The ringing, mellifluous voice of a woman reverberates from the corridors of Sri Thenupureeswarar Temple at Madambakkam near Chennai. It is reciting verses from Tamil religious scriptures Thevaram and Thiruvasagam in praise of Lord Shiva—verses that have hitherto been the sole preserve of male singers known as ‘Odhuvaars’ at this Chola-era temple.
Listening to those verses being sung by a woman ‘Odhuvaar’ (meaning someone who chants) comes as a surprise to many devotees who returned to the temple after a long lockdown-induced gap. That voice belongs to Suhanjana Gopinath, the only woman Odhuvaar to have been appointed recently by the Tamil Nadu government.
“I’ve been religious from my younger days and was transfixed by the lyrical beauty of Thevaram and Thiruvasagam and the way it was sung by the Odhuvaars in Shiva temples that I used to visit with my parents. I joined an institute in Karur to formally learn Thirumurai (the traditional compendium of Tamil songs/hymns devoted to Shiva) to learn to sing them in properly,” she recalls. She went on to teach religious hymns in schools attached to a trust, sharpening her skills even while passing on the knowledge to younger generations.
When Suhanjana saw the state government advertisement for priests and Odhuvaars to be appointed at its temples, she applied. “My husband Gopinath and his parents were truly supportive as they did not want my talent and years of learning to go to waste. I applied for the existing vacancy in this temple and got selected after an interview where I was asked questions about these scripts and demonstrated my singing as well,” points out Suhanjana.
Not only was she selected to the Sri Thenupureeswarar temple near her house, but she even received the appointment order from chief minister M.K. Stalin. Mother of a one-year-old girl, Suhanjana, 30, gets to sing twice a day after the main puja. On her first day, as she prepared to sing as the official Odhuvaar, the head priest took a garland from the idol of the deity and put it around her neck, before asking her to recite a hymn from Thevaram.
Unlike the archakas (temple priests), who usually are Brahmins, Odhuvaars, like many of the Tamil sages who were devotees of god Shiva, belong to different castes. Suhanjana, however, is not the first woman Odhuvaar. The credit goes to S. Angayarkanni, a woman from a Scheduled Caste, who was appointed in 2006 at a Shiva temple in Tiruchy district. However, she had to quit after getting married and moved out of the district. Suhanjana faces no such predicament as her husband and in-laws have assured that her tryst with god at the temple will go on uninterrupted.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Shakti Sings for Shiva")
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai