Tamil Dance dramas in 1700 R. Nagaswamy

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Tamil Dance dramas in 1700

Five Dance dramas were composed in Tamil in the time of the Maratta ruler Shaji of Tanjore around 1700. Shaji (1684-1712) was the son of Ekoji I (the brother of Shivaji) who established the Maratta rule at Tanjore around 1675. Shaji was the first Maratta ruler to be coronated in Tanjore. He was a great patron of music and dance and within a short time he learnt Tamil. He was already proficient in Telugu and Sanskrit and also his mother tongue Maratti. Of these five dramas – natakas – one was composed by Shaji himself and interestingly he composed a creative theme in which he conceived the river Kaveri as a beautiful girl who falls in love with the Samudra raja, the Ocean with whom she unites at the end. Other dramas of his time are conventional, composed by others who made him the hero of the drama and some imaginary girls falling in love with him and marrying him at the end. Again in an interesting manner these fictitious girls belonged to different dynasties, one was a daughter of the king of Cambodia, another a Princess of Malava country, the third Princess of Kalinga country while the fourth was a Kuravanci dance drama. One of the dramas was composed by one Muttu kavi while the names of other poems are not known. All the dramas are in Tamil language. However what is interesting all these Tamil compositions are found preserved in Telugu script in the Tanjore Saraswati Mahal library.

These texts have been ably edited by Sri V.Venugopalan, a competent Tamil scholar who ahs given a masterly introduction. According to him all the five dramas were enacted at the Tanjore Royal Court. Three dramas out of these are called “vilasams”, one a “Kuravanci” and the other a “Kalyanam”. It is also seen each drama consisted of about 30 to 35 poems that would have taken about three to three and a half hours for enactment. However the Kuravanci composition is a long one that would have taken around five hours to enact.

The following are the names the dramas

  1. Kaveri kalyanam by Shaji

  2. Vishnu Saharaja vilasam

  3. Candrika hasa vilasam

  4. Bhuloka Devendra vilasam

  5. Sahaji raja Kuravanci

The unitary character of all the dramas is revealed by common invocatory verses at the beginning. The first poem, in Sanskrit, salutes both Siva and Vishnu in alternate stanzas, followed by an imprecatory verse in Telugu praising Tyagaraja swamy of Thiruvarur, who was the tutelary deity of the Maratta rulers of Tanjore. Called Mangala Daru, this poems invariably salutes Somaskanda Tyagesa the protector of the family of Shaji who belonged to Bhoja kula. The third poem is in Tamil but addressed to the presiding deities of temples where the drama was enacted. From this we understand that all these dramas were not enacted in the Royal court at Tanjore but in Different temples during the annual festivals of the respective temples. This poem is further called “Kaappu” protective prayer.

It is seen that till the end of this Tamil “Kappu” no character appears on the stage. One dressed like lord Ganesa appears on the stage dancing to the accompaniment of a Sanskrit song praying for the removal of all obstacles. This song is named Vinayaka Daru The second to appear on the stage after the exit of Vinayaka is “Kattiyakkaran” a bearded actor with his staff dancing announcing the story to be enacted. It was customary in tradition enactment to dance magalam both at the beginning and at the end but in modern time the “mangalam” is sung only at the end and is not an item at the beginning.

As mentioned earlier the invocatory verse in Sanskrit, the Telugu Mangalam song and also the “Vinayaka daru” which is also in Sanskrit, are the same in all the five dramas suggesting that they were the compositions of Shaji, himself. It is known Shaji has ascended the Tanjore throne after nearly 150 years of Telugu Nayak rule. Telugu has become an influential language during the time and considerable number of artists in the court were from the Telugu country but have become domiciled. So the use of Telugu is quite a common trait that has come down till recent times. That also accounts for the texts being preserved in the Tanjore court in Telugu script though the dramas themselves were in Tamil Language.

Shaji’s ancestry

Shaji is praised as a son of Bhoja kula and Devendra. He is mentioned as Ekoji’s son and his mother is praised frequently as Deepamba (Deepamba sutan). His several titles such as Chatrapati, Duraikal Sikhamani, Ravikulanidhi, Sahajirajan, and so on are available from these dramas. He was a Satya sandha who never uttered any lie (satyavakya).He was Chola-mandaladhisvaran, Cholendran, Mandaladhisvaran ,Sakala-kalanidhi, Sakala kala-nipunan and sangita Sahitya kala svarupa. His fondness for Sangita is mentioned as “Sangita lola” and was in the habit of constantly humming musical tunes. He had a flag with the emblem of Makara (Makara-ketana)

Shaji’s devotion

Shaji was a great Siva bhakta and used to visit and worship many temples, among which Tanjapurisvara, the temple on the banks of Vennaru in Tanjore (not the big temple) the Pancanadisvra temple at Thiruvaiyaru, Vanmikesvara also called Tyagaraja temple at Thirurvarur, Ekamra-natha temple of Kanchipuram, Vaithisvaran koyil near Sirakli, and the Siva temple at Srivanciyam.

