Natalie Savelyeva

Kuravanji Dance Drama

According to (1), a play written in verse form is known as Kuravanji. The term "Kuravanji" refers to a woman born in "kuravar" (gypsy) family. In Kuravanji dramas, the Kurati woman plays an important role as a soothsayer. The main theme of Kuravanji is human love towards God and other human.

The gripping interest in the play is maintained by the very composition of the play itself. Apart from the theme, the rich metrical variations heighten the interest in the play. Kuavanji is a variety of smaller prabhandha that developed in medieval period (about 17 cent AD) in Tamil literature. It is one of 96 prabhandha–s and belongs to Natakatamizh. Such plays as "Kuttrala Kuravanji" and "Azhagar Kuravanji" are considered as being of great literary value.

Dance and music are two main streams of Kuravanji. Classical and light (even folk) music figure in Kuravanji.

According to (3), the Kuravanji–s stand midway between Bhagavata Mela Nataka and rustic dance drama in musical sense. Music of several songs is pure classical, but majority of Kuravanji songs are simple, in native folk tunes. The Ragas used in Kuravanji Natakas are all Rakti ragas and have powerful appeal.

The portions relating Kurati and Kuravan give fine examples of folk music. Portions of Sahityam are intervened with bright jathis.

According to (4), tradition of this drama is about three hundred years old. Kuravanji is continuation of Uparupaka tradition. Chitrakavya variety of Uparupaka could be seen in Kuravanji in delineation of Vipralambha Sringara (suffering while being separated from the lover).

Kuravanjis were performed only by women. Only exception is the part of Kattaikkaran (the herald), which was played by a male dancer.

Kuravanjis were performed by a group pf female dancers attached to the temples in form of Desi Attam or Sadir style of dance (ancestor of contemporary Bharanatyam tradition). Even today we can find a special platform in Brihadeswarar Temple (Thanjavur) where Kuravanji dance dramas used to be performed during the reign of Maratha rulers(AD 1674-1854).

Shahaji (AD 1684-1710), Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, won the name of "Apabhoja" for his patronage of letters. It was during his times that Thyagesar Kuravanji used to be perfeormed ar Tiruvarur temple in praise of the Lord Tyagesa.

During the reign of two last Maratha rulers, Tulaja (AD 1765-1787) and Sarfoji II (AD 1798-1832) the tradition of Sadir and Kuravanji achjieved a remarkable artistic growth.

Sangirasaramrita, the treatise on music and dance written by Tulaja gives some information on contemporary dance practice of Sadir. This technique was employed by devadasis and rajadasis for solo and group performaces, including annual performances of Kuravanji dance dramas during Brahmotsavam (important temple festival).

The origin of Kuravanji is traced to folk dances performed by Kurava tribes (Kuravan refers to this kind of tribe and Vanji means a woman of the hilly tract who practices fortune telling). Taken together, term Kuravanji is used to denote composition wherein the character of Kurati, a gyspsy woman, figures.

The classical Ula and Kuram types of Tamil poems influenced KuravanjiThere is one more genre of folk poetry, Kurattipattu, which are the songs of Kurati or gypsy while reading the palm.

In Kuram the verses contain dialect of kuratis. Meenakshiammai Kuram, Draupadi Kuram, Bhavani Kuram appear to be predecessors of Kuravanji.

Kulavanatakam, another type of Prabandha, along with Kuram shaped the genre of Kuravanji dance dramas.

