Ammani Ammal’s story

Dasiyattam and the first professional performances by an Indian dance troupe in Europe - 1838

1838 was a year of many events, some routine but some of greater importance. For example it was the year when the world’s first photograph of a person was taken by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre of the Boulevard de temple. It was of a person in a top hat, getting his shoe shined at the corner. It was also the year when The Times of India, the world's largest circulated English language daily newspaper was founded as The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce. The Morse code had been invented, Queen Victoria’s coronation took place, proteins were discovered and the Duke University was established here in N Carolina. On the colonial end, the French were negotiating with India on new slaves for Mauritius after a British ban on slavery. The British were not too happy either, for they had lost the first Afghan War. The French presence in India was miniscule, with just Pondicherry near Madras and Mahe in Malabar.

But this is not about all that and traces the travails of a young girl called Ammani, starting at Pondicherry and across the seas to France and other European cities.

At Tiruvendipuram or Tiruvaheendrapuram - 6 leagues away (33km) from Pondicherry, ceded to the British (In 1712, by the Raja of Ginjee) by its previous rulers and now in the Cudallore Taluk, the Tengalis and the Vadagalai sects were feuding as usual, and the priests of the Devanatha temple would soon be asked to intervene, as it had high standing in the South Arcot district. The 2000 odd year old Devanatha Vishnu temple planned and developed by Adisesha and dating back to the period of the Chola ruler Vikrama, was busy and as usual, during prayers, the singers sang devaram while the dancers danced (like many other Vaishnavite temples, this one too had a number of temple dancers and singers in their payroll).

As I mentioned previously in the article on the Tanjavur Quartet, the history of Devadasis is very often misunderstood and confused with anglicized definitions of courtesans and prostitutes due to the influence of zealous missionaries of that time. But I will not get into that study as yet, let us be content with the fact that these dasis in the service of the lord actually sang and danced (let’s not dwell upon other aspects of their decadence, as yet). Their dances were usually conducted in temples and palaces, to the accompaniment of Devaram singing set to ragas or older panns. The 1800’s were a period when the Devadasis were decried, stigmatized and their art forms derided. Their nautch (Natch in Hindi, anglicized) dance otherwise known as dasiyattam was on the chopping block. Father away, in Tanjore, the Quartet had finished laying the margam for the new attam, (known today as Bharatanatyam) and some dancers were slowly adapting to it. However the musicians in Tiruvendipuram were perhaps slow on the pickup of new instruments like the violin. In any case, Ramalingam a nattuvanar of the area, continued with his old methods and managed his small troupe ably.

The nattuvanar, most usually male, was integral to a dasi’s performance, he was the troupe conductor and dace choreographer who also knew the music aspects intimately. His nattuvangam involved playing the cymbals, holding the rhythm with jatis (tha dhi dhinna…), sometimes singing the song and controlling the laya or tempo of the dance. Now as you can imagine this was a tall task and required one to know and master so many sub arts, so it took a long time for one to become a nattuvanar and not many made it. And dasis were also particular, for the dancer needed to be familiar with the style of a nattuvanar before performing with him, so this led to creation of teams performing dasiyattam or in later days Bharatanatyam.

His troupe comprised himself, Ramalingam Mudaliar, Tillammal the Taikelavi in charge of the girls aged 30 (perhaps 50 in reality), a Thooti player and singer Saravanan, a maddalam player Devanayakam and three young dancers. The dancers were Ammani aged 18, two sisters Sundaram aged 14, Rangam aged 13 and accompanied by a little understudy aged 6, Ramalingam’s granddaughter named Vedam. Tille was apparently the mother of the two sisters and Ammani her niece.

Whether they expected the invitation from the French in Puducherry is not clear, but it came like a bolt from the blue and was fraught with all kinds of danger and social issues. It involved crossing the seas to France and Europe and spending a period of 18 months singing and dancing in those unknown places. It also involved crossing the oceans. The troupe acceded to the request, perhaps due to economic hardship or some other reason such as repression by the British. Much effort was put in to secure their release from temple services and eventually they reached the French Notary’s office to sign a well preserved contract, written in French. The event organizer or promoter to acquire their services was one EC Tardivel who had come all the way from France.

Tardivel had decided to bring these exotic dancers (by this time the Portuguese term Bayladeria or female dancer shortened to Bayaderes was used to signify Devadasis) after he felt a certain interest among the French populace to see these dance forms of the orient. Marie Tagiloni, the ballet dancer had already portrayed the part of the temple danseuse in her act.

As events would transpire, the agent in Pondicherry (One Kanakambaram) established contact with Ramalingam and worked out a contract agreement. A decent contract, it was clear in daily and starting/ending emoluments for each member, other allowances, facilities offered as well as penalties for any girl falling pregnant (they would be sent home without any share of the profits). 

Interestingly you can see that the girls were literate, they signed their names in Telugu (Saravanan signed his name in Tamil). The contract period was 18 months from the date of embarkation, free travel and maintenance, and not including per diem, a sum of Rs 500.00 per head in addition to an advance payment of Rs 500.00 per head, all in all a handsome compensation in those days.

