Era of the opera

I n ancient Tamil Nadu, dance, music and drama were closely intertwined and it is not always easy to separate these three art forms. Ancient Tamil literature mentions nadagam and koothu. Many of these references are from texts in the third and fourth centuries. In the Perumkathai, a work of the eighth century, there is a reference to the entry of the ‘Koil Nadaga Kuzhu' or the drama troupes of the temple.

Inscriptions related to theatre and plays are rare in temples. The few there are provide a fascinating glimpse of a different genre of plays. Here the accent was more on the dance and the music making the play a grand opera where emoting was probably not the highest priority and the dialogue in appropriate ragas was left to convey the emotion.

Architectural wonders

The Pallavas were among the earliest rulers and they are best known for the architectural wonders of Mahabalipuram. The Tigers' cave en-route to Mahabalipuram is said to have been a theatre by many scholars.

The Thanthondreeswara Siva temple in Kanchi sheds light on Pallava's love for drama. On the temple walls are sandstone bas reliefs.

Seemingly independent carvings, they tell the story of the Mattavilasa Prahasana or the ‘Farce of the Drunken Sport' authored by King Mahendravarman I (590-630) according to the Mamandur Cave temple inscription. This king who created the first cave temple in Tamil Nadu was also the father of the creator of Mahabalipuram – Narasimhavarman. He also authored the Bhagavad-Ajjuka Prahasana, or ‘The Farce of the Pious Courtesan.' Both these farces of the sixth-seventh centuries are happily still with us and have been translated from the Sanskrit original to English and German. An important point to note is that there is no evidence in either of these plays that the dialogue was to be sung which is the usual practice with plays in this period. The Mattavilasa Prahasana, unlike most literary works, speaks of the infamous side of Kanchipuram too. Its brothels and wine shops are mentioned and snide remarks made to the offbeat sects that populated Kanchi from the Hindu and Jain religions. In a few instances, the king does not leave himself out too!

If the Pallavas used drama to promote and assert their hegemony, the Cholas had different ideas.

The most exhaustive drama related inscription is from the Big Temple. In 1016, Rajendra, son of Raja Raja I, assigned a daily allowance of paddy to a troupe of actors who had to perform a drama, called Rajarajeswara play, in the Rajarajeswara temple on the occasion of an annual festival in the month of Vaikasi. Two years later, in the sixth year of his reign, the king further ordered that the previous donation should be engraved on the stone wall of the temple. This inscription can still be seen but we have lost the text of the play. It was in all possibility a play on Raja Raja and the temple that he built as well.

Another inscription that refers to the enactment of a play is in the Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple. Here again the donor is Rajendra and the donation was made jointly with a dancer close to the king called Paravai. The lady is here referred to by the honorific ‘Thalaikolli' which was a title bestowed to senior dancers in ancient times. The play here is again on another Chola King - Virachola Anukkar and the play was performed by Poonkoyilnaya-kattalaikoli composed by Poonkoil Nambi. Clearly the Chola kings were adept at using this art form as a means to propagate their own power and position and devotion to God as well. Today's use of the media for political purposes has therefore a long history in our country.

Drama continued to be a popular form of entertainment in temples in later years.

The Thanjavur Nayak King Achutappa endowed the village and land of what is today called Melattur where the Bhagavata Mela dance-drama takes place. This and Saliyamangalam are special cases where the villagers stage plays as an offering to the deity in the temple.

Achutappa's wife Thirumalamba authored the play ‘Bhakta Sanjivi' and staged it at Srirangam.

The Madurai Nayaks and Thanjavur Marathas also patronised drama in temples and we have several manuscripts though the tunes are lost.

The advent of cinema and the weakening of the temple as a social institution ended the temple's role as a patron for this art form.

( The author can be contacted on pradeepandanusha@

If the Pallavas used drama to promote and assert their hegemony, the Cholas had different ideas


Gertie | 21 September 2018, 8:58

That's not even 10 miuents well spent!

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