Plot of Kuravanji

The story of the play goes as follows:

  • At beginning of some Kuravanji–s Kuttiyakaran (court clown) appears and announces the play. In between scenes a jester appears to announce the arrival and importance of the dramatis personae to the audience.
  • The heroine, a lady of youth and beauty, falls in love with the hero (King, minister or a nobleman of the place or the deity of the local shrine) while he goes in procession (pavani) through the main roads of the city.
  • Thereafter she pines for his love. The Heroine admonishes Manmada, Chandra (moon), tendral (tender breeze) and kuyil (cuckoo). She implores the clouds, winds, birds and the moon to carry her message to the hero.
  • When her maid inquires as to the cause of her distress, she tells everything and then sends her to the hero to acquaint him with her love.
  • On her way to the hero’s place, the maid happens to meet a gypsy woman (Kurati) and brings her along to the heroine to have her palm read.
  • The gypsy sings of the beauty and fertility of the hill country. Kurati gives picturesque description of her mountainous abode, glory of her tribe, wealth of her place, traditional occupations and extraordinary skills in forecasting accurately the future. She also points out her capacity to do impossible things like pierce mustard seed and make seven seas flow though it, change black color of a cow to white, etc.
  • Then she reads heroine’s palm carefully and predicts the happy consummation of her love affair with he hero. For this prediction, the gypsy is rewarded with jewelery and gifts of various kinds. She returns to her abode wearing the ornaments. On her way home, she meets her husband who is engaged in catching birds, and narrates how she obtained her new ornaments.
  • Kuravan comes out searching Kurati. He puts all sorts of questions and smart replies of Kurati are very entertaining.

Story line of Kuravanji based on example of Kuttrala Kuravanji

All Kuravanji–s have the same story line, which could be outlined as follows:

  • Invocation of divine blessings
  • Introduction of the Herald
  • Herald announces the Hero’s procession approaching the town
  • Hero is a human king, patron or the God (Lord of Kuttralam in Tirukutralam Kuravanji)
  • Heroine sees the hero in procession and falls in love with him (Vasanthavalli in Tirukutralam Kuravanji)
  • Heroine’s sufferings, she sends her Sakhi as ambassador to the hero
  • Appearance of Kurati
  • Description of wonders and beauty of hero's countryside and Kurati’s mountain homeland
  • Kurati predicts that the hero will marry the heroine
  • Wedding garland appears as a token of engagement
  • Heroine decks Kurati out in costly jewels (now the name of Kurati is mentioned, Singi or Lion–woman)
  • Singi’s husband appears (his name is Singan), he's searching for his wife with whom he had argument, in jealousy
  • He's hunting the birds with his kinsmen, but fails
  • He finds Singi and spars verbally with her and wins her back through a spirited set of exchanges that shows Singi’s independence, ability and wit
  • The play ends with Kurava couple sitting together in praise of the Gods, the Goddesses and the saints.

Subject matter of Kuravanji

In (2) the author considers three approaches to understand the subject matter of Kuravanji:

  1. Understanding the play as the story about "Kuravanji" or "Kurati" (gypsy woman or woman of Kurava tribe, a fortune teller).
  2. S.Sarada and G.Sundari considered "Kuravanji in Kuttralam" as a work divided into two sections. The first section portrays the beauty of human soul surrendering itself completely to the love of God, while the second section deals its earthly parallel in love between a woman and a man. To them the first section is of prime importance: it is a model for human religious devotion to God. The idea behind this work is "to bring out the divinity in a human being", as G.Sundari put it.
  3. Emphasizing attention on the heroine, as embodiment of the Goddess herself, not a human woman. The first portion is a tale of purely divine love in which neither partner is a human.

Hence, it not rally a model for human devotion at all... It gives a chance to put the Divine coming to life in our own worldly setting. ... the second section is written to entertain, and the fully human characters in it show just one aspect of love here, on the earth."

The first part of play is built round the heroine and her hero, all–powered and independent, in contrast to heroine who sacrifices herself completely. S.Sarada and G.Sundari see heroine as representing individual life and the hero as representing the Supreme. The Kurati is a Guru who brings these two together.

The second section is more colloquial. Kuravanji is capable and independent, Singan is in search and quest for her, he depicts human love in contrast to the spirituality of the first section.

Kuravanji–s are made to be performed on stage, dances to music that is sung to instrumental accompaniment. The dancers/actors may sing and speak as well. A certain amount of detail is provided by the author as to their musical content of these performances.

Interesting feature is that the hero himself does not appear on the stage, his presence is imaginary, thought all passion and fuss of the play is constructed round his personae and influence.

