In conversation: Natyacharya Herambanathan

In conversation: Natyacharya Herambanathan

in Interview
Published on: 07 June 2016
Herambanathan, natyacharya from Tanjavur, speaks about the dance and music culture and now extinct devadasi tradition in the temples of Tanjavur.

Rama Kausalya: We have with us natyacharya, Herambanathan who belongs to a traditional family of musicians in Tanjavur.

Herambanathan: Namaskaram!


R.K.: Namaskaram…Tell us about you and your family.

H.: The relation between my family and that of the Nalvar family goes back for the last three generations.


R.K.:  You mean the descendants of the Thanjai Nalvar family (Thanjavur Quartet).

H.: Yes, the Thanjai Nalvar family. My father was the disciple of Kittappa Anna’s grandfather who belonged to the Thanjore Quartet family. He learnt mridangam from him.


R.K.:  Your father was a prominent mridangam artist.

H.: Yes, he was. His name was Bharatanatya Nidhi Kalaimamani T.G. Babu Pillai. He played mridangam only for the bharatanatyam performances of Tanjavur and Pandanallur families. He played mridangam for Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram thatha’s (grandfather)  whose disciples included Mrinalini Sarabhai and Rukmini Ammal (Rukmini Devi Arundale) and for the performances of dance guru Shantaram. Following my father’s steps I too learnt mridangam.


R.K.:  Could you tell us about how you learnt bharatanatyam?

H.: I learnt bharatanatyam from my father. My father played mridangam for these prominent dance families. As they taught their disciples, my father also picked up the art. And then we began learning from my father.


R.K.:  So you learned bharatanatyam from your father.

H.: Yes, I learnt from him.


R.K.:  So you follow their tradition, learning the Tanjavur bani (style) or the Tanjavur school of dance.

H.: Yes. I consulted them when I had doubts. And then I began learning bharatanatyam from my own father.


R.K.:  How did your father learn bharatanatyam?

H.: My father learnt mridangam from Chinnayya nattuvanar at the age of seven. Later he got his training from Tanjavur Pichayya Pillai. His family was engaged in the field of dance and mridangam was part of it. When they taught him to play mridangam, he also picked up bharatanatyam from them as it was the main component. I first learnt mridangam and then the dance form. I started my mridangam career by playing for the dance debuts of my father’s disciples. Tanjavur Pichayya Pillai family is called the nattuvanar family and ours is called the muttukkarar family.



R.K.:  So your father was a mridangam artist.  

H.: Yes, he was.


R.K.:  Then how did he take up bharatanatyam?

H.: He assimilated knowledge of dance while he accompanied the dancers on mridangam and finally became a bharatanatyam teacher.


R.K.:  Then you learnt it from him.

H.: Yes… I learnt mridangam from my father and began playing for dance debuts of his disciples. I have played mridangam for dance performances.



R.K.:  So your training was also in mridangam.

H.: Yes, in mridangam. Then when my father began training in bharatanatyam I also started learning it. Then I became a bharatanatyam trainer. I started giving classes to disciples. The Tanjavur Periya Pillai family is a nattuvanar family. Our family is a muttukkarar family.


R.K.:  What is muttu?

H.: Muttu is mridangam. In Tamil we also call it muzhavu. Muttukarar means mridangam player.


R.K.:  So the mridangam artist is called a muttukkarar. Muttu is mridangam. So what is thattu muttu?

H.: It is not thattu muttu….it is nattu muttu. In Tanjavur tradition there are two wings of musical performers called periyamelam and chinnamelam. In periyamelam, nadaswaram and tavil are the main instruments….then someone would be playing shruti petti (box) and another would be beating talam...thus four people perform in periyamelam. In chinnamelam there are five performers─nattukkarar (the dancer), nattuvanar (singer), muttukkarar, pullankuzhal (flute artist) and then a thithikkarar.


R.K.:  What is thithi? No one now knows what thithi is.

H.: Thithi is like our shruti petti and harmonium. It is an instrument to play shruti…a small wind instrument.


R.K.:  So thithi is a shruti vadyam (instrument).

H.: Yes, the same is called othu in periyamelam. It looks like nadaswaram. You play it through the mouth. It is a wind instrument that can create shruti for two or three kattai. So in chinnamelam there are five players and in periya melam, there are three or four players. It is with these chinnamelams that devadasis of that age were associated. In chinnamelam, nattukkarar is called nattu in short and muttukarar is called muttu and they are being called so even now. Dance performers of the temple were called kudamuzhukku arasis. Many women in my families including my grandmother and mother-in-law were associated with several temples including the big temple of Tanjavur (Brihadisvara temple). They danced in several temples.


