Sahapedia: Can you talk about the importance of your family in Thanjavur’s history?
Babaji Bhonsle: See, actually Thanjavur was blessed with successive dynasties who were, we can say, like sugar in the milk. So if we take the Chola dynasty, the first period is that of the early Cholas, then we have the Imperial Cholas, you can call them the Later Cholas. So it was their land and they developed so many aspects, the temple or the ground used for the culture, the system of administration… Whatever it was, Thanjavur was at its zenith.
And after the Cholas it was the turn of the Nayakas and later, even Pandyas ruled for a brief period. They also contributed to the great temple and were followed by the Nayakas and the Marathas. So each dynasty had an opportunity to contribute in its own way to the greatness of this temple, the greatness of this land. I have thus inherited Thanjavur from the Maratha dynasty who were in power in the last phase, from 1676 onwards. I belong to the 13th generation of the dynasty and a lot of social responsibility has been put on me. And by divine grace, I am trying to carry on in the best possible way with the help of public and the government. So we are like a bridge between the public and the government.
Sahapedia: Can you tell us about the royal palace?
B.B.: Yes, it has been here since the Nayaka dynasty, so almost 60-70 per cent was constructed by them. Then later on the Marathas added some 30-35 per cent. On the east side, all the additions were done by the Marathas. On the west side it is all from the Nayaka dynasty.
And there is Saraswati Mahal Library, of course, from the Nayaka dynasty and enriched by the Marathas. And the books were compiled by Serfoji II because he had contact with the western world and was able to collect so many manuscripts from various disciplines.
We have opened it to the public and a lot of scholars are utilising it now.
Sahapedia: As a cultural capital Thanjavur always has been very important. But in the last 50 years do you think it has lost this importance?
B.B.: Yes, it is inevitable if you look at its history. After the Cholas there was a vacuum for a brief period. Then it was the period of the Vijayanagara dynasty. It became the cultural hub again. And then the Marathas came, they also patronized the arts. And after them it started to diminish slowly. Of course there was no good patronage. So they [the artists] moved to metropolitan cities. So the arts shifted to metropolitan cities.
can say now it is all coming back. It has again started vibrating. A lot of cultural activities are now happening in Thanjavur, thanks to the South Zone Cultural Centre and others like Brahannatyanjali who celebrate Shivaratri in the temple. So there are several foundations and people taking interest to rejuvenate arts in Thanjavur. Senior artists in Chennai are coming back to Thanjavur. They are performing. The public are able to see the performances. If you had asked me this question some 10 years or 15 years ago, I would say nothing great was happening. But now we see a positive trend.
Sahapedia: And you represent the Maratha lineage. Do you speak Marathi?
B.B.: Yes, we speak Marathi but an extremely localised version. So even the people in Maharashtra will not understand what we are speaking because we are born and brought up for almost 13 generations here, so we think in Tamil and we speak in Marathi. We don’t know to read and write Marathi.
Sahapedia: Have you at any stage learned Marathi?
B.B.: No, I don’t know to read and write Marathi because we went to the local schools. We were totally surrounded by the local language and became well-versed in it.
Sahapedia: Could you speak about the Marathi contributions to Thanjavur?
B.B.: The Marathas had contributed in every aspect whether if it is art or culture, you see, to the Thanjavur painting or the Thanjavur music and dance, or to the renovations and embellishments of the Chola temples or the construction of new temples. It all happened during the Maratha period. In one way I can say that they had the opportunity to foster it all.
The bhajana sampradaya were part of Maratha culture. So they came here together. About eight mathas were established during Samartha Ramdas Swami’s period. So during the Maratha period were happening there and bhajans were taking place. Five matha are functional now. So people gather there on Ram Navami day and listen to the bhajans. So in Tamil you say koottuprarthanai. It is almost the same.
Sahapedia: Besides your family, how many Marathi speaking families are there in Thanjavur?
B.B.: I think there must be around 8000-9000 families in Thanjavur. Around some 15-10000 Marathis must be here. Thanjavur was one of the worst affected kingdom in the hands of British. So we lost the kingdom in 1855. Even the zenana was not spared. All the wardrobes were opened and taken by the British. The armoury was completely shifted from Thanjavur. So they melted the arms and so Thanjavur royal family was one of the worst affected under the British. They took over the temples even and they had a protracted legal battle, then we got back the temples. The Brihadiswara temple was used as an army barrack. So it was in Serfoji’s period the army was moved out of the temple. Then the purification happened. The consecration took place. Thankfully some part of library was saved and it is open to the people now. Huge collections were lost forever.
The Thanjavur family is a very orthodox family. They were pretty conservative, very orthodox. Of course a lot of reforms had been taking place. In the 1930s my grandfather allowed all castes to enter the Brihadiswara temple. In 1936 this started. So they were all very progressive considering the times they lived in. So they had a very broad mind and vision and all these things but otherwise they were very attached to the temples and its rituals. So that was the major cause—they never stepped out of the temples and went out to the…
Sahapedia: You mentioned the temple entry.
B.B.: Yes, to all the temples under the palace control.
Sahapedia: No, entry for whom?
B.B.: To Harijans (Dalits). It was before temple entry started in Kerala with the support of Gandhiji.
Sahapedia: Apart from Brihadiswara, which are the temples that come under the palace?
B.B.: There are around 88 temples under the palace devasthanam.
Sahapedia: Is there a Shaiva-Vaishnava divide here?
B.B.: No, we are basically Shaivites, but we are open to all. As part of marriage rituals we visit both Shaivite and Vaishnava temples. We have both at home.
Sahapedia: Also your family, the dynasty has been very closely associated with music and dance. Is there any specific reason for their deep interest in the arts?
B.B.: Even the Nayakas were considered great contributors of music and dance because it started all from the Vijayanagara dynasty. So if you see the Melattur Bhagavata Mela, it came from the Nayaka period. Basically, the Marathas are warriors and so if you take the history of the Thanjavur Marathas, it is totally a different version. Maybe because peace prevailed in this land then or due to the flavour of the soil. Shahaji had composed many songs on Thyagaraja of Tiruvarur. If you go to Maratha Durbar Hall you will see Tyagaraja’s image above the throne. So all my ancestors flanked on either side of Tyagaraja, paying obeisance. Tyagaraja was the prominent deity in our family. So he composed songs, there are songs composed on Mannargudi Rajagopalachari. The first king, Venkoji, turned a yogi in his last days. Ultimately salvation is the final aim. And the womenfolk were also very deeply involved in religions.
Everyone was cosmopolitan. They knew many languages. It happened naturally. It was not thrusted upon them. Till my father’s generation, they used to speak Telugu and they knew all these languages—Marathi, Tamil, Telugu…
Sahapedia: You said cosmopolitan. Can you elaborate on that?
B.B.: Cosmopolitan in the sense, they respected other languages, started to learn other languages. And their ‘cosmopolitanism’ is not ‘modern cosmopolitanism’. And they were very broadminded. So when we visit Muruga temple in Palani, we carry kavadis. It is not a part of Maharashtrian tradition. Back there we celebrate Ashada month is celebrated by fasting. Here we celebrate Thaipooyam…
Sahapedia: The royal families of the north used to travel a lot to the west because of their affiliation with the British.
B.B.: It never happened with us…because we were meeting them in courts and our lawyers were travelling to London to fight cases. They had a very long battle on getting back the temples.