As in modern dance recitals wherein there is announcement between each item so also these dramas have a “vacanam” a prose which announces the scene. This enables the spectators to understand the proceedings. As these dramas are connected with Shaji all of them begin with the same verse in the raga “Nattai”. Similarly all of them end with a “mangalam” in praise of Shaji. Probably the manuscript belonged to one dance group of the royal troupe which enacted them in different temples.


One among the five dramas, gives the “ragas” and “talas” of all the songs. Others do not have them though in another ragas are provided for some songs. The names of the ragas indicate in general the preference of the age, especially the likings of the composer. The following ragas are found mentioned in the drama Bhuloka Devendra vilasam. The numbers against each raga represent the number of times it was used in this drama.

  1. Ahiri -2

  2. Bhairavi -2

  3. Bhupalam -1

  4. Deva gandhari -3

  5. Dhanyasi -3

  6. Gauli bandhu -2

  7. Gumma Kambodi -2

  8. Kannada -1

  9. Kapi -1

  10. Kaveri -1

  11. Lalita pancami -2

  12. Madhyamavati -2

  13. Nadanama-kriyai -1

  14. Nattai -1

  15. Pantuvarali -1

  16. Sankarabharanam -2

  17. Saranga -1

  18. Saurashtram -3

  19. Subha pantuvarali -6

  20. Surati -3

  21. Todi -3

Please note that the composer seems to have been fond of Subha Pantuvarali raga as it has been repeatedly used six times while the others are more or less used once or twice only. Among the ragas it may be seen one is called “Gumma kambodi” . I asked Mr Neyveli Santhana gopalan, a great authority on Carnatic music about this “raga”. He told me that it sounds rare and is not much known. The raga “Surati” is probably “Surutti” which derives its name from Surat. As a number of other ragas derive their name from the regions where they were popular it is not unlikely Surat might have been the source for this raga. Another raga is mentioned as Kaveri. It is not known whether it is a scribal error for “Saveri” which is well known but Kaveri is not known. Incidentally Saveri might have been from Sauvira country. The term “Gauli” (also pronounced as Gaulai in modern times) is derived from Gauda desa the modern Bengal. Gauda is prakrtised into “Gaula” or “Gauli”. Similarly “Subha pantuvarali” is mentioned sometimes as “Sukha panutvarali” and at other times as “Subha Pantuvarali” in the work.. Of the ragas “Saurashtram” is from Saurashtra; “Kambodi” is from Camboja country; “Kannada” now pronounced as “Kanada” is from Karnata desa ;”Gandhari” is from Gandhara.”Varali” is from Virata desa. So far as “talas” are concerned The five Talas Eka tala, Adi tala, Capu tala,n Ata tala, and Jambai are mentioned. In the Candrika hasa vilasa drama the character Malava king salutes Shaji as “salamure salamure swami paraku" a tradition of Mughal court. The Sahaji rajan Kuravanci which gives some ragas we find another raga called “Deva gupti”.

(Continued on next page)

Countries mentioned

The characters are made to give interesting details during the course of their role.They are of interest ot historians to know what were popular at that point of time. We examine few such important information below. In the drama “Chandrika hasa vilasam” the heroine would like to know the princes who appear as candidates to marry her in a “svayamavara” fashion. The following are the princes so mentioned.

  1. Anga desa

  2. Gujjara desa

  3. Kalyana desa

  4. Kerala desa

  5. Konga desa

  6. Konkana desa

  7. Maccha desa

  8. Magada desa

  9. Saluva desa

  10. Sauvira desa

  11. Singala desa

  12. Vangala desa

The Kuravanci is a hilarious dance drama in which the appearance of Kuratti (Huntress) is always welcomed by the spectators because of her folkish dialogue and dance. The poets generally select this character to tell about different countries, rivers, forests, products, animals, birds and so on. Generally they give a long list. some of them which are of extreme importance.

