It was the pinnacle of fine arts

(This is the last of the four-part series on music and temples.)

“Last but not the least,” is a phrase that may have been coined for the thillana! Everyone will love a thillana for its brisk, literally foot tapping beat and melody.

Scholars believe the first thillana came in the 18th century and was composed by Melatur Verabadrayya. Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer’s composition ‘Gauri Nayaka’ is considered one of the most complex. Thillanas quickly became popular among Harikatha performances, in their ability to quickly revive energy on stage, especially when Harikatha performances went on for 4-5 hours. Jati takes precedence in thillanas over sahitya. Often, the sahitya is restricted to a few words in the charanam.

Looking at composers of thillanas, the Thanjavur quartet comes first and it’s not surprising since they are credited with codifying Bharatanatyam as we know it today.

They have several thillanas to their credit in multiple ragas and languages. Many of them are similar in meaning but switch languages and patron names, all of them have a brisk tempo. They have published many of their works and the compositions can often be seen in music concerts and certainly in dance performances.

One of their finest thillanas is on one of the finest temples, the Thanjavur Brihadeswara temple. The temple was a centre for dance and has the finest Chola connections to dance today. Raja Raja’s inscriptions on the institution of 400 dancers with details of their address, procedure for replacing them (on merit and not political connections) are famous.

The sculptures of the Karanas, though incomplete, are also important for using the four hands of Siva they show the starting and finishing positions of the karana and conform to the Natya Sastra tenets. In these we see evidence of the high level of respect, popularity dance and music had in the Chola period, in general, and in the temple, in particular.

Among all the shodasa upacharas, music and dance have the highest ability to influence the emotion of the devotee and push them to act for their own good and the community. This is the core principle of the four purusharthas that form the basis of Sanatana dharma which we call Hinduism today.

The thillana ‘Dheem thanana’ in Hamsanandhi is set to Rupaka talam and composed by Ponnayya. In the charanam he says, “Oh Sankara, save me as you are the one who saves anyone who seeks your blessings, even the devas pray to you as Brihadiswara.”

The choice of the Brihadeswara temple for a thillana is appropriate since the temple was constructed at a time when music, dance and drama were more closely connected than they are today.

Raja Raja showered the temple with wealth of different types. In his time, an integral part of music compositions would have been the hymns of Sambandar, Navukkarasar and Sundarar, whose images were set up by the king and donations and jewellery were presented to them. 48 singers of these hymns were appointed, inscriptions list their names and include Manothmasivan, Purvasivan, Dharmasivan, Vamasivan and others.

Also in the congregation were an udukkai player and Kotti Madhalam player. His gift of 400 dancers and 55 other musicians is well known. Instruments mentioned include Meraviyam, Ganampadi, Vangiyam, Padaviyam, Veena, Ariyam and the conch. The Ekkalam was a wind instrument that announced the procession and the temple was gifted 13 of them in Gold.

After Raja Raja we hear less about music and dance in the temple. Rajendra Deva, the second son of Rajendra I in 1058 (almost 50 years after the temple had been consecrated), made a provision for staging a play called ‘Rajarajeswara Nataka’ at the grand festival of the deity, Rajarajeswara. We even have the name of the lead actor, Santi Kuttan Tiruvalan Tirumudukundran (Vridhachalam today) alias Vijaya Rajendra Acharyan and his troupe (varga). Evidently it must have been an enactment of how the temple was created and must have had the best of music, dance and drama of that era.

In the Maratha times, especially from 1799 to 1835, more than 20 dance dramas were staged in the temple, all of them for more than two days and some even for seven days.

A rare handwritten letter from Sivananda Nattuvanar, one of the quartette, complains to Shivaji II that the East India Company authorities are preventing him from teaching Bharatanatyam and Kathak. It is said that the Brothers are depicted in a painting of a dancing scene in the Mallapa Nayaka mantapam. The Kuravanji medai that was the stage for the performances still exists. The other famous Kuravanji enacted was Sivakozhundu Desikar’s Sarabhendra Bhoopala Kuravanji. The temple may have witnesseed many evocative but lesser known compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar on this temple.

Fortunately, the temple is still a venue for music and dance performances, and one only hopes that performers there, recognise the magnificent role the temple has played in promoting music and dance and include compositions connected to the temple, including thillanas!

(With credits to R. Kausalya, Marabu Foundation)

The author may be reached at pradeepandanusha

The choice of the Brihadiswara temple for a thillana is appropriate since the temple was constructed at a time when music, dance and drama were more closely connected than they are today.


Cyelii | 24 September 2018, 2:50

Going to put this arltcie to good use now.

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