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In Conversation: Dr B.M. Sundaram

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Dr B.M. Sundaram talks about the beginnings of Bharatanatyam as a temple dance and how it secured its own place in public platform in course of time. He also talks about the nagaswaram tradition in Thanjavur.

Sahapedia: Could you give a historical perspective on how dance evolved in Thanjavur?

B.M. Sundaram: Thanjavur, as you know is a great cultural town; I do not know when the culture of music and art came into existence in Thanjavur. May be from day one it was there. And as we know there are many temples in Thanjavur district and Thanjavur in particular. See when you say temples, music was actually nurtured only within the precincts of the temple, be it whatever music. The dancing, for instance Bharatanatyam, was meant for the rituals in the temple. And music, if it was instrumental, the nagaswaram and thavil, they were part and parcel of the temple. Again, music like the TevaramDivya Prabandham and all those devotional songs, they were there. In those times, before the 18th century, there was no platform for public performance. So if you wanted to listen to good music you had to go to the temple. Similarly, if you wanted to watch dance you had to go the temple. That was the thing. And we do not know when Bharatanatyam was established in temples as part of the rituals. Whenever a stone temple came up, that is, a temple in granite, this system would have been put to practice. So there were plenty of Bharatanatyam dancers. If there is a dancer there must be a guru or a conductor, that is, the nattuvannar or the natyacharya. The dancers, they danced in the temples, in Thanjavur.


Similarly, nagaswaram and thavil are the two instruments which gained prominence only in Thanjavur, or Thanjavur district. Even today if you go to any village in Thanjavur district you can see plenty of nagaswaram and thavil artists there. So they were also doing service in the temples. Then the devotional singers. So from the devotional singing, at a particular point of time, some musicians took the music and started to compose compositions which we call kritisvarnams or whatever. And then they were performed only within the palace in front of the raja or the queen or the zamindar. The public performance, that is the performance meant for the public came into being when Coimbatore Raghava Iyer [1825–1876] started to perform. Actually though he is called Coimbatore Raghava Iyer he belonged to Tripunithara in Kerala. And from there he moved to Harippadu, from Harippadu he came to Coimbatore and settled there, so he got the name Coimbatore Raghava Iyer. He was the first person, so far traceable, the first person to do a vocal performance in front of the public, for the public. Then many came, following him many came. Today you know there are thousands of musicians performing all over the world. So in that way Thanjavur got music, both instrumental, vocal, as well as the visual music, that is, Bharatanatyam. The natyacharyas were naturally very famous, they were having a syllabus, a repertoire of what to perform and when in the temples. And then Bharatanatyam came to the court, so the devadasi who was performing Bharatanatyam within the temple became a rajadasi when she came to the court. They were naturally dancing to only devotional items in the temples. When the dance came out, to the palace, these natyacharyas composed songs in praise of the king. He might actually be an impotent man or an invalid or whatever, but because he happens to be the zamindar or the raja these natyacharyas started with, ‘You are like Bhima, you are like Indra, you are like Arjuna,’ so that they got money. They were given a lot of presents for that, and the dancers also did what the natyacharyas taught them. Later, during the Maratha rule, even during the Nayakas’ period Bharatanatyam was very famous, and there were many yakshaganas even today written in the Nayaka period. The Nayakas, they were very great scholars, had written a number of yakshaganas for Bharatanatyam. It was a dance drama, of course, not a solo. Then after that period of Nayakas, that is, in 1675, Vijaya Raghava Nayak was the last Nayaka ruler. He passed away—actually he was murdered—in 1675, and then the Marathas came. The Marathas continued the tradition of the Nayakas; they also fostered the arts-nagaswaram, vocal music, devotional music, Bharatanatyam etc. So Bharatanatayam was taught and practised by the natyacharyas of Thanjavur. In Thanjavur there were many such families. There is a wrong belief among dancers and other people that there is only one family, the Tanjore Quartet family. Actually there were seven families, very popular families. There might have been many natyacharyas but the seven families were very famous. And after the murder of Vijaya Raghava Nayaka, one of the families moved to Thirunelveli, and from Thirunelveli they went to Mysore and Thiruvananthapuram (then, Travancore) and other such places, and then they came back and stayed in Thirunelveli. So when Thulaja, the Maratha ruler ascended the throne he wanted all the natyacharyas of Thanjavur who had moved out of Thanjavur to come back. So he invited them, at that time there were Mahadeva Annavi, Gangaimuthu Annavi, and such other great natyacharyas who belonged to Thanjavur but lived in Thirunelveli.



