The temple zone in Chidambaram began to fill up as dusk fell on Mahasivarathri evening. February 21.
We took a walk around the temple and while a landscaped garden greeted us on one side, on the other, contract workers were slowly getting rid of the huge swathes of bricks, mud and mortar that has been used to set up what was required for the temple's kumbhabishekam many months ago.
Unfortunately, much of that debris had covered the panels of karanas, the dance poses that are sculpted outside all over the lower base of the one thousand pillared mantapam.
The mantapam itself was in darkness, chained to be secured and there was no sign of any form of restoration in this heritage zone, which was once the backdrop for the first revived dance fest held over four decades ago.
But our spirits rose up inside the Sivakamisundari Temple. This place looked like a well-designed art gallery. We were told that a donor who is said to be in the electrical supplies business has arranged to light up, fairly aesthetically the temple as well as the long line of sculptures, mostly of men and women as musicians or dancers which makes for a lovely sight as dusk makes way for the night.
There are two parallel Natyanjali dance festivals that take place in Chidambaram - this has come about in recent years after a group of the Dikshitar priests decided to shunt out the Trust which used to host the fest in the inner yard of the temple for decades and now host their own festival, while the private Trust holds its Natyanjali in a private school ground.
At the temple, the stage, lights and sound was impressive but there was a small audience for each dance recital on Mahasivarathri night.
Over at the school ground, the venue of the Natyanjali held by the Trust, Urmila Satyanarayanan and her students were about to complete their recital of the evening before what must have been some 500 people in the audience.
Then followed an engaging dance dance titled 'Chokkanathar Ula', trimmed to suit the long schedule of that evening. Dancer and guru Anjana Anand from Chennai presented this production which features dancers of different academies in Chennai and the group had performed this production elsewhere on the Natyanjali circuit.
Thereafter, the dancers of Chennai-based guru Sailaja performed and Kathak dancer Nidhi S. Prabhu from Pune was on stage later.
This Natyanjali (which will complete 40 years in 2021) was held on five evenings, from Feb.19 onwards with Sangeet Natak Akademi providing a few dance troupes too. Well curated, the festival provides people of this popular and busy temple town the opportunity to watch a variety of India's classical dances.
As we travelled through Nagapattinam and Thanjavur districts, we came across posters and banners advertising the Natyanjalis in local temples dedicated to lord Shiva. In Nagapattinam and in Sri Vaitheeswaran Koil, in Thillaisthanam near Thiruvaiyaru and in Tiruchi.
Many dance groups hop from one temple venue to another, some within hours to perform at different venues - and this makes the Natyanjali dance circuit a feature in Tamil Nadu.
Inside the Sri Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, the Sivarathri weekend witnessed a huge stream of people here, more to visit the temple inside the 40 plus days since the grand temple kumbhabishekam took place in early February.
Since the pre-kumbhabishekam period, music and dance concerts have been held on the stone platform where the giant Nandi is located. And the South Zone Cultural Centre along with Brahannatyanjali had hosted seven evenings of the Natyanjali to coincide with the Sivarathri festival.
On the two evenings we were there, we witnessed some lively recitals. Young dancers of guru K P K Chandrasekaran of Kittappa Natyalaya of Thanjavur and students at Annamalai University's Fine Arts department led by guru K. Krishnaraja impressed on Saturday and on Sunday, dancers of guru Manjula Ramaswamy of Sri Rama Nataka Niketha Academy, Secunderabad wowed the big audience that evening. Manjula is the daughter of the famed guru and arts visionary, V. S. Ramamoorthy.
The Natyanjali festival here ran for seven evenings. But unlike in the past, the curation of the festival was not impressive and the lighting of the dance space was sparse - a shame when recitals take place at a World Heritage site which itself is badly lit.