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


Ramachandran said...

Painstaking research.

Ramachandran said...

At the same time,depend on primary sources,rather than reproducing from RP Raja.Are u sure Raja is the last word?

Maddy said...

Thanks ramachandran
I have added two paragraphs of conclusions consolidated from RP Raja's work since he quotes from temple records. But then, I have a question on his remarks about Chinayya which I mentioned. Most of the other relevant aspects match up..

Ramachandran said...

I never thought u will publish this comment of mine,for several reasons.I knew Kizhakedam Govindan Nair,grand son of Irayimman Thampi very well.I dunno whether you have the documents published by Dr Pushpa.

Maddy said...

No I have never come across Dr Pushpa's documents. What are they about?

Maddy said...

ok - got it thanks

Radhika Ravi said...

Very enlightening to read your article on the Tanjore quartet. Would you know where Muthuswami Dikshitar lived in Tanjavur between 1817 and 1820? Was it in the quartets house 1818,west mada street? Thank you

Maddy said...

Thanks radhika
I am not sure about the address, but you can get details of the house at tiruvavur, from this link

Maddy said...

more details here

Aravind said...

Very nice research tracing the history of Tanjore Quartette.

I like to know few details as I am doing a personal research on the old ragas and these composers.

1. In Peruvudayan Perisai, it is mentioned the brothers has learnt music from MD for a period pof 7.5 years. In my analysis , MD must have been in Tanjore around the year 1800 CE, And he should have been held in high esteem that he King Serfoji requests him to train these brothers. But, not all could have been trained for a period of 7.5 years. So, 4 is applicable only for Vadivelu? Are you sure the separation of TQ from Serfoji happenbed in the year 1930 only and not earlier?

2. I have also read that arangettram in the presence of MD also happened.

These will be helpful to trace the timeline in the life od Dekshithar.

3. who is RP RAja? Sorry to ask this and pardon my ignorance.

4. Does Irayamman Thampi set his tunes to music? If it is, where can I get the original tunes?

5. You will covering about the contributions (?) of Muthiah Bhagavathar and SSI in tuning the krithis od Svati Tirunal in your next post?
Actually there is a book available which gives the krithis of Svati in the notation, even before these peopp;le arriva at Thiruvanathapuram.

Will be much happy if you can answer.

Maddy said...

Thanks Aravindhan,
1-Yes, 1830 is a likely date. I have not found any other pointers so far.
3-RP Raja is the author of 'New Light on Swati Tirunal' and a text on Iraviyamman thampi.
4- I am not sure if what we hear today is what Thampi originally set. Same answer as for Swati Tirunal.
5- Yes, I have not got to it though.. I will one day.

Aravind said...

Thanks Maddy for your inputs.

Lakshman said...

Is there a book of the compositions of the TQ in Telugu script? Thanks