Sahapedia: What was the reason behind their move to Thirunelveli?

B.M.S.: Because after the Nayaka period they thought they might not get any encouragement or patronage from the kings, because they didn’t know the Marathas. The Marathas were people who came from the north, so they didn’t know how their art would be, so they didn’t want to continue there. And there was a period of one or two months after the death of Vijaya Raghava Nayaka. So they didn’t want to stay as they didn’t know what would happen. So they moved out to their relatives’ house. If there is chaos naturally we will move out, in the same way they moved to Thirunelveli and stayed there. Thulaja invited them. So this Mahadeva nattuvannar and Subbarayya nattuvannar came back to Thanjavur. So Mahadeva nattuvannar was appointed to do service in Thiruvarur’s Thyagaraja temple, Subbaraya was appointed in the Brihadisvara temple.


Subbaraya had four sons, Chinnaya, Ponnaya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu. They were called the Thanjavur Quartet, they were very famous. So they learnt music from Muthuswamy Dikshitar, one of the Carnatic music Trinity but since Bharatanatyam was their family tradition they wanted to continue it. They didn’t become musicians. Though they were musicians—they composed a number of varnams, kirthanas etc.—they wanted to be Bharatanatyam natyacharyas, so they started to train a number of devadasis from Thiruvarur and Thanjavur. Many came, even from Andhra Pradesh many came to learn from them. Before their times, that is, before the time of Thulaja, the repertoire was something else: sarunusollualaru, like that. So they wanted to refurbish it, they wanted to do something new which would be permanent. So they started to compose allaripujatiswaramshabdam, varnam, tillana etc.—that is the present repertoire. They started it in 1820 or 1836 and it is continued even today. The varnam may be of somebody else—I may have composed a varnam, you may have composed a varnam, not necessarily the Quartette’s varnam—but the varnam is there, the item is there, the sabdam is there, the alarippu is there. So they devised the format: if it is to be called Bharatanatyam this should be there. In that way there were plenty of nattuvannars who came and learned from the Quartet and their relatives, so they started diffusing the light of Bharatanatyam.


In that way Thanjavur was great. And when they were serving in the Brihadesvara temple—see they gave more weight to honor—they used to be honored in the temple during the Brahmotsva festival with the parivattam (head-gear) and all that. One day, when King Serfoji came to rule, he asked someone else to go and stand there, and the temple priest was asked to tie the parivattam meant for the nattuvannar on a boy’s head. So naturally these people thought, ‘We are insulted’. So the same day they moved out, and went to Varthanadai, a place which is about ten miles from Thanjavur and stayed there.


At the time, in Travancore, though Swati Thirunal was nominally the king, his aunt was ruling as the regent, because he was very young. The family wanted to coach him in English. They heard about one Subbarao of Thanjavur. He was in Serfoji’s court, he was called English Subbarao. So he was brought to Thiruvananthapuram (Travancore) to coach the young prince to speak and write in English. Later he became the diwan (minister) when Swati Thirunal became the king. So the diwan, whenever he used to talk with the Maharaja, would say, ‘In Thanjavur there are plenty of artistes, particularly the Subbarayan’s family, they are great dance teachers, great musicians, they have composed a lot.’ ‘Okay, bring them.’ For the Maharaja was a great patron of fine arts.