A report in the ‘Word of fashion’ dated Sept 15th provides some more details. Tillamal the taikelavi, was not happy about the young girls leaving, even after signing the contract. A lawsuit threat however brought her to her senses and she acceded. A Brahmin boy besotted (one sided attraction apparently) with the pretty lass Ammani came to the harbor with entreaties for her not to leave and even jumped into the water, but eventually swam back ashore after the ship departed. The girls were nonplussed, proved to be merry on the voyage, even though the men were melancholic and seen praying often.

They arrived in Bordeaux on 24th July 1838 after a long voyage, and at this juncture one may of course wonder if the members ran a risk of losing caste as a sea voyage would typically entail. Perhaps the purification costs were part of the remuneration, perhaps they were already excommunicated and lost their temple positions.

The group are soon reviewed, with reports on their looks, likes, dislikes, food and manners. Tillammal is considered surly, one who has surpassed the love of men, one who never smiled. Ammani from the outset is hailed as the perfect creature, noble and gentle. Vadyam, Vedam or vaidyam, is cast as an impish tot. They are shown around Paris, and eventually quartered in a little bungalow near the Seine with a guard in front, lest they be kidnapped or people climb over the fence. Some even suspected that they were imposters and Ribaud even rubbed their skins to check if the black would come off to ensure they were indeed from India. The French who had until then seen a localized version from Tagiloni, were all agog seeing this entourage.

Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier a French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic was the person who got much involved with the press portrayal of the Bayaderes, for he tracked their performances and was smitten by Ammani. Perhaps he was already influenced by Baudelaire about the greatness of the Orient and mentioned India in his writings, though he had never visited the country. As Figueira puts it – He found their dancing an endless enchantment, with his poetic fantasies coming to life. Interestingly, Ammani impressed not only Gautier, but also his friend Gerad de Nerval who mentioned Amany often in his works.

We get a nice description of Ammani from Gautier who met them at the cottage for a private performance – He mentions the olive gold color of her skin, silky rice paper texture to touch, rounded hips, pure in blood compared to the mixed European, oval head, straight nose, pointed chin, low cheekbones, lovely face all in all with a true small mouth. The eyes are simply beautiful, ecstatic languorous and voluptuous and a half smile completes a glorious look. Huge pendants, adorn her ears and the holes still leave a gap, where one could insert a thumb. The lobe top is riddled with openings plugged with small wooden bits for keep it open. In addition, what upsets them all, the left nostril was pierced and a diamond ring inserted.  Two or three copper bangles are seen around her wrists; the upper arm is fitted by a kind of bracelet of an inverted V shape. She wears a sari and between her blouse and pants, the space showing bare flesh is much appreciated. Amber and sandalwood incense smells complete the experience.

A lot of mysteries are cleared here, that dasiyattam dancers were not bare breasted, that they wore their hair in a bun behind and that they wore white saris for the dance. They were dressed a little differently in the sense that they had dancing pants on, North Indian style under the sari. The thootti provided the sruti, which the French found boring (Gautier mentions that the music is soft and only enjoyed if the dancers are dancing round you) and a monotone which it is supposed to be, since its holes except for one are plugged. Some of the songs used were dreamy, and light (lilting Devaram – tevaram verses). The dance itself is very original and involves much eye and head movement, and steps in synchronism with the drum beats and cymbals used by the musicians. The last number, perhaps a tillana or a kummi is similar to a Celtic waltz.

The public performances in August that year got tongues to chatter in Paris. The playbill details the events - A salutation, Robing of Shiva, Dance of the melancholy, The doves and the Malapou. The dancer’s days were full and no less than two dozen performances were completed in a month, spanning the theaters of Paris, Versailles and Tivoli. Many articles are testament to their popularity and Ammani’s (known as Amany, Ammale or Amani to the press) statue was soon cast in bronze by Jean August Barre. The statue itself is interesting. As you can see below, an early sketch of the same shows her wearing an Andhra style checkered sari, while the bronze statue is a mirror image of the former. Perhaps Barre made a set of two, I am not sure.


A report in Le Figaro 27th August stated - the ticket sales for the shows set a record and they were sold out days in advance with the result that the season was extended. The Bayaderes it seems took Paris by storm – for the Figaro report says - One finds the word ‘Bayadère’ printed and lithographed everywhere; paper, marble, cloth and plaster reproduce their names, their traits.

Nevertheless, the music is not considered great and is remarked as somewhat primitive. Hector Berlioz states (translation by Inge Van Rij, acknowledged with thanks) - I don’t know if you still remember the peculiar music that accompanied the movements of the Indian bayadères who appeared, around ten years ago, at the Théâtre des Variétés? It consisted of some faint sounds murmured in a low weary voice by those of the bayadères who weren’t dancing; chanting that wavered exclusively on the minor third, around a single tone, continuously sustained by a fife into which an Indian blew, while the rhythm of the dance was marked with the fingers of his right hand on a small drum. If someone had told us that the flute of the Indian musician only produced a single note that was prolonged indefinitely like the buzzing of a wasp, and that his drum only produced a feeble and muted sound, comparable to that obtained by lightly hitting the fingers against the body of a hat; that the bayadères, in the supposed song that accompanies their dance, contented themselves by murmuring every now and then, in an undertone, some words on the note prolonged by the flute of their musician, while embellishing only as required this note by means of two other sounds that form with the main sound the interval of a second or minor third, like la la la—ti do, la la—do ti do la, and continued in this way for an hour, most likely we wouldn’t have wanted to believe it.