The Kuratti in this dance drama gives the following list of countries she visited and heard

  1. Angadam

  2. Barparam (Barapara)

  3. Gangam (Ganga)

  4. Gauntikam

  5. Gujjaram (Gujarat)

  6. Kalingam (Kalinga)

  7. Kalyanam (Kalyan)

  8. Kekayam
  9. Kollam (Quilon)

  10. Kutakam (Kutaku)

  11. Macca (Mecca)

  12. Maccham (Matsya)

  13. Malaiyalam and

  14. Malavam (Malwwa)

  15. Marattam (Maharashtra)

  16. Oddiyam (Orissa)

  17. Pancalam (Punjab)

  18. Saluvam (Saluva)

  19. Savakam (Java)

  20. Singalam Ceylon)

  21. Trikalingam(Telugu)

  22. Trikutakam (Traikutaka)

  23. Tulukku

  24. Vangam (Bengal)

  25. Vidarbham


She puts the total number as 56 countries . Two countries mentioned here are of importance. The Kuratti says she knows Tulukkam (the country of Muslims, and the other, Mecca indicating the naturalization of these places by 1700

Animals and Birds

The following animals are listed as she wants to see the forest region belonging to Sahji

  1. Bear

  2. Black monkey

  3. Deer

  4. Lion

  5. Rabbit

  6. Spotted deer

  7. Striped tiger

  8. Wild boar

  9. Wild elephant

The following birds are listed

Black kuruvi

Chakra vakam

Fire eating bird

Gandabherunda (Mythical)

Green dove

Green parrot

Green peacock



Singing cuckoo


White parrot


The Kuratti and Kurava are aquainted with medicinal herbs as they come from forest. They are known to bring herbs/ A list of medicines she knows are listed

Samaya karani

Santana karani

Medicine for snake bites

Black wood apple and white Sarani

Bulky elephant apple

Vilakku kulaku (probably gulikai)

Infatuating tree

The kuratti boasts that there is no object that is not found in her forest. She is always proud of her environment

(continued on next page)


The following rivers are mentioned by her.

  1. Bharadvaji

  2. Candrapatakai

  3. Conai

  4. Gangai

  5. Gautami

  6. Godavari devi

  7. Jnana nadi

  8. Kampai

  9. Kausikai

  10. Komatai

  11. Konadri

  12. Kundalai

  13. Mandakini

  14. Mandakini

  15. Manikarnikai

  16. Mukhari

  17. Nabhiranjani

  18. Nambukalai

  19. Narmatai

  20. Pali nadi

  21. Pampa

  22. Panchali

  23. Pennai

  24. Pingalai

  25. Prayakai

  26. Sankha vahini

  27. Sarayu

  28. Sindhu

  29. Sindhu

  30. Surini

  31. Tamraparni

  32. Tubgabhadrai

  33. Vaikai

  34. Vani

  35. Veni

  36. Yamunai

(continued on next page)

Pilgrim centres

The Following are the sacred kshetras the Kuratti lists

  1. Ahobilam

  2. Anantasayanam

  3. Badarvanam

  4. Chidambaram

  5. Jagannatha

  6. Kadirkamam

  7. Kalatti

  8. Kanchipuram

  9. Kanyakumari

  10. Kasi

  11. Madurai

  12. Mallikarjunam

  13. Nava Thiruppati

  14. Palani

  15. Paramkunru

  16. Sethu

  17. Sivayam

  18. Srirangam

  1. Thiruppati

  2. Thiruttani

  3. Vada nadurai

The following are the sacred talas of Ponninadu (Chola country)

  1. Arur

  2. Chenkadu

  3. Cherai

  4. Maraikkadu

  5. Nakai (Nagappattinam)

  6. Panankadu

  7. Pukalur

  8. Punturutti

  9. Sirkali

  10. Tanjai nagar

  11. Thiru vidaimarudur

  12. Thiru-Aiyaru

  13. Thirukkudantai

  14. Thiruppnandal

  15. Thiruvenkadu

(continued on next page)

Customs and manners of Kuratti

The Kuratti furnishes some very interesting cusroms and manners of their clans. She says there were four divisions among their castes. 1. One is called the “Country Kura Jati” (Desa kura jati). 2) “Forest Kura jati” (Kattu kura jati) 3) “Mountain Kura Jati” ( malai kura jati) and 4) “Deiva Kurajati”. The last one refers to Valli the consort of Lord Muruga who is of divine nature.