So these people at Varthanad were invited to Thiruvananthapuram and they went there. And from there, having heard about these people’s proficiency, the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar of Mysore, wanted them to go there. The youngest brother, Vadivelu stayed back in Travancore, while Ponnaya, Chinnaya and Sivanandam went to Mysore. After Serfoji’s son, that is Shivaji, the last Maratha ruler, came to power-Shivaji and Sivanandam were friends when they were young-he asked them to come back. Vadivelu said, ‘No, at the time of crisis, only Maharaja Swati Thirunal patronized me, I won’t leave’. He lived and died there (in Travancore). Similarly, the eldest, Chinnaya, lived in Mysore and died there. Ponnaya and Sivanandam came back to Thanjavur and lived there and composed many songs. This is the history and even today their descendants live there, they are very good nattuvannars.


That is the story of the Thanjavur Quartet family, and there were plenty of other such families also. As I told you earlier there were seven families, one family went to Baroda. They were the first to take Bharatanatyam outside Tamil Nadu. The family of Govindaswami Nattuvannar and Kuppuswami Nattuvannar. And another family is that of Panchapakesan Nattuvannar. They moved to Thiruvaramvaradur, then to Bombay. You might have heard of the Raja Rajeshwari Natyakala Mandir for Bharatnatyam, a big institution, it belongs to that family. So there were many families, but they moved out of Thanjavur in different periods of time, one to Baroda, one to Bombay. The only family or at least the descendants, that lived in Thanjavur is that of the Quartet.


Sahapedia: And their descendants still continue?

B.M.S.: Yes, yes, they still continue.


Sahapedia: And they still practise Bharatanatyam?

B.M.S.: They teach, they train students.


Sahapedia: Okay. Could you talk about the musical traditions of Thanjavur?

B.M.S.: The musical trinity, Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswamy Dikshitar were born there. Even before them there were many, Muthu Thandavar, Mari Muthapillai, Arunachalakavi. There were many musicians—Arunachalakavi was not a musician, he was only a poet, he wrote dramas-but Mari Muthapillai and Mutthu Thandavar were composers. Then came the Trinity. Many learnt from Tyagaraja. Syama Sastri too had many students. Tyagaraja, we determined once, had 117 students. And he composed about 700 compositions. Then their shishyas and prashishyas, that is, students and their students, became composers like Pattanam Subramaniya Iyer, Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar and many others and practised music. In that way music also was part and parcel of Thanjavur.


Sahapedia: How do you see Thanjavur’s Saivite-Vaishnavite divide?

B.M.S.: See, there was not much divide, though some families followed the Saiva tradition, and some, the Vaishnava tradition, there was not much difference of opinion in this period. It came only later. Even in Vaishnava, you know there is that thengalai–vadakalai divide, that came but before that it was not there. For instance, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar was an Iyengar but he learned music from Pattanam Subramania Iyer. Not only that, even Brahmin–non-Brahmin feelings were not there. Many Brahmin musicians learnt from non-Brahmin musicians.


Sahapedia: Which century are you talking about?

B.M.S.: This was the 19th century.



Sahapedia: No, I meant the divide in the period before the Trinity’s time.

B.M.S.: See we do not know much about that, because we get only theoretical books like Sangeeta Ratnakara and others. We do not know about the practice of music. There must have been musicians; unless there is practical music nobody could have written a theory. Laksheyatr lakshanam. So, it must be there but we do not know the names, who the musicians were at that time.



Sahapedia: Aren’t there any temple inscriptions about it?   

B.M.S.: See, the inscriptions speak about the natyacharyas, the dancers, and such people, not musicians. There is not even a single inscription as far as I know that speaks of musicians.



Sahapedia: Do you think that means dance was primary?

B.M.S.:  Yes, yes.



Sahapedia: Music was secondary? Could you talk about that?