It is almost clear that the performance had a Vandanam or invocation, Jatiswaram, Varnam and a Tillana. Perhaps the small girl performed a Padam.

Athanaeum - Paris, Aug. 1838. A performance before the monarchy - the Bayaderes whose performance at the Tuileries, before the Royal Family, is elaborately discussed this morning in the Journal des Dibats, after that journal's most flowery fashion. These nymphs are five in number….. While dancing, they are accompanied by three male musicians, of an inferior caste, each of whom bears his part on an instrument of but one note; the band consisting of a tiny pair of cymbals, almost hidden in the hollow of the hand, a pipe, and a tamtam. ………… But, nevertheless, their dancing and their costume, as first displayed to a select set of connoisseurs, underwent considerable modification and veiling before they were exhibited to royalty. On the former occasion, the breast and shoulders were closely covered with gold tissue, and immense petticoats perfectly concealing the shape were gathered round the hips, but all between these two masses of drapery lay bare. To present thus the torrid zone of the human form at court and upon the stage, was pronounced not comme il faut; when, therefore, they danced before Louis Philippe, the Bayaderes were totally enveloped in scarfs.

The writer questions - Everyone in Paris, however, will go to see them once, which will suffice to make their trip lucrative. But, after all, was it fair in M. Tardivel to kidnap these poor creatures, and bring them to Europe, where they must lose caste, and where their devotional pirouettes can only last as long as other nine days' wonders?

Yates’s son explains what happened next (though I do not believe they lost any money in the bargain since all shows were full) - On one occasion a rumor reached London that a great success had been achieved in Paris by the performance of a set of Hindoo dancers, called "Les Bayaderes," who were supposed to be priestesses of a certain sect; and the London theatrical managers were at once on the queue to secure the new attraction. Three of them—Laporte, of the Italian Opera; Alfred Bunn, of Drury Lane; and my father set out for Paris much about the same time; it was diligence-traveling or posting in those days, and the man with the loosest purse strings went the fastest. My father had concluded his arrangement with the "Bayaderes" before his brother managers arrived in Paris. Shortly afterwards, the Hindoo priestesses appeared at the Adelphi. They were utterly uninteresting, wholly unattractive. My father lost £2000 by the speculation; and in the family they were known as the "Buy-em-dears" ever after.

The dancers thus moved on to perform at the Adelphi in London where mixed reviews came out. Some liked it, but many did not.

Finally we get a decent description of the dances as understood by the western eye from the Spectator V 11- First, the two young girls, Sundaram and Rangam, advance, and their performance maybe regarded as a type of the rest; for though slight variations of action distinguish each dance, the general character of the style is the same in all. They keep time to the music with the simultaneous movement of every muscle in their bodies and limbs, rolling their lustrous black eyes, and muttering a low chant incessantly, like beings under the influence of some magic spell. Their motions are not so violent as to seem to require effort, and are entirely free from contortions; yet, notwithstanding the air of Oriental languor and repose, the muscular energy that is thrown into every movement makes the process exhausting; and on one occasion we detected what appeared to us an indication of fatigue on the part of one of the girls, attended with a momentary pause, which the other seemed to recognize; and the final salaam, when they bend themselves almost double, the hands meeting over the forehead, seemed a welcome relief. They scarcely stir from the place they occupy, and their principal bodily movements consist of turning round and crouching down, and in this position throwing out first one leg and then the other, resting on the heel: they use the heel as much as the toes. The prevailing movement of the arms is horizontal, crossing the face, and seeming to touch the nose; the long slender arms, and taper fingers pointed with sharp nails, darting to and fro with angular action. There is very little if anything of flowing and serpentine movement of the limbs: nearly all is abrupt and rectilinear, but continuous. The inflections of the body are graceful, but its twining’s are not developed by corresponding movements of the limbs: one action resembles the effect of a choking sensation ; the upper part of the spine curving, the head poking forward, and the eye-lids and brown being drawn upwards. This dance is called "The robing of Vishnu “ The pas dc deuz concluded, the sweet little Vedom performs an elaborate dance of less violent action, termed “The Salute to the Rajah;" her brilliant eyes and teeth of dazzling whiteness seeming to light up her infantine countenance with pleasure. The tall graceful AMANY then steps forward, with a melancholy aspect, and an air of languishment, and rolls her lustrous eyes, that seem suffused with sorrow as if they would literally dissolve with melting tenderness: her movements are more grave and slow, for she is performing “The Widow's Lament;" and she chants audibly a measured strain of woe. The matron TILLE, who all this while has not ceased waving the horsetail fan before the image, now resigns that task to the infant Vedom, and joins Amany, and her daughter and niece, in " The Malapou, or Delightful Dance;" a sort of Indian quadrille, in which the four performers keep their respective places, and the principal movement is bending the body from side to side, and making the arms meet in a graceful curve above the head. Meanwhile, the two cousins have performed “The Dagger Dance, or the Hindoo Widow‘s Excitement to Death; " which is of a more theatrical character than any other, but without the vehement and startling action of ballet-dancing. A fifth dance, “The Carrier Doves," has not yet been performed at the Adelphi: this, we suppose, is kept in reserve.

It is clear from the above that many of the moves are from the dasiyattam routine….