Folk element in Kuravanji

Folk elements in Kuravanji are invented thought the scenes where Kurati and her folk appear. In first part it is pravesham of Kurati, her further description of hill country, her tribe and talents. The second part is based on Kurati and Kuravan relations completely.

Folk elements of the play are many–fold: composition of the scenes featuring Kurati, language of poetry (which can be called as more colloquial then the style and tone of the scenes featuring the heroine and her pangs for the hero), style of music featuring genuine folk tunes and even the costumes of heroine, her Sakhi–s and Kurati and her tribe folk.

Drama itself takes place at some prosperous settlement, where the famous temple is located in or the residence of the king or the chief is established. Kurati is a stranger here, she descends from hills or mountain regions. She belongs to tribal culture, living in jungles, close to nature and on account of the nature. Her employment is forecasting future, healing and magic. Her folk is engaged in hunting thus getting food and means for life. As tribal hunters, migrating from place to place, kuravas are fearless, risky and independents people. They are dependent on nature, but at the same time they are attached and grateful to nature as to the strict but generous mother. Their speech and songs reflect their independence, love for freedom and worship of nature. For example, in Krishnamari Kuravanji Kurati takes the heroine to Snake–Goddess, which belongs to pantheistic pantheon of deities identified with natural powers.

Classical and folk aspects of Kuravanji

As pointed out above, Kuravanji comprises two distinct pats. The first one is centered on divine relationship between the heroine and the hero mediated by Sakhi and Kurati. The second part features Kurati in her relationship with her very human husband. Thus, first part of the play inherits classical features of Aham poetry and Sangam epics, where the persona of the heroine and the hero are archetypal, and their relationships are idealized models of human love, affection and sympathy. The characters, feelings and actions are purified of defects and mistakes inherent to human earthly relationships, idealized and raised to utmost highs of faithfulness, fidelity, devotion, etc.

The character of Kurati appears in the first part itself to contrast and balance ideal images of the heroine, the hero and the Sakhi-s. In the first pat Kurati acts as mediator between the heroine and the world of supernatural powers. Kurati herself belongs to earthy reality, she symbolizes power and strength of the nature itself. She appears and describes beauties of her hill country, thus revealing her strong connection with her land and nature. Her dress, speech and behavior differs from the heroine’s and her Sakhi–s' and may be called colloquial or folk–like.

The hero belongs to heavenly world of Gods, semi gods, kings and great heroes; the heroine and her Sakhi–s – to the world of civilized human settlements; and Kurati and Kuravan – to hills, forests, tribes, i.e. to world of nature.

The plot of the first part bears features of classical story of highly spiritual love–based devotion and surrender. The story happens at the edge of three worlds – heavens, human settlements and nature, where the nature mediates the meeting between the first two realities.

The plot of the second part is unfolded on the earth itself. This is story of human couple in situation of argument, separation, jealousy, opposition and concealment. It is full of humor and entertaining by nature. It brings audience back to the reality from the highs of spiritual worlds outlined in the first part.

Like in Bhagavatamela Natakas, patrapravesha daru are used in Kuravanjis to introduce the characters from behind the curtain held by stange hands. The verses occurring between the songs serve as the narrative links between the different darus of the story. Some of them are sung in Saveri raga without tala. Kuravanjis also comprise samvada darus, when the characters are engaged in conversation.

Abhinaya in Kuravanji depucts different shades and stages of Vipralambha Sringara, love in separation. This is a main theme of the first part of kuravanji dance dramas. The heroine (Nayaki), her close friend (Sakhi) and other friends are the main figures on the stage.

Music for kuravanjis comprises classical Carnatic ragas (majorly Rakti ragas) and simple folk tunes used to depict the character of Kurathi.

Aharya in Kuravanji theater

Costumes and stage props of Kuravanji dance dramas also feature duality of classical and folk elements represented in Kuravanji. Initially, Kuravanji were performed at temple and temple precincts, where the mandapas, night sky and holy spirit of the temple created the unique dramatic atmosphere of magic. Kuravanji–s were performed during temple festivals. For example, the earliest patron of this art was King Rajaraja Chola. He constructed a platform called Kuravanji Medai in the big temple at Thanjavur for holding Kuravanji performances during the annual festival.