B.M.S.: Yeah, as I told you it was practised, because Bharatanatyam contains vocal music, instrumental music and dance—all three. So even the definition of music, geetam cha, vadyam cha, nrityam cha, trayam sangeetam uchyate, if you want to say sangeetam, it includes vocal music, instrumental music and dance. If there is no dance you cannot call it sangeeta. But we call it sangeeta today, we have separated it, but in those times it was not so. Sangeeta means dance, instrumental music and vocal music. So naturally Bharatanatyam was primary; musicians started to compose, they started to sing only later. For, you know Tyagaraja and Dikshitar and Syama Sastri were not performing musicians. There is no record that they performed; they performed perhaps within their temple or their house, but not publicly. Manamacha Venkata Subbiah, Tyagaraja’s first student and his cousin—he was a performing musician, like Coimbatore Raghavayyar and others. So Bharatanatyam was primary, and naturally nagaswaram and thavil too.


Sahapedia: I would like to come to nagaswaram and thavil, but before that, how was Bharatanatyam referred to, what was the earliest reference to it?


B.M.S.: I have given instances right from the 17th century, even the 15th century, where the word Bharatanatyam were mentioned. Purandaradasa, the composer from Karnataka, in one of his songs, Aadithano ranga, sings Rambhai Urvasi ellarum chandathim bharatanatyagal aadise. That means all these dancers danced Bharatanatyam. The term was already used in the 15th century. I have given a number of such instances. There was a foreigner who lived in India in Tamil Nadu. He spoke Tamil (1715). He married a dancer. He wrote in his autobiography that he married a Bharatanatyam dancer, a Bharatanatyam artist. A Jesuit, who used the word ‘devadasi’ for the first time in English literature, said that he had baptized a Bharatanatyam artist.


Sahapedia: Coming to the nadaswaram and thavil traditions in Thanjavore, the raga alapana renderings…

B.M.S.: Yes, the raga alapana came from nagaswaram. Nagaswaram showed how to do your pallavi. But originally nagaswaram vidwans were doing tattakara pallavi that means music without the sahitya, the lyrics. [singsma maruka kura shanmukha. In those days it was tham thakida thaka tham thakida thajom tham. It was only tattakaram. Taking cue from this, the composers, the vocalists thought why don’t we sing pallavi? Why can’t we have some sahitya? So they composed sahitya and started to do varnams. So for the pallavis and raga alapana, nagaswaram is the base, the lighthouse. For doing the mathematical manipulations of all the south Indian musical instruments, particularly the instruments like mridangam, ghanjira etc., they didn’t know originally how to go about it. They got it from thavil. But for thavil no one could have done all this. Nagaswaram and thavil were meant for temple service. Nagaswaram is an open-air instrument that should be played in open air. If you go to Kerala you can see it is played in open air. For six hours they stand and play the nagaswaram. Today they bring it inside the auditorium. In concerts they start with varnam, then sing a madyama kala, a short kriti, a long raga alapana, long keerthana or pallavi. Similarly, they do it with the nagaswaram. So then what is the difference between nagaswaram and vocal music? You have your own unique items. You should play that. You should not play nagaswaram inside the auditorium.


Sahapedia: Actually you know the vibrations …create such an atmosphere in the open air.

B.M.S.: Oh yes. At Palluthuruthi kaavu, near Kochi, they would begin to perform at 11p.m. Near the lagoon. 1 lakh people would be there on the sands, sitting or standing. They would go on playing. They would be shirtless.


Sahapedia: My Maths teacher used to say that he would walk 12 km to listen to Arunachalam playing in open air. He started at 11 or 12 at night and went on playing till four in the morning. I have listened to Navimitta Krishna playing nadaswaram at night in open air. What is correct, nadaswaram or nagaswaram?

B.M.S.: Nagaswaram is correct. Nadam means sound. It is the sookshma, the subtle thing. When it becomes solid it is swaram. So there is no difference between nada and swaram. Whereas take nagaswaram, if you look at the instrument, it is like a serpent, its bottom portion is like a hood and the upper portion is like the mouth of a serpent, a cobra. So it is nagaswaram. Even in Rigveda it is mentioned as naga vadya, not nada vadya.