The new sporting magazine was distinctly unsporting - What utter—abominable—inexplicable nonsense. Yet again, what clear—nice—perfect managerial humbug! It is quite clear that the blacks will be slaves; Inkle, Mr. Yates—Yarico, Miss Bayadere!— "White man don't leave me,"—and depend upon it my dear Saundorouna, Ramgoun, Veydoun, Amany, and Tille,—as long as white man can get one single farthing out of your dingy persons and most unpoetical postures—white man will not leave you. Money, and money alone, will, according to the proverb, make the Bayaderes to go, as well as the mare. The thing is a dead failure as a dramatic exhibition…………. So disreputable an attack upon the gullibility of the English public has not been attempted since the man advertised to enter into a quart bottle, at the Haymarket Theatre—or since Yates proposed enacting the part of Cassius at Covent Garden! I wish I had my entrance money safely back in my pocket again.

James Ewing Ritchie wrote - The dancing Bayaderes, who visited London some fifteen years back, were shocked at what they conceived the immodest attire of our English dames, who, in their turn, were thankful that they did not dress as the Bayaderes.

Let us look at their daily routine. Quoting the Spectator v11 - The Bayaderes have not changed their custom since their arrival in Europe. They live on rice and vegetables, cooked by themselves. Each morning they rise with the sun, descend to the fountain, or the imitation of a fountain, which is prepared for them, and there make their ablutions. They return then to their apartment, and remain there the whole day. The day is passed in singing or sleeping. They do not know how to do anything, and they do nothing. But they are gentle and sweet-tempered, and their indolence does not create either jealousy or quarrels. Their conversation is as quiet as their manners. It is a kind of whispering, timid and monotonous, of which their countenance renders the expression more faithfully than their lips. A day thus passed should be very tedious, but they do not know what ennui is; and it is quite clear that their health is not injured by that idleness. The men keep company with them, but at a respectful distance. The law forbids their approaching or touching the Bayaderes. At night they all lie down to sleep in the same apartment, upon mats, rolled up in their cloaks; the men at the top of the mat, the women lower down. In a few minutes all are asleep— for their simple hearts know no passions—they have neither love our jealousy; still, Tillé watches over all, and remains awake till they are sound asleep

Others focused on their customs - On the arrival of the Orientals in London, their (oriental) feelings were greatly shocked at seeing the flesh of the ox (a sacred animal in their country) exposed for sale, and lying familiarly by the side of unhallowed mutton. We would ask the concoctor of this piece of romance how it was possible for the young ladies (never having witnessed the dissection of the beast from which beef cometh) to discover that the formidable sirloins, briskets, and steaks before them, belonged to an animal at all analogous to the magnificent and sanctified ox of their native country? This is drawing the long bow with a vengeance…………..

Some others opined that it was much better to watch Taglioni’s or Duvernay’s imitations. The Aldine magazine was forthright - The leading speculation at the Adelphi, this season, has been the exhibition of the Bayaderes; a failure, we presume, so far as the treasury of the theatre may be concerned. To us, the dancing of our own chimney-sweepers on May-day is a thousand times more amusing. Still, as the bona fide dance of a foreign, remote, and very ancient nation, the display of the Bayaderes is not without interest.

The London program comprised the acts of laws of Brahma (actually the play - Widow of Malabar), Robing of Vishnu, Salute of the Rajah, the Hindu Lament, the dagger dance and the Malapou.

Actors by daylight stated over many reports - At Adelphi, the young women appeared in A Race for a Rarity, The Law of Brahma; or, the Hindoo Widow, and Arajoon or, The Conquest of Mysore, whose plots were merely frames upon which to present occasions for the Indians to dance. The Bayaderes received unanimous praise in the London press for their exotic dancing and they remained at the Adelphi throughout the fall. Most of the nobility went to watch it. Some opined that the dance by Amani should have been done by the whole group, others liked the dagger dance by Sundaram and Rangom. They received good applause and the scenic effects of the last two acts great. Lady Morgan, the prince and the princesses attended. Since the troupe do not touch utensils touched by Europeans, the entire kitchen of the Yates home is allocated only to the Bayaderes supervised scrupulously by Tillammal.

Then they moved on to perform at the Egyptian hall, Piccadilly. The announcement read M.
TARDIVEL'S MORNING EXHIBITION of the BAYADERES, or Indian Dancing Priestesses, who will have the honor to present themselves at 2 o'clock. At half past 2 will be given the Toilet of Vishnu; at a quarter before 3, the Pas Melancolique; at 3, the Salute of the Rajah; at a quarter past 3, the Pas de Poignard; at half past 3, the Malapou. During the intervals of exhibiting they will promenade and converse with any lady or gentleman who may understand their language. The doors open at half past 1. Admission to the whole 1s.

A conclusion is worth reading - This Hindoo dancing is totally different from either; it is the pantomime of emotion-exhibiting the flow of soul, not of the animal spirits. Regarded as one style of the poetry of motion, it is to European dancing what we suppose the Greek music to have been in comparison with that of modern times-rude and limited, but withal expressive.