R.K.:  What was the role of devadasis in the temples?

H.: In those days, during the worship rituals in the temples, the priests chanted mantras, the nattuvanar sang accompanied by the mridangam artist. Then the devadasis or the official dancers of the temple did the relevant hastraprayogas (mudras) and handed over the aarthi or the plate containing the lit lamp and offerings for the deity to the priests who finally ceremonially offered it to the deity. This was done during all the four main puja rituals of the day.

Chinnamelam was given prominence only in Tanjavur temples. King Serfoji played a key role in fostering music and dance traditions in Tanjavur. There were devadasis associated with each of the 88 temples under the Tanjavur dynasty’s control. These chinnamelam artists performed in the narthana mandapam (mandapams constructed to present music and dance).  

This was how Navasandhi Kauthuvams originated in temple dance. It was a huge sambradaya and a daily ritual done  four times a day in big temples fostered by the temple dancers. The Navasandhi Kauthuvams were performed in temples till my father’s time.

In Tanjavur temple, there is an 18-day brahmotsavam festival. Every year a nine-day festival is organized on Ashtakodi day in the memory of Tyagaraja (one of the Trinity of Carnatic composers). The programmes will be conducted in the evening in the Vasantha Manadapam. There will be flags hoisted in all eight directions. On the ninth day, both nattuvanars and muttukkarars are honoured in front of the Tyagaraja deity on behalf of the temple. Then the dancers perform various types of Kauthuvams.


R.K.:  You never refer to your work in temples as duty or labour. You consider it as service to the temples, to the residing deity.  

H.: Yes, it is a sacred service. We play an instrument called suddha mandiram honouring Tyagaraja. It is a sacred instrument. We play that instrument and the nattuvanar beat rhythm.


R.K.:  When does this happen?

H.: It happens on the Ashtakkodi day...On that day we are honoured by the temple in front of the Tyagaraja deity. First the nattuvanar will be honoured and then it is the turn of the muttukkarar.

Another proof that the mridagam artists were held in high honour is that in the bharatanatyam performances of Tanjavur artists, the name of the mridangam  player was announced right after that of the nattuvanar. Now only our family continues with this tradition in Tanjavur. Nattu, muttu…then only the vocal performer’s name comes. Then comes the names of the flute artist and finally that of the fiddle player. This is the system that was prevalent before. Some people still follow it. Now let me tell you about the guru-sishya tradition….


R.K.:  Yes, please us tell about that. What do you do in temples now?

H.: We do our service in the temples…


R.K.:  But you do not dance in the temples.

H.: No, we don’t, but we play percussion. But for the last three years, on Thiruvathira day, my son and others have been conducting dance performances too. We are trying to bring back the old tradition.


R.K.:  So you are trying to bring back the tradition.

H.: Yes, the tradition has always been there. We keep the musical worship alive in the temple premises. Sometimes we get contributions, sometimes not. But we still keep the tradition.


R.K.:   What about your children? Will they continue the tradition?

H.: My elder son is a mridangam teacher in Salem. He works in a government school as a mridangam teacher. He got a scholarship from Sangeet Natak Akademi to train under Kittappa Anna in playing mridangam for bharatanatyam performances. He is trained in that.


R.K.:  He is trained in playing the mridangam for bharatanatyam.

H.: Yes. My younger son was trained by Anna in dance. So my two sons are engaged in the field of music and dance and that is why I honestly believe that they won’t discontinue the temple service that we do now.


R.K: That is quite fortunate.

H.:  The guru-sishya tradition will not continue after our generation. I never talk of such things now. Because nowadays people don’t even mention the person who taught them. For instance, they will come and learn from my brother. After learning for some time they will go to another person to learn. Then they will mention only their second guru.


R.K.:  Yes, they will go to some renowned teacher and forget the person who gave them the basic training.

H.: They may mention the name of their first teacher once in a while, but generally they tend to mention only their well-known gurus in public. We could not ignore or forget the people who trained us because we were trained in the traditional way. It will end with our generation. Even my brother knows that.


R.K.:  That awareness is not visible in the new generation.

