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The Significance of the Kuravanji from the 17th to the 19th century

An interview with Prof. Radhika Seshan on the kuravanji and its link to cultural legitimacy, forms of knowledge and identity production


Aprameya Manthena: What type of differences may be noticed in the kuravanjis of the Nayaka period (16th to 18th century) and those of the Maratha period (18th to 19th century)? What could be the reason for these differences?


Radhika Seshan: The only kuravanji of the Nayaka period that I’ve been able to find is the Vellai Pillayar Kuravanji, which I’ve mentioned in my paper. It seems to retain the orality that is a key component of the tradition. In both this and the Kuttalam Kuravanji, the kuratti is central to the story. It is she who moves it forward, and so, without her, nothing can happen. In the Maratha period kuravanjis that I’ve mainly worked on, like the Mohini Vilasa Kuravanji, the kuratti is there to make sure the love story unfold. The earlier ones are about the landscape of the Thanjavur region—locating it within the broader physical and political landscape of the Chola Empire, and then also about fortune-telling in general. In very general terms, they are all about ‘ladies in love’; but the Maratha-period one specifies the lady and unveils her love. And in Serfoji’s kuravanji, the Devendra Kuravanji, there is no love story or fortune-telling at all, there’s only the geographical description of the place.


The reason, as I’ve said earlier, is, I think, the shrinking spaces of political action, and the ever-present reality of the European power.


A.M.: What could be the reasons for the continuation of the kuravanji as poetic/dance/dramatic form, under the Marathas in the 18th century? 


R.S.: One reason is definitely to uphold the Chola legacy. I think the fact to be remembered is that the Marathas of Thanjavur, right till the end, used the Bijapuri seals on their official documents, but Bijapur had, as it is known, ceased to exist by the end of the 17th century. Given the location of the Maratha power (Thanjavur), by the middle of the 18th century, there was no Indian power worth the name (with the exception of the Nizam, and of course the Marathas of Maharashtra). The Thanjavur Marathas did not really have much power and/or cultural legitimacy in the regions that they had come to rule. One should remember that Shahaji, in the middle of the (17th) century, wrote, what is possibly the only opera in India—the Pallaki Seva Prabandhamu— dedicated to the deity at Thiruvarur.


Kuravanji (as a literary genre) was written post 1730s, when there was a Maratha empire already being created, but to the north and not necessarily in the Tamil/Telugu-speaking regions. I would rather term this (the patronage of kuravanjis by the Marathas) a method of cultural legitimation in a time when, with reducing political status and ability to manoeuvre, legitimacy and power were expressed through emphasising the cultural/social/community aspects. So, I would term it as re-orienting the state in a time of decreased military and political spaces of engagement or negotiation. But it is a process of assimilation for sure because the process of locating themselves was both historic (as in the case of the Chola) and contemporary (the Tamil/Telugu/Marathi landscape, but linked, in particular, to the temple at Thiruvarur).  


A.M.: Since the Maratha kings were authors of many kuravanjis, could the kuravanjis be seen as a cultural mode of unifying diverse regions under one kingship? By underlining the presence of marginal communities like the Kuravar and linking them to the court, could the kuravanji have become an attempt to assert the might of a new state (both Nayaka and Maratha) through assimilation?


R.S.: I do think that the kuravanjis became a form of legitimation (for their rule for the Marathas). There are two, possibly three or more different strands that can be identified. The first is definitely legitimacy. The Maratha rulers were, in every sense of the word, newcomers to the region, with no links to the language and the culture of the region. Second, the Marathas had come in to help the last Nayaka against the Nayaka of Madurai, as part of the Bijapur army, and then, Vyankoji/Ekoji established himself as king, ending the Nayaka rule, within five years of the entry as ‘helpers’. Fifteen years after that, Bijapur too had come to an end, absorbed into the Mughal Empire. So, at one level, the Maratha rulers, till the end, continued to link themselves, in diplomatic or political usage, as ‘descended’ from the Bijapur sultanate and hence they had to assert both identity and legitimacy within the region in multiple ways.