Holloway’s ointment were perhaps sponsors for Yates’s exertions (note that contemporary Swati Tirunal ordered a consignment of 6 jars). An advertisement followed (Fly p23) - Secret of the Elasticity of the Bayaderes -These surprising dancers have astonished the Parisians and Londoners by their unparalleled elasticity of movement. Taglioni, Duvernay, and the Elslers, celebrated as they are, must in this instance give place to their Indian rivals. Now, the question is, how is this accomplished? We must let the public into a secret. There is an unguent in great repute for an immense variety of external disorders, such as gout, rheumatism, glandular complaints, scrofula, wounds, &c, which is also admirable in giving suppleness to the joints land limbs; and, of course, the Bayaderes, at the suggestion of Mr. Yates, were only too happy to avail themselves of its use. The unguent alluded to is Holloway's Ointment…ta ta……

They covered many more parts of Europe, but from some of the reports, they were not very well received.

Finally let’s get to Strauss and the Indian Galop - The malapua – malpua delightful dance, a quadrille by the bayaderes …..Perhaps danced to a tillana at the end of their performance. As the description in the CD explains - In the summer of 1839, the Bayaderes reached Vienna and performed at the Theater an der Wien. All kinds of Indian festivals were arranged and Strauss wrote a composition as well, commemorating the event. Whether he was inspired by Ramalingam’s Tillana or not is unclear (I doubt it) but he had more success selling it compared to the Indian troupe who by then were doing dances based on their managers whims and far from the margam they set out with.

But the Indian Malapou Galop remained – a chirpy piece (hear it by clicking this link) composed in the honor of the Bayaderes which many opine, had no connection musically to anything remotely Indian.

In all they covered a good distance from Bordeaux to Paris to London to Brighton, and from there to Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. They also performed in Frankfurt, Mannheim, Karlruhe, Aschaffenburg, Wiesbaden, Darmstadt, Mainz, Weimar, Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, Potsdam, Wroclaw, Prague, Vienna, Linz, Munich, Augsburg, Stuttgart, Strasbourg and Bordeaux. I look forward to the works of Joep Bor and Tiziana Leucci who are working on the project reconstructing their complete tour.

What happened at the end? Did they return and live on happily ever after? Perhaps, though Gautier wanted his heroine to meet a tragic end, at least in his thoughts and mind. He mentions that Ammani hung herself in a fit of depression on a foggy day in London, which was most certainly untrue since no death record exists of such an event. But Gautier remembered Ammani for the rest of his life and mentioned her often in his writings.

  1.        There is no anachronism: Indian Dancing Girls in Ancient Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens- Inge Van Rij
  2.        Mamia, Ammani and other Bayaderes: Europe’s portrayal of India’s temple dancers – Joep Bor
  3.        Les Bayaderes – Gautier (Le Orient – Tome second)
  4.       The Exotic: A Decadent Quest  By Dorothy Matilda Figueira
  5.        Widows Pariahs and Bayaderes – Binita Mehta
  6.        Fifty years of London life: memoirs of a man of the world -  By Edmund Hodgson Yates
  7.        Revue universelle: bibliothèque de l'homme du monde et de l'homme Politique, Volume 35 (Pages 201-203)
  8.        Gautier on Dance – Ivor Guest
  9.        Etudes et Recherches Sur Theophile gautier Prosateur – Jean richer
  10.   Translating the orient – Dorothy Matilda Figueira
  11.  Charlotte Ackerman – Otto Muller

1.       While it is stated in the contract that the dancers are from Tiruvendipuram which is 6 leagues from Pondicherry and that they danced for the Perumal temple there, there are some inconsistencies.
a.       The girls are grouped as pagoda Brahmins, but they are most certainly isai vellalars or kaikolars if they were weavers.
b.      It is intriguing that they were wearing white clothes, more like Mohiniyattam dancers. Ammani’s dance feature is somewhat reminiscent of Mohiniyattam.
c.       The contract mentions witnesses from Malabar - They are Appuchetty and Subramania Pillay son of Parasurama Pilla, Malabar inhabitants residing in Pondicherry, who are well known to and have accompanied the dancers. So did they come from Malabar? Was Ammani really Ammini from Malabar?
2.       The Holloway ointment aspect is intriguing. How did Swati order 6 jars around the same time? Did he hear about it from the returning dancers, and have it ordered for his own court dancers?
3.       Barre’s statue of Ammani is described as follows by Sotheby’s - its auctioneers - An exotic statuette of the Indian dancer Amany, by Barre, portrays her dancing the Malapou, or dance of delight, in a public performance at the Théâtre des Variétés, Paris, in August 1838. Beautiful details such as the coils of her hair and sparkling brilliance of the tinsel and glass jewelry that adorned her make this a truly sumptuous piece. Signed and dated 1838, it is estimated to fetch £6,000-8,000
4.       The Otto Muller book provides an interesting amount of detail of the dances themselves though it is a work of fiction.

-          The Bayadères, Amany, Saundirounn, Tillé, Ramgoun & Veydoun dancing the malapou, accompanied by the bard Ramalingan and musicians Saravanini & Devenayagon.  By Hamerton, Robert Jacob, courtesy NYPL collections
-          Other pictures from the web


The Tanjavur Quartet

When music and dance ruled

Some months ago, we traced the route taken by exponents of Carnatic music in the Vijayanagara kingdom to Tanjore, where the Maratha Nayaks patronized them. That there were a number of music and dance forms in vogue already, is pretty clear, but with time new systems became the norm. The new forms flourished but with pressure from the British rulers and missionaries, some of the old practices were getting forced out. One of the older forms that underwent change was what was termed Dasiattam and four brothers known as the Tanjai nalavar got involved (together with some others) in its revival and restructuring into what we know as today’s Bharatnatyam. However for certain reasons they were forced to move to other regions. Let’s go to the Tanjore of those periods and retrace the steps of the famous Quartet to Travancore and their stay there.