H.: No. It is not visible. See, if anybody wants to take up dance seriously he or she should be aware of the contribution of Thanjai Nalvar family. But what happens today is that they follow certain particular schools and try to establish them. They don’t think about the roots and original inventors of the dance tradition. But nobody can hide the truth. It will come to surface at some moments of time. 


R.K.:  But your tradition is still alive in you….When you talk I can see your eyes becoming moist.

H.: It was here, in Tanjavur, that I played my first mridangam. I cannot forget that. The blessings of my gurus and my adherence to truth help me to receive due respect wherever I go. It’s a divine blessing. More than our dedication or labour, it is their blessings that enabled us to get the state awards and other honours. We should teach the young generation to respect their gurus. 


R.K.:  It’s a great message.

H.: You run into your disciples at almost function that you attend. But they will hardly notice you. But that was not our attitude towards our gurus. We didn’t even dare to stand near them. We never sat in front of them. They would sit and we would stand. Then they would force us to sit. That old way of showing respect is still followed in some families.


R.K.:  Could you talk about Kamalammal (a renowned dancer from Karnataka)?

H.: There is an interesting anecdote about her. She performed a dance when she was nine months pregnant. She had to perform an adavu where she had to turn around and sit. When she was performing it, she slipped and fell. The women present were concerned about her, but her guru asked her to complete the adavu. And she completed it.


R.K.:  She was the last major performer in the Tanjavur temple, wasn’t she?

H.: Yes. After her there were four or five dancers. There was a person called Ammini Ammal. She was well known for kurathi dance. There were six characters: four sakhis (female companions), Mohini, the heavenly beauty, and the kurathi. All are important.   


R.K.:  So the six dancers came from six families.

H.: No…no…There would be two persons from each family. They served as dasis in different temples and they were invited to dance in these performances. So whoever was doing service in a particular temple, they were invited to dance. Similarly there was something called rattinam (a dance performance on a circular platform.)


R.K.:  Please tell us about rattinam.

H.: It’s practiced in Nagapattanam. It is a circular, revolving platform on which four or five female dancers would stand. Nattuvanar and others would stand below and sing. And the dancers performed different dance forms like kummi and kolattam.


R.K.:  Rattinam is the revolving platform at a certain height. The dancers would dance on it, while the singers would stand below on the ground.

H.: Yes. As mike and other sound systems were not available, male singers would sing in two and half kattai and four kattai shruti.


R.K.:  So they danced thus.

H.: Yes. Kamalammal danced, even my grandmother had danced.


R.K.:  Could you tell us about the ceremonial burial rites of a Temple dasi in the devadasi tradition?   

H.: When a temple dasi died, all things needed for the funeral, such as new clothes, oil, flowers, turmeric, kumkum etc. were brought from the temple she was associated with. The musicians would perform. The entire expense for the funeral was borne by the temple they belonged to. The highlight was that the fire for the pyre came from the temple’s kitchen! Such honour was not accorded even to the head priest of the temple but was reserved only for the temple dancers.


R.K.:  Who was the last person to receive such an honour in Tanjavur?

H.: Meenabhashini Ammal was the last person to receive such a funeral in Tanjavur. She was my wife’s great grandmother. I had attended her funeral.


R.K.:  What happened after that?

H.: After that…. You know after the devadasi bill (Devadasi Abolition Act) was passed, the old world vanished. On the Ashtakkodi day, after performance we all would go to the palace (aramanai) and perform there for an hour. They would give us gifts and then we would go to the palace administrator’s house to pay homage to him, and then we return home. The drama performance that began by six in the evening would be completed only after six in the morning.

After the performance, we went to the palace and finally it would be twelve in the noon when we reached our house. If you looked at all the ornaments, they would be gold. There would not be any imitation jewelry. Diamond necklace, diamond rings, diamond jewels…

Even the anklets would be in gold. I have heard that Meenabhashini Ammal had gold anklets. I have seen silver anklets. Till Meenabhashini Amma’s generation these devadasi rituals were very prevalent. Similarly in Madras (Chennai) for Gauri Amma, our Padma Subramanyam’s mother, her temple had done all these. She was a dasi in Mylapur Kapaleeshwarar temple. She told me once that all her ornaments were provided by the temple. That system is completely vanished. Nobody knows anything about it in the temples now. The young generation too is unaware of it. But we still maintain our traditional bond to the temples.