Folk dance of Tamil Nadu had begun its journey as a sacred art form from the ancient temples as part of worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. Divine songs and dances were performed and acted as a source of devotion to their deities. The dances evolved gradually and later were performed in the king’s court as ‘Thevara Nayakams’ or the leaders were responsible for arranging the worship in king’s court or palace. Many folk dance forms have kept their unique heritage, ritual and rich culture through the ages. They are still resplendent with their grace and beauty preserved through centuries and carried over by skillful practitioners of traditional southern dances.
Oyilattam literally means elegant dance since the term ‘oyil’ means beauty or elegance and ‘attam’ stands for dance. The graceful dance Oyilattam has emerged from the southern districts and is still considered a popular folk dance in the region.
The elegant dance Oyilattam is said to have originated from the Southern districts of Tamil Nadu such as, Tirunelveli, Trichy, Madurai and prevalently practiced in Kongu Nadu in particular. The Southern part of the state was once a regal territory and many kings have ruled Madurai and other regions where devotional dances hailed from. The dance gradually got popularized in Trichy, Tirunelveli and the entire state of Tamil Nadu. The great epics of Ramayana, the Mahabharata and mythological stories of Lord Murugan act as the main source of this beautiful folk dance form. The dance, in earlier times used to be performed near temples during mornings and evenings and sometimes continued past midnight, mainly as form of a ritual.
Music, Movement & Style
Initially men were the sole performers of Oyilattam dance as they practiced standing in line performing steps of the dance along with the rhythm of the music. Gradually women started participating in this folk performance since the number of Oyilattam dancers started rising. Thavil is the main musical instrument used in this dance. During earlier times, special movements of the feet were executed by the dancers and around ten or more men used to perform the dance with a forward movement of hand and body with the beat of the music. The dancers carry matching colorful flags in their hands and colorful dressing is part of the dance. Women dancers wear bright-colored saris, tied with a cloth around their waist while men put on bright-hued dhoti with a band around their waistline. Ankle-bells are also worn by the performers. The radiant, sparkling costume and lovely glittering jewelry make Oyilattam a great cultural extravaganza. The Oyilattam artists display intricate footwork used in Martial Arts, such as Silambattam. The dance is full of beautifully poised movements as the dancers enact them gracefully and their passionate performance is the main reason behind the sponsorship of royals they continue to receive in order to sustain this vivacious folk dance form of ancient India.
Oyilattam is usually performed during festivities and important occasions. Beautiful music accompanies Oyilattam dance. The percussion instrument Thavil is hung on the shoulders and beaten by the artists providing the theme music which accompanies this graceful Southern dance.
The theme of the dance are mainly borrowed from the ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and enacted in a graceful and enlightened manner by the performers passing on the lessons and morals to the common people. To transfer this rich heritage and abandon knowledge the great epics carried in them, certain parts and segments from the epics were chosen as a theme for Oyilattam dance and enacted with lot of enthusiasm and vigor.