The history of Devadasis is very often misunderstood and confused with anglicized definitions of courtesans (A courtesan was originally a courtier, which means a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person) and prostitutes. In Kerala and Tamil regions, the meanings of the words Tevadicci and Kuttaci are often intermixed with these wrong English terms mostly due to the influence of missionaries of that time. But I will not get into that study as yet, let us be content with the fact that these dasis actually sang and danced (also, let’s not dwell upon other aspects of their decadence, as yet). Their dances were usually conducted in temples and palaces, to the accompaniment of Carnatic music. Due to various socio cultural reasons, there was a degeneration of this art and this resulted in them getting a very bad image. The 1800’s were thus a period when the Devadasis were decried, stigmatized and their art forms derided. Their nautch (Natch in Hindi, anglicized) dance otherwise known as dasiyattam was on the chopping block. It was during this period that dasiattam moved to the royal courts  to become Sadir or court dance and this eventually metamorphosed to Bharatnatyam.

Art especially temple dancing, is not a money maker and always required a carefully selected patron. Since multinationals and industries did not exist then, exponents relied on individual patrons or the state. The early patrons of these arts were either the kings or rich brahmins, rich traders from the vaisya communities. The selection of a patron was very important, and many factors came into play such as their wealth, standing and learning, for it was the only route for the family of a good looking dasi with some dancing ability to climb up the social ladder. Typically they hailed from the isai vellalar communities who even had a matrilineal (for girls) naming convention (Pillai added to the male names). Sringara rasa and Bhakti got interspersed over time with dasiattam. And so when they danced, the varnams sung took to praising not just the lord, but also the patron in many cases.

The nattuvanar, most usually male, was integral to a dasi’s performance, he was the dace conductor who knew the music and choreography intimately. A senior teacher, and in many cases he took to managing the group. His nattuvangam involved playing the cymbals, holding the rhythm with jatis, sometimes singing the song and controlling the laya or tempo of the dance. Now as you can imagine this was a tall task and required one to know and master so many sub arts, so it took a long time for one to become a nattuvanar and not many made it. And dasis were also particular, for the dancer needed to be familiar with the style of a nattuvanar before performing with him, so this led to creation of teams performing dasiyattam or in later days Bharatanatyam. The older teachers passed on learning to the younger ones through a gurukula system. And thus was formed gharanas or banis as they were called based on individual styles of Nattuvanars.

One of the first Bharatnatyam bani’s was originated by the Tanjavur quartet. They created a powerful and long line of dance teachers and masters and somewhat of interest is the fact that they never married into families with devadasis in their lineage. As you can imagine these four brothers (also isai vellalars) who we will talk about were amply endowed with brilliance, and in certain cases, genius. They were Chinnaya, Ponnaiya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu. Their compositions were the ones which mainly set the trend and defined the repoitre in today’s Bharatnatyam performances.

The Isai vellalars (music cultivator) are also known as Melakkarar or Molakkara Mudaliar, as times went by, reversed the roles in their community with the suppression of the dasi's involvement with patrons and bringing about elevation of the standing of male teachers. But let’s not speed by, we are still in the times of the quartet, in Serfoji’s court, the early decades of the 19th century. For that is where the ekartha prayoga (single theme - different but interlinked combinations of Natya, Nritya which was the ‘Ekartha’ style) style of Sadir dance was recomposed by the brothers to form the unlinked prithagartha prayoga structure or ‘margam’ used today - stretching from Alarippu to Tillana (Alarippu, Jatisvaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Javali, and Tillana), demonstrating multiple themes and incorporating jathiswarams, varnams, swarajatis and tillanas.

A note to keep in mind – Sadir and natyam re-composition was not just carried out by the Tanjore quartet, but also other famous banis and nattuvanars of that period such as Sabhapati, Gopala Narayana and Sivarama subayya.

Serfoji inherited a great musical tradition in his courts from his ancestors, great contributors to the schools of Sadir and Carnatic music (see my previous article). He was not only trained in local arts but was also schooled in the western fashion by CF Schwarz and even though the English rulers were in full control, they allowed him to continue as a titular monarch thus providing him the time to scholarly pursuits. The musical department of his court was headed by Varahappa Dikshitar of Varahapayyar. The four brothers who served in the court reported to Varahapayyar.

This family with a strong musical tradition started with Gopala Nattuvanar who served in the Rajagopalasvami temple at Mannargudi, and as the chief musician of the court of King Vijayaraghava Nayaka in the seventeenth century. The family later moved to Madurai, and then to Tirunelveli. During the rule of King Tulaja II, three brothers from the family, Mahadevan, Gangaimuttu and Ramalingam went back to Tanjore. Gangaimuttu had two sons, Subbarayan and Chidambaram and Subbarayan (chupparaya) fathered the Thanjavur Brothers. Subbaraya in those days was responsible for the female dancers performing in the royal court.