The Kurava caste she says are the highest caste in the world. There may be other castes but none equal to them. About their food habits don’t eat turtles, snakes, cats, rare species of crocodiles, crabs, Vulture, Ant eater or Crows. They pound their rice with elephant’s tusk and eat their food mixing with honey.. They don’t pay dowry of silver or gold, for their girls. They also don’t wear ornaments made of Gold or silver. They present an active donkey as marriage money. They also tie tali made of Conch. They wear beads, conch shells and the nails of cats.. If a child is born to a Kuratti her husband Kurava will drink medicinal decoctions. The Kurava will always wait for his kuratti to come and join him for taking food. They do not cover their breasts and will not sport with their brother in laws.

(Continued on next page)

Kuratti worship
The Kuratti adores Valli the consort of Lord Muruga.

The Kuratti is an expert in Palmistry. She says she can recognize Padma rekha, (Lotus line), Suvarna rekahi (Golden line), Ankusa rekhai( noose line), Dirghayush rekhai (Long life line), Dhanya rakhai (plenty of Grains line), Buddhi rekhai (Intellectual line), Matsya rekhai (fish line), Vidya rekhai (Scholar line) and Jaya rekhai (Victory line)

Two other aspects in Kuratti’s narration are fascinating. 1. She narrates how she invokes first Ganesa for the success of her fortune narration. 2)The second is the names of other gods and goddesses she woeships for that purpose. Though it is full of imagination it is interesting. She says she would plant posts made of coral and then make a ceiling cloth for the pandal. This would be decorated with “melkatti” (Ceiling cloth). Floral garlands would be tied to decorate as festoon hangings . Plantain and betel-nut trees would be tied to the poles. Bunches of tender coconuts would be tied with the plantain. The entire surrounding will be filled with fragrant incense. Then the floor would cleaned and smeared and beautiful kolams would be drawn with sandal paste In the centre would be placed an image of Ganesa made of Wax. (Pillaiyar piditttu vaittu). Hes would be decorated with aruha grass on his head. The God will then be invoked (avahittu). Fragrant flowers, Sandal pastes would be offered to the deity. One hundred coconuts would be broken. She would then utter some mantras and then recite his name and show incense and light. The he would be offered tambulam, silk and salika would be presented The Kuratti says then she would mediate on the five armed god (Ganesa) and will start telling the fortune.

IFrom the description it is seen that the though the Kuratti is a mountain tribal she follows the same order and method of worship as performed by classical Brahmin priests in the great temples. It is a pointer to the fact that the entire society had the same system of worship irrespective of caste or region.

(Continued on next page)

Gods worshipped by Kuratti

The Kurattis invocation of various other deities for her divine foretelling is remarkable and reveals the nature of religious faith. She begins her prayers with an address to Valli the consort of Muruga who is the Kurattis’ favourite deity. The following are the goddesses she adores


Manikka Nacci

Candika devi





Tangu pidari

Sarasuvati amma





Durga Mahesvari

Followed by village gods

Anti viran


Sandi virappan

Camundi amme

Kala bhairavan


Mulai val muniyan

Munnoti yappan


Kurak Kudai taay

Ullasamaka Uccitta Ganaptiye

These are the goddesses and gods the Kuratti invokes. Plase note the Kuratti’s basket is worshipped as her Goddess. Ucchitta Ganapati is interesting. Generally Ganapati is portrayed as a bachelor but Ucchitta Ganapati is shown with his wife in erotic union.

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Use of other languages

Next to Tamil, this series of dramas employ Telugu. But there are other languages also used. Shaji himself in his composition – Kaveri kalyanam uses as many as five languages. He introduces these languages just for fun. These are introduced in prose form between Kattiyakkaran and Sutradhara. Sutradhara asks him from where he comes from.

First he asks him in Hindusthani as

hare baay tum konre? “ (who are you?)

He does not reply. So Sutradhara says that this man does not know northern language. (Uttaradi Bhashai). So he says I shall now ask him in Maratti bhasha

Aaha tu kodun? From where do you come from? The Kattiyakkaran does not answer this question as well. So the Sutradhara says he does not reply. It seems I must ask him in Kannada language.

Ele tambi Elliddhu bantayo?

There was no answer for this as well. So Sutrakara says I must ask him in Vaduga bhasha?(Telugu)

Oyi nayada edanundi osti oyi.

No answer.

Then Sutradhara says it seems I must ask him in the Chola mandalm Tamil.