Kuravanjis were performed by Devadasis (or devadiyars, temple dancers–servants of the deity). Traditionally, they wore nine yard pattu sari, colorful blouse. Pallu of sari was decorated with golden border. They wore traditional temple jewelery made of silver, gold, rubies and emeralds. The head was decorated with flower garlands.

Costumes of the heroine and Sakhi's comprise silk saris and costly jewelery (or looking like costly), as they belong to good and well–off families of prosperous settlement.

Costumes of Kurati and her attendants, her husband and his friends are tribal, made of simple materials such as leaves, feathers and cotton clothes. Decorations are made of simple beads, shells, leaves and flowers – all the gifts provided by nature. Kurati has special attributes such as small pouch for betel, magic wand made of wood, basket with medical herbs. Kuravan and his companions are hunters leaving in hills, thus they carry weapons like spear, bow and arrows, knives, etc.

Revival of Kuravanji dance dramas on contemporary stage

Kutrala Kuravanji was revived in 1944 by Rukmini Devi as a dance drama production which she choreographed at Kalakshetra. She herself used to dance the principal role of Vasanthavalli, the nayika of the drama.

Besides Kutrala Kuravanji, Rukmini Devi has produced Kannapar Kuravanji (1962) and Krishnamari Kuravanji (1971), For which later Papanasam Sivan had composed the music.

From the temple records of Brihadeswarar, we gather that from 1942 to 1946 Sarabhendra kuravanji was revived and that Kuppaiah Pillai of Tiruvidaimarudur was asked to conduct Nattuvangam and present it. One of the dancers, Rajamma, Kuppiah Pillais disciple, has now retired and lives in Tiruvidaimarudur. For a long time Sarabhendra Kuravanji was considered the property of Tanjavur palace and no outside body was permitted to perform it. It was late R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, one time the president of Tamil Isai Sangam, who had this stipulation removed. In 1950 the Temil Isai Sangam produced it is Madras with the renowned Balasaraswati playing the part of Kurathi. Later on Mrinalini Sarabhai presented it in major cities of India and abroad.

The well known Nattuvanar, Dandayudapani Pillai, had written and choreographed Chitrambalam Kuravanji, which was staged many times in Madras in 1950-ties.

Some well-known dancers like Kamala, Vijayantimala Bali, Padma Subramaniyam, and other also choreographed kuravanji dance dramas.

Kamala presented Azhagar Kuravanji in 1964 and Tyagesar Kuravanji in 1970.

In 1965 Vijayantimalas choreographed and presented her own version of Azhagar Kuravanji.

Padma Subramaniyam choreographed Viralimalai Kuravanji with help of Shyamala Balakrishnan and old devadasis from Viralimalai.

The latest Kuravanji produced in the north was Chandramauliswarar Kuravanji in Gujarati language. It was written, choreographed and composed by Anjali Merh, a disciple of Rukmini Devi, in 1977. Anjali Merh followed the example of Kutrala Kuravanji, in which she used to dance as Sakhi along with Rukmini Devi. Anjali Merh composed the music for this Kuravanji in praise of the deity of Somnath in Saurashtra.

Famous Kuravanji dramas

Azhagar Kuravanji (1840)

Whereas most of Kuravanjis are Shaivite in theme, Azhagar Kuravanji by Kavi Kunjara Bharati (1810-1896) is Vaisnavite. His original name was Kotiswaran, he became Samasthana Vidvan in the courts of Ramnad and Sivaganga. He composed this kuravanji in 1840. The story centers around Sundararaja Perumal, the presiding deity of Azhagar kovil in Madurai district. The Nayika of this kuravanji is Mohanvalli who sees Malazhagar in a procession and falls in love with him. It is said that it was first performed at Sivaganga. Kavi Kunjara Bharati is also famous for his Scanda Purana Keerthanas.