Ponnaiah was a composer and vocalist, Chinnaiah was a choreographer, Sivanandam excelled as a mridangist and nattuvanar, and lastly Vadivelu was a composer and violinist. Originally these brothers recited the tevaram and led dance performances at the Brihadiswara temple. Chinnaiya (1802-56), the eldest of the four, was a great teacher of dance, and in addition was supposed to have been one of the few males who actually performed the dance dressed as a woman (and taught men to perform during the mattu pongal). He later moved to the Mysore court of Krishnaraja Udaiyar III (1811-68). Among the compositions of the Quartette, a few are dedicated to Krishnaraja Udaiyar III. Those compositions are mostly the creations of Chinnaiya. He also wrote a Telugu text called Abhinaya Lakshanamu, a reworked version of the Sanskrit Abhinayadarpana of Nandikeshvara and narrated to him by his father. Ponnaiya (1804-64) was prolific composer among the brothers. Systematization of the Sadir Kacheri is credited to him. Most of the compositions by the brothers on Brihadishvara as well as several Nritta compositions (Jatisvarams and Tillanas) are attributed to him.

Vadivelu, an accomplished vocalist, composer and violinist was the youngest and is said to have accompanied himself on the violin, which by itself is a rare accomplishment at those high levels. Their musical abilities were tested by three prominent female dancers: Kamalamuttu of Tiruvarur, Sarasammal of Thanjavur, and Meenakshi of Mannargudi, who likely performed at Serfoji’s darbar. During their stay in Tanjore, they perfected the use of the violin, the clarinet, structuring of the Sadir, and training of so many dancers and documenting of their efforts. Sivanandam brought in the western Clarinet as an accompaniment for Carnatic music, and Ponnayya created many famous kritis in praise of Brihadiswara. Vadivelu contributed significantly to dance also. The brothers propagated the Pandanaloor style of dance. Navasanthi Kavithuvam, a traditional dance form was pioneered by the quartet

While one story has it that Baluswamy, Muthuswami dikshitar’s brother picked up the violin upon the insistence of Manali Chinnaya Mudaliyar, and thus brought about the introduction of the violin into the Carnatic scene, another has it that it was Vadivelu who initially studied the violin under his teacher Schwarz (some others say that Varahapayyar chose the violin over the piano and later taught Vadivelu). Vadivelu later became a disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar when he spent four years in Tanjore. He mastered the instrument and became so proficient that Thaygaraja, it is said, would summon Vadivelu often to listen to the new instrument. All four were called `Eka Chanda Grahi,' for they had the ability to repeat what they have heard just once.

As Arul Francis a modern day teacher summarizes - The greatest works of the Tanjore Quartet are the varnams, which contain depictions of the ecstasy and torment of romantic love, as well as depictions of states of spiritual rapture, interspersed throughout with abstract dance sequences. The dance compositions of the Tanjore Quartet form the classical canon, or the supreme masterpieces, of Bharatanatyam.
Mural at the Big Temple - The quartet
All was going well in Tanjore until Serfoji appointed the young son of his mistress to take over temple affairs much to the disgust of the brothers and this led to their walkout from the court. The story is somewhat like this - As luck or lack thereof would have it the brothers quarreled with the King around 1830 and were promptly banished from the court due to the relationship between Serfoji and a young boy who was trained in dancing and music by Vadivelu, and due to the preference shown by the king to the boy instead of the illustrious four. It appears that the boy was felicitated during a Chittira Thiruvazha, instead of the quartet. The foursome showed their irritation by refusing to sing standing up or something of that sort. The inebriated (?) king curtailed their temple honors and that worsened the issue further, eventually resulting in their banishment.

This was in the 1830 time frame from what we can gather. When Serfoji passed away in 1832, he was succeeded by Shivaji 2 and that was when Ponnaiya and Sivanadam returned to Tanjore upon his invitation. The brothers had originally traveled to Swati Tirunal's court in Travancore at the behest of the Swati’s teacher and Dewan Subba Rao who hailed from Tanjore.

Vadivelu was then 22 years of age, and he was soon appointed as Asthanavidvan of Travancore court for 8 years. Vadivelu’s skills as a vocalist, dance expert and violinist immediately caught the fancy of Swathi Thirunal. Vadivelu was a scholar in Tamil and Telugu and his violin mastery is said to have been unmatched.  Swathi was convinced of the importance of violin to Carnatic music and he ordered it be used in concerts after gifting a rare violin made of ivory to Vadivelu, in 1834. Though people mention this often, I have not yet concluded my studies on the topic – for Vadivelu is believed to have a role in codifying and transforming the Mohiniyattom dance form of Kerala which both Swati Tirunal and his ancestors had favored in the Travancore courts. In addition to his own composition Vadivelu is known to have been the reviewer and critic of Swathi’s music and dance compositions.

Kamakshi Ammal was another accomplished singer who accompanied Vadivelu to Travancore together with the Tanjore sisters Sundara Lakshmi and Sugandha Parvathi. Kamakshi was an ancestor (her great granddaughter Jayammal was Balasaraswati’s mother) of the great dancer Blasaraswati and spent some 8 years in Travancore.

Vadivelu lived close to Karamana at Shankara Vilasom in Pazhayasala, close to the Killiyaar (parallel to the south end of Chalai Street). 