The third was language, both written and spoken. Another facet was performance of different kinds—for example, Shahaji, the ruler of Thanjavur at the end of the 17th century (he ascended the throne in 1684) is believed to have written an opera, to be performed by the devadasis of Thiruvarur temple. The devadasis were considered custodians of art and culture and hence, important for the continuation of traditional forms. What I find significant is the link to Thiruvarur, which was very much a part of the Chola structure of legitimacy. It is here, I think, that we need to locate the beginnings of the Maratha kings’ association with the local cultures, and their attempts to locate themselves within these cultures, by linking themselves to the Chola lineage, and therefore as inheritors of the Chola mantle.


The kuravanjis were definitely part of this local assertion. They provided a way of entering a world—the world of the street performer, the world of literature and music of a non-elite or semi-elite nature, and then, through that world, a method of asserting both their role in and mastery over all those inhabiting ‘their’ world.


I am not sure if, in that period (17th to mid- or late 18th centuries) the peripheral and marginal communities were really a matter of consideration. I think it should also be remembered that the kurattis were not, strictly speaking, either marginal or peripheral, for they had a definite visible and probably quite valued role to play in the society of that time. I would rather argue that the kuratti was the link—the bridge, if you like, between the court and the people, the hills and the plains, and the spoken and the written. Maybe the question to ask is, can we see the Maratha rulers in the same fashion? That is, as a bridge, between the ‘older’ and the ‘newer’ regimes, and a way of negating the Nayaka rule, to go back to Chola rule. This could be more easily done, because Bijapur, by that time, too had come to an end.


Finally, and this is the point that I want to emphasise; the kuravanjis were a method of asserting locality, region and culture. It is because of this that the Devendra Kuravanji could take that genre and transform it into an educational text. That kuravanji is particularly interesting in the ways in which there is an attempt to mesh Western scientific knowledge with the existing Indian knowledge— so there are references to the globe, to maps, and to measurements, and in the last, a mention of Aryabhatta and the Indian heliocentric model. So, the kuravanji here takes one more turn—it now becomes a way of locating oneself in yet another world, while still carrying the older world and its forms of expression, into a newer, and as yet an unknown world. 


A.M.: What role then does geography play in the kuravanjis, especially of the 18th century?


R.S.: The kuravanjis are very closely associated with geography in the way that specific communities and their socio-cultural aspects are outlined, much in keeping with earlier Tamil poetic schemes. The kuravanjis, post 18th century, work closely with two geographical landscapes—Thanjavur and Kaveri, as a physical landscape, and the (lineage of) Cholas as a somewhat mythical or legitimizing one. Of course, Thanjavur and the Kaveri are very closely associated with the Cholas, so the overlap exists with respect to cultural aspects. This geographical situation does not change in the 18th century, even with the Maratha rulers—in fact, what the Maratha rulers also claim now is that they are of the Chola Nadu (land of the Cholas), and therefore the inheritors and maintainers of the Chola traditions.


A.M.: In what ways did the form adapt to the changing audiences? Are there any examples from the texts themselves?


R.S.: One aspect that I’ve pointed out in my paper is that the ‘theatre’, if it can be so termed, moved to the courts, expressed through courtly language and conventions. This can particularly be seen in the Mohini Vilasa Kuravanji, where the hero and the heroine are named, and are both royal—the hero is believed to be (the King) Shahaji himself. Thanjavur is a place where, in the markets, one would normally hear only Tamil, and perhaps some Telugu, the latter being a legacy of the Nayaka rule; but this kuravanji has Tamil and Sanskrit, but no sign and/or influence of Marathi or Telugu. The new court was primarily Tamil and Sanskrit speaking, and so, the text that was written in the court reflected the languages of the court. Marathi, I think, was the language of administration, having replaced Persian; but the more commonly used languages were Tamil and Sanskrit. (It is perhaps noteworthy to point out here that the Marathi spoken in Thanjavur today to the uninitiated ear, sounds no different from Tamil. The intonations, the cadences, are all Tamil— it is only when one knows both Tamil and Marathi that one realizes that one is listening to Marathi and not Tamil.)


A.M.: What are the links between the Kuravar community and the court, through the kuravanji?


R.S.: I am not sure whether there were any real links at all. The sense that I’ve been getting, when reading these kuravanjis, is that the Kuravars are more sort of a dramatic/literary trope, fitting into the earlier form, but without the real presence of the community. In the other production of the then contemporary time, the Pallaki, which was also of prime importance, has no mention of the Kuravar at all.