you teach the meaning of the songs?

We give enough explanation of the songs. Some students of this school have become good poets and some have become professors. For example, the present principal of the Tamil College, Guruswamy, did his S.S.L.C. after his training in this school. Since then he has received a B. A. degree, as well as the M.A. degree.

I believe you have been in this field for about 53 years. How many oduvars have you trained and can you mention those who have achieved fame as hymnodists?

I have trained about two hundred oduvars. Of these, only a hundred or so have attended the course all the five years. Some of them sing in our temples and some have gone abroad. Among those who have achieved fame are Dharmapuram Swaminathan, Sirkazhi Tirugnanasambandhan, Tiruchi Muthukandaswami and Gnanaprakasam, all serving as hymnodists in our own country, and Muthukumaraswamy in Malaysia and Ganapathy Desikan in Singapore. There are some others who sing equally well but they lack good voices and a natural aptitude.  

How many Tevaram schools like yours are there now?

There used to be more than a hundred schools like this one. but now there are only ten schools which are doing well. Even though we have good buildings and adequate finances for these schools, not many students attend them. I am so sorry about it.

Tevaram songs are sung in different melodies by different oduvars. Why?

Such differences are quite common now. Following changes in singing styles as well as in life-styles in general, many oduvars seem to wish to use their musical imagination to please the public and earn monetary rewards. They sing Tevaram in film tunes and the lay public seems pleased with it.

What do you think should be done to improve Tevaram singing?

This can't be done by the private institutions themselves. Even though we have a secular State, The Government should assist. Those who are appointed to serve as oduvars after appropriate training should be given remuneration comparable to what an M.A. is given, and they should get all the perquisites that government officials get. If the oduvars are properly taken care of this way, they will be able to sing with great devotion. I feel that the temples where Tevaram is sung have flourished.