Anyway the combination of Swati Tirunal and Vadivelu resulted in the creation of many varnas, Swarajatis, Padas and Tillanas. But it is also said that they had a fall out once after which Vadivelu left Travancore and moved to Harippad. He did move back after the intervention of other senior members of the court and we often hear of the varna he composed in praise of his patron upon his return. This apparently had just the opposite effect for Swati Tirunal had changed by then, and was mentally troubled with all the problems from the British resident. Swati Tirunal’s anger at the flattery resulted in Vadivelu changing the text of the Varna ‘Sammugamu’.

He was as you recall familiar with Tyagaraja and it is said that Swati Tirunal, after hearing Vadivelu sing Tyagaraja kritis wanted vadivelu to go to Tanjore and invite Tyagaraja to Travancore. Tygaraja declined. This trip is also often mentioned and in Ulloor S Parameshwara Iyer’s poem Kattile Pattu, one can get some details of the visit and the fact that Vadivelu was robbed of his possessions, but had them returned after the robbers listened to Vadivelu playing the violin.

Vadivelu passed away in 1846. The ivory violin gifted by Swathi Tirunal can be seen at the Quartet’s ancestral home at 1818, West Main Street, Behind Brihadeswara Temple, Thanjavoor even today. Though Vadivelu himself was never married, descendants of the other brothers carried on the work and trained many great dancers of Bharatnatyam. Bharata Natya exponent Kittappa Pillai, himself trained many famous dancers such as Vaijayanthi Mala Bali, Indirani Rahman, Yamini Krishna Moorthy, Suchetha Chapekkar etc

It is also said that many of the kritis composed during Swati’s period were set in the Sopana Sangeetham slow style perfectly suited for Mohiniyattam which Swati favored. But what we see today as Swati Tirunal’s work is faster and owes the transformation to some polishing and resetting by Muthaiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi, more about it when we discuss the details later.

Inputs from RP Raja’s work on Swati Turunal

Vadivelu was the most proficient vocalist in his court and an excellent choreographer. After leaving Tanjore, and facing the wrath of Serfoji who even burnt their house (unlikely since the house is still in use), they lived in a village called Orathunadu (perhaps near Tirunelveli- Which was part of Travancore in those days) for a year or two. They reached the Travancore palace in Jan 1832 and the entourage comprised not only the four brothers but also their father Subbarayan and Chidambaram (uncle) three years after Swati Tirunal had become the ruler. Serfoji passed away in March 1832 and Sivaji who took over invited the brothers back, but only Ponnayya and Sivanandam returned. So that makes it clear that two of the brothers lived only for a few days in Travancore. Krishnaraja Wodeyar invited the brothers to Mysore and Chinnayya left Travancore for Mysore where he propagated the Mysore Bharatanatyam style and composed many kritis. Swati Tirunal constructed two houses for the brothers, Sankaravilasam for Vadivelu and Chempakasseri Veedu for Chinayya (?). Both brothers were formally employed by the court in June 1832 on a monthly salary of 15 gold varahams each. 

Until then the entire group were paid on a daily rate. But here comes a little mystery for we read that Chinnayya passed away in Trivandrum in 1839 and the government spent over 30 varahams for his funeral (other sources indicate Chinayya died only in 1856). Was that when he moved to Mysore? So why the mention of a death and a funeral? Was it done in spite since Swati was upset that he moved to Mysore? Anyway court records show that Vadivelu’s salary was doubled and that he died in 1846, and was cremated perhaps at the Puthencotta cremation ground. Six months later Swati Tiruanl also passed away, silencing the duo’s prodigious outputs. The music and dance at Swati Tirunals Natyagraha was slowly silenced, and the singers and dancers started their move again, towards British madras.

The exact period which Chinnaya spent in Mysore is not clear and many source indicate he was invited by Chamrajendra which is not correct as Chinnayya passed away even before (1856 if the later year is correct) Chamrajendra acceded the throne. Also since he composed kritis dedicated to Krishnaraja Wodeyar, he could not have passed away in Travancore in 1839.

Anyway, purists are upset and disturbed that Bharatanatyam scene today.  The Margam evolved by the Quartet in a structured manner introducing nritta and nritya, including abhinaya, to make the transition from one to the other easy and smooth fashion for the artiste and the viewer alike, is dying with the introduction of Neo classical and many other modern infusions. But then again that is how it is. Dasiattam and Ekartha gave way to Bharatnatyam, now it is mutating again, and it is but natural, for man is never satisfied…..

In upcoming articles, we will study the origins of Mohiniyattam, we will delve into Sopana Sangeetham and also spend awhile on early dasiyattam performances which caught the fancy of Europe.

Bharatnatyam – from temple to theatre – Anne Marie Gaston
Theorizing the Local -Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia- Richard Wolf Harris (Listening to the Violin article by Amanda Weidman)
Singing the classical, voicing the modern – Amanda Weidman
Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India -Davesh Soneji
Development of Sadir in the court of Raja Serfoji II (1798-1832) of Tanjore – VS Radhika
Tanjore and its Carnatic music legacy - Maddys Ramblings

Radhika’s book has in many ways been invaluable for many of my studies. It continues to provide me so much insight. 

Tanjore quartet Lineage – Sunil Kothari

Quartet Home – Hindu