Onoy Nayakkare Engeyiruntu vantir Kaan?
This tradition of employing multiple languages in dramas to enthuse the spectators was firs time used in this drama by Shaji which was interestingly retained by other writers of this Drama genre. We find evebn English introduced in Sarbhoji kuravanci.

In the Vishnu Saharaja vilasam one complete “daru” of 13 verses are found in Telugu language and the manuscript makes special mention of it as “Telugu daru”.

(Conitnued on next page)
Singing of Tevaram by Women
Shaji again gives an interesting tradition n his Drama “Kaveri kalyanam” Kaveri is said to have worshipped Thiruvaiyaru Lord (Siva) for obtaining a good husband. Kaveri herself gives an account of how she worshipped Pancanadisvara swami (the presiding lord­) of the temple at Thiruvaiyaru.

Kaveri performed “abhisheka” (to the Linga) standing silent. She then did arccana with “sugandham” fragrant material. Then she applied Sandal paste and paccai karpuram.The she offered “naivedya” of (Food Offering) sweet fruits etc. She then waved different kinds of Dipas and then with out forgetting she recited “Panchakshara” name. (Namasivaya).

This tradition of women performing “Abhishekas” to the temple lingas is quite common in northern India while it is not prevalent in Tamilnadu.

Then Kaveri says that she herself reared the flower garden, collected fragrant flower which she offered and then she showed different “aratis” from lamp with five wicks and so on. Finally she says that she sang the Tevaram Songs first reciting Thiruccirrambalam> This is an important information. Before reciting the Tevaram the Singers of Tevaram songs first say “Thirucchirrambalam”. This custom was prevalent in 1700 is known from this work. Secondly Singing Tevaram by women in the temple is not prevalent in modern times . But around 1700 it was not a taboo.. At the end of the puja it was customary to sing the Tamil Tevaram is recorded here.

(Continued on next page)

Dates of Kuravanci

The earliest Kuravanci so far known is the “Vellai Pillaiyar Kuravanci” of Tanjavut assigned to the age of Tanjore Vijaya Raghava Nayak, around 1670. Sri M.Arunachalam in his introduction to the Kuravanchi literature held that the composition of “Kumbhesar Kuravanci” on the God of Kumbesvara at Kumbhakonam by Papanasam mudaliyar was composed next to Vellai pillaiyar Kuravanci and held the the king Ekoji I mentioned is the founder of Maratta rule in Tanjore 1676 to 1684, and as such it might belong to 1680/ However another verse in the same text specifically states that Ekoji the patron of the poem Kumbesar Kuravanci was the son of Tulaja and so was identical with Ekoji the second and not the first.. So that composition must belong to middle 18th cent and not earlier. From this it becomes clear that next to “Vellai Pillaiyar kuravanci” it was the “Sahaji rajan Kuravanci” by Mutthu kavi that was composed.

“Tulasi rajan arul sundara bhujabala

Valavan ekoji maharajan pani”

We have seen that “Sahaji rajan Kuravanci” was composed around 1700 which establishes many new trends in this type of Compositions. There is another Kuravanci well known which was composed during the reign of Sahaji, known as “Tyagesar Kuravanci”. This has already been well edited in the 1970 and is not discussed in detail here. It refers to Sahaji rajan ans is considered a composition of Muttu kavi, the author of “Sahaji rajan kuravanci”. From 1700 onwards many Kuravancis appeared among which Thirukkurrala kuravanci is famous. This was compsoed by Thirukuta rajappa kavirayar and is a good work of literary merit. It is said to have been written in 1718.

(C0ntinued on next page)

Sculptures of Kuratti

Here I may say that there are sculptural representations of Kuratti, earlier to all these compositions. The Kalyana mandapa in the Varadaraja temple of Kanchipuram built by Achyuta deva raya carries on one of its pillars the portrayal of Kuratti carrying her basket and is in dancing pose. Opposite to her is portrayed in another pillar a Kuravan who comes dancing with the birds he caught. The occurrence of both Kuratti and Kuravan in the same mandapa, close to each other, does show that the theme of Kuravanci drama was popular even from 1500. From the point of literary merits these five dramas of the Shaji ‘s period show more a common’s approach than any attempt to give embellished poetry. But later compositions show decidedly classical Tamil tradition and great scholars behind them

We may say that these five dramas from the Tanjore Saraswati Mahal library are a land mark in the evolution of Dramatic presentations in Tamilnadu.
(I am thankful to Mr Sundar Bharadvaj for presenting me the copy of the book Tamil isai Dance dramas which enable me to write this article.) I

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