A Quartet Who Made History

in Article
Published on: 07 June 2016

Lakshmi Viswanathan

Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and writer


'Sangeetham' always denoted both music and dance. The two grew in tandem enriching each other. A king’s command became the genesis of a rejuvenated art form. Tulaja II (1763 -1787) a king of the Maratha dynasty of Tanjavur, invited Mahadeva Annavi a dance expert from Tirunelveli to his court in Tanjavur. It is believed that a historic moment for bharatanatyam as we know it today had arrived. The nattuvanar or guru brought two of his disciples, Vanajakshi and Muthumannar, who enthralled the king with their dance. Annavi addressed the king with a song─Bhosala Tulajendra Raja, did nattuvangam (conducted the dance with cymbals) while the girls danced and established a new beginning in court culture.


Two brothers, odhuvars (singers of the Thevaram in Shiva temples) of Semponnarkoil, impressed Tulaja so immensely that they were also invited to the Tanjavur court. They were Gangaimuthu and Ramalingam. Gangaimuthu’s son Subbarayan was the father of the four brothers-Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivel (the Tanjore Quartet). Individually and together they composed a repertoire for dance. They laid their talent at the feet of Brihadisvara- Shiva of the Big temple, dedicated some of their songs to the Bhosale dynasty of kings Tulaja II, Serfoji, Sivaji, Pratapsimha, Amarasimha, who were their benevolent patrons. They also did their guru–Muthuswami Dikshitar- proud, by composing songs of ever-lasting beauty. Today, I am proud to have known their songs, feel privileged to dance their varnams, and know that to celebrate their lives two hundred years after the youngest of them was born is to acknowledge our culture – the Tanjavur culture in a meaningful way.


Why is Tanjavur so special to me? Firstly, I can trace my family’s roots to Tanjavur back for many generations. A sense of belonging to the river Kaveri and its delta region, rich in music, dance and spirituality fills one with pride and joy. Tanjavur is the nurturing base of not only music and dance as we know it today but also philosophy, literature and the entire gamut of Tamil culture. The patronage as well as the practice of the arts started one thousand and more years ago.


The Tanjore Quartet worked in tandem and in close proximity with temple musicians. The alarippu of the nadaswaram became the auspicious opening number for dance. As they were well trained in the technique of dance, they were able to compose jatiswarams using the notes of ragas to suit the steps of dance (adavus). To greet the king with reverence, love and gratitude, they composed sabdams and salamu darus. But their magnum opuses were the pada varnams. These gems of music in every classical raga are the hallmarks of a comprehensive repertoire for Bharatanatyam. To be able to do justice to any of their varnam became the benchmark of excellence for dancers. They also gave the successors of their legacy, the nattuvanars, enough scope to intersperse the poetic content of their varnams with pure dance interludes (jati korvais). The lilting tunes and simple lyrics in Telugu and Tamil speak of love, longings, nature, gods and goddesses, sacred places and generous kings. We were taught to respect these compositions, and guided by gurus like my own–the legendary Kanjivaram Ellappa – to do justice to the transformation of music at its best into the visual language of dance.


It is believed that the four brothers also composed the ritual dances known as Kauthuvam for their specific practice in temples. Apart from the nine kauthuvams (Navasandhi kauthuvam) for sanctifying the temple premises, they composed Kauthuvams for the five principal Shaivite deities to be performed on the occasion of ceremonial processions. The brothers were joined by many composers of the old Tanjore kingdom in composing padams and javalis. Suited for dance, these created the right mood for a performance to flow from the structured varnam to the more free area of improvised abhinayam. Tillana composers were many in Tanjavur…. Some even think that this piece of concert and dance music came from the North Indian Tarana.



We are the inheritors of a cultural legacy that is at its most fragile point in history. The traditions of the old Tanjore kingdom which encompassed the whole of Tamil Nadu were so rich in variety, depth and detail that like a strong tree that they could withstand many a storm and tsunami of people’s intervention.


The Vishnudharmotra Purana states that all the arts are linked – a sculptor should study dance, dancers should study music, a musician should study painting and so on! Like the many tributaries of the Cauvery river, music, dance, sculpture, painting, folklore and crafts have grown in tandem. Nurtured first by Raja Raja Chola the great king, and followed for centuries by later dynasties like the Nayaks of Tanjavur and Madurai, the Pandyas, Cheras and the Marathas of Tanjavur. I often call the long centuries of patronage the “royal umbrella”. It provided shade but did not cut off the light! There were the low points and the high points, but like all great civilizations of the world our culture outlived political changes.