The story centers round Sundararaja Perumal, the presiding deity of Azhagakovil in Madurai district.

The play starts with an invocatory songs in praise of Vigneshwara and Subramanya. A picturesque description of Malazhaga seated in court is given. The heroine, Mohanavalli, appears, she's engaged in spots with her maids. They play ball (kummi song) when Malazhagar comes in procession. She sees him and falls in love. She sends maid to him to communicate her desires. The delay in the arrival of the hero makes her sad. In her distress she rebukes the moon and Cupid and addresses the sea. Sakhi asks her be patient and not become restless.

The gypsy woman appears. She sings songs describing glories of her tribe, their occupations, picturesque nature of their mountain abode and her skill in foretelling future. She proclaims her talents like to make rope out of sand and to draw strands out of stone. She reads heroine's palm and predicts that all her desires will be fulfilled. She gets valuable presents. The happy union takes place and play’s concluded with mangalam.

Kutrala Kuravanji

Kutrala kuavanji was written by Tirukuta Rajappak Kavirayar in praise of Lord Tirukoodanathar in 1720 (4). The author was born in at Melakaran, a village near Kutralam in Tirunelveli district. The name Tirukuta Rajappak Kavirayar was given to every successive grandson in that family ever since. It is said that nearly a century ago this Kuravanji was performed at Kutralam temple during annual festival. For many years it was staged during Navaratri festival at Brihadeswarar temple at Tanjavur. After introduction of Devadasi Bill the practice was discontinued. Sahityam of this drama is published, but original music is not traceable. Sahityam of this drama is published, but original music is not traceable.

Kuttiyakkaran opens the play as herald. He describes procession of Siva as Tirukutanathar. The Sakhi–s appear on the stage and describe greatness of the Lord. Vasantavalli is the heroine. She comes out playing ball and sakhis join her. Heroine sees procession of Lord Siva and falls in love with him. Smitten with love, she falls down. Her maids try to console her. One maid goes to Lord to pass him message of succor. Kurati comes in, she describes beauties of her native land, hills of Kuttralam, magnificent waterfalls, etc. She reads heroine's palm and predicts that Vasanthavalli fell in love with the Lord and her ambitions will soon be fulfilled. Valuable presents are given to Kurati.

Sendil Kuravanji

This dance drama is centered round the Lord of Thiruchendur shrine in Thirunelvelli district. After usual invocatory verses the heroine, Madanamohini appears on the stage in company of her friends. She sees Lord Arumuga coming in pavani (procession) and falls in love with him. She asks her friends to identify the person coming in pavani. Sakhis reply that the person is Sendil Murugan. Heroine’s love–sickness is described. One of sakhis conveys her message to Lord Muruga. Kurati from Kundamalai appears and describes in verse Vasalvalam and Dasavalam. She reads the palm and hand of the heroine. The ceremonies before reading the palm are vividly portrayed. Kurati predicts that heroine's ambitions will be fulfilled. Madamohini dreams as if she is united in wedlock to Lord Muruga. Valuable presents are given to Kurati by Kathanayaki.

Singan, Kurati’s husband, comes in searching his wife. All the anger of Singan gets quenched when he sees valuable presents obtained by his wife. Play is completed by benedictory song.

Viralimalaik Kuravanji

Viralimalaik Kuravanji was written in praise of Lord Muruga of Viralimalai (also, it was composed in honor of Subamanya Mudaliar, a descendant of Sekkizhar, great Tamizh poet, and Minister of Ragunatha Thodaiman, Ruler of Pudukottai, AD 1730-1769. But the dance drama was always construed as written in praise of Lord Murugan of Viralimalai.

This Kuravanji was enacted during the Mahashivaratri night, each year fo over 120 years.

It was performed in the hill temple of Vialimalai dedicated to Subramanya (18 miles from Thiruchirapalli).

Kuravanji begins with Thodayamangalam. The heroine of the play is Suradavalli. Kurati of the play hails from Podiamalai.

Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji

Sarabhendra Kuravanji is in praise of King Sarfoji of Tanjavur, written by the court poet Kottaiyur Sivakozhundu Desikar. Sarfoji II (AD 1798-1832) was a scholar and patron of fine arts, music and dance. He mainteined Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjavur.

In this Kuravanji the poet intersperses prose speeches with viruttam, agaval and venba giving the entire composition the form of keerthana. Many sanskrit works are used in this kuravanji. It also contains the names of ninetten of the sixty years from the Hindu calendar. Musical composition is ascribed to Ponnayya, who was the palace musician and nattuvanar.

This kuravanji used to be performed regularly at Brihadeswarar temple well into the twentieth century on the ninth day of the annual 18-day long Chaitra Brahmotsavam in April-May.

Tyageshar kuravanji

Tyagesar Kuravanji belongs to the group of sacred prabandhas. A great Tamil scholar, Muttu Kavirayar who served the court of Shahaji Maharajah (1684–1710), is believed to have composed this kuravanji.

Tyagesar Kuravanji is in praise of the Deity Tyagesar of Tiuvarur temple. Heroine’s name is Rajamohini. Kurati describes her talents as able to convert day into night and night into day and make a lotus emerge from fire.

This Kuravanji used to be enacted until recently in Devasiriya mandapam near the eastern gopuram of Tyagesar temple in Tiruvarur during Brahmotsavam festival for three nights. Till recently one of the songs, "vasalidu vasalidu"in Nadamanakriya raga describing the glory of the temple and the city of Tiruvarur was sung by Devaradiyar standing near Jali (wondow) on the southern prakara adjoining Garbhagriha (sanctum) of Sri Tyagaraja Swami, during the rituals and special ceremonies.

Devendra Kuravanji

This is a play in Mahratti by the scholar king Sarabhoji of Tanjore. Thought Kurati he gives an epitome of world geography in a series of songs.

Kumbesar Kuravanji

Kumbeswarar Kuravanji is the work of Tamil composer Papanasam Mudaliar of the 18 century in praise of Kumbeswarar, the deity of Siva temple at Kumbakonam. It used to be performed in Soolamangalam village during the years 1835-1875 on the fourth day of Vasantotsavam, temple festival of the local deity. It used to be staged by Devadasis when the bhagavatas were presenting Bhagavatamela Natakas.

The heroine in this play is Jaganmohini. This was performed in Sulamangalam, near Kumbakonam during 1835–1875 in the fourth day of Vasantotsavam of the local Deity.

Kanappar Kuravanji

Kanappar Kuravanji was composed by Navalar of Tozhuvur in 1880. It is in style known as Kuravanji pankierthanam, which means that it was intended to be used as a dance drama, in singing and in kathakalakshepam. It is about a hunter being enlightened through his devotion. Through born low, he becomes purified, so much so that he is included in the set of Saiva saints, The Aruvattimuvar and is cited as a bright example of Saivism and compassion. All the characters, except one, are hunters and kuravas, gypsies. The language is a mixture of classical and colloquial Tamil. In this Kuravanji Bhakti is accentuated instead of usual Madhura Sringara. Another difference is that the main character is male (Nayaka), the great bhakti of Lord Siva.

Refereces

  1. A History of Tamil Literature by Mu. Varadarajan, Sahitya Akademi, 1988, Delhi
  2. A Kuravanji in Kutralam. A Tamil tale of love and fortunes told. Melagaram Tirikutarasakppa Kavirayar, translated and commented by David C. Buck. Institute of Asian Studies, Chemmancherry, Chennai, 2005
  3. South Indian Music, Book VI. Padma Bhushan Prof. P. Sambamoorthi, Indian Music Publishing House, Chennai, 2006
  4. Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji. ed. A. Srinivasan. Madras: Aintinai, 1988.
  5. Kuravanji: Dance Drama by Dr. Sunil Kothari in Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986). A visionary Architect of Indian Culture and the Performing Arts, ed. by Dr. Avanthi Medhuri, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 2005
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