Natalie Savelyeva

Repertoire of devadasi and court dancers in 18-20 centuries as described in texts

Sangita Saramrita attributed to KingTulaja I (1729-35)

Sangita Saramrita is a Sanskrit text attributed to King Tulaja I. It contains the section dedicated to dance, "Nritta-prakaranand" (which was not completed). This section contains description of basic movements of dance (adavus), methods of dance teaching and practice. Telugu and Tamil words are used to denote basic steps and movements.

The author cites the following medieval Sanskrit texts: Sangita Ratnakara of Sarangadeva, Sangita-muktavali of Devenacharya and the Nrittaratnavali of Jayappa.

Kumarasambhava Nirupana attributed to Serfoji Maharaja II (1798-1832)

This text retells the poem Kumarasambhavam (the birth of Kumara, Scanda) by Kalidasa through a series of songs meant for dance.

The court of King Serfoji II produced a cluster of nirupanas (the series of dance genres) such as Sherva, Tarana, and Triputa along with existing genres such as Varnam, Abhinaya pada, and Shabda.

The genre called Sherva in the texts consists of three sections, called Tattakara, Alaru and Aditya.

The parts of the Sherva (which is translated as "Sabhai Vanakkam" or "Song of Greeting to the Audience") are very similar in structure to Alarippu, the piece that begins the concert or court performance.

The first section of the Sherva is called Tattakara. It consists of the recitation of a single line of vocalized rhythmic syllables or cholkattu (like "ta-thay-yai thai dat-tatta"). The dancer would enter the stage with these sounds, while stamping her feet on the ground.

The second section, Alaru, is like the Alarippu (called after the Telugu word "alaru", which means tower or blossom). In this section, configuration of syllables that looks almost exactly like the Alarippu (as defined by the Quartets) is used. It ends with another form of Tattakara, this time to the accompaniment of the sounds "digi digi digi".

The composition ends with a section called Aditya, which brings closure to the piece. This fragment of cholkattus bears a resemblance to a short tirmanam (which means "flourish") that now a days concludes most rhythmic sequences.

Thanjavur Brothers

The Thanjavur Brothers, Chinnaiya, Ponnaiya, Shivanandam, and Vadivelu, descended from a clan of musicians who were patronized by the Nayaka and Maratha courts. Their earliest traceable ancestor is one Gopala Nattuvanar (b. 1638) who served in the Rajagopalasvami temple at Mannargudi, and was a chief musician of the court of King Vijayaraghava Nayaka in the seventeenth century.

At the decline of the Nayaka rule in Thanjavur, this family moved to Madurai, and later to Tirunelveli.

During the rule of King Tulaja II (r. 1763-87), three descendants of the family, the brothers Mahadevan (1734-91), Gangaimuttu (1737-98) 3 and Ramalingam (dates unknown) were invited back to the Thanjavur court.

The present home of K.P. Kittappa Pillai on West Main Street in Thanjavur was gifted to the family at this time by Tulaja II. Gangaimuttu had two sons, Subbarayan (1758-1814) 4 and Chidambaram (dates unknown).

Subbarayans sons were the Thanjavur Brothers.

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. He later moved to the Mysofe court of Krishnaraja Udaiyar III (1811-68). Among the compositions of the Quartette, a few are dedicated to Krishnaraja Udaiyar III. Those compositions are the creations of Chinnaiya. He also wrote a Telugu text called Abhinaya Lakshanamu, a reworked version of the Sanskrit Abhinayadarpana of Nandikeshvara.

Ponnaiya (1804-64) was prolific composer among the brothers. Systematization of the Sadir Kacheri (concert dance repertoire) 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. Ponnaiya also set the mettu (tunes) for the Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji, a text that eulogized King Serfoji II by incorporating him into a Tamil literary genre performed in temples by devadasis. This Kuravanji continued to be performed at the Brihadishvara temple in Thanjavur well into the twentieth century on the ninth day of the annual 18-day long Chaitra Brahmotsavam in April—May.

Thanjavur Brothers divided court repertoire into seven primary genres for the solo female court dancer: Alarippu, Jatisvaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, Javali, and Tillana. These represented, in a well balanced manner, both abstract dance technique (Nritta) and textual interpretation (Abhinaya).

The aesthetic experiments of the brothers, Ponnaiya and Vadivel in particular, were tested by three prominent female dancers: Kamalamuttu of Tiruvarur, Sarasammal of Thanj avur, and Minakshi of Mannargudi, who likely performed at the Maratha darbar.

In 1834, the Quartet were banished from Thanjavur because of a tryst with King Serfoji II, and moved temporarily to Travancore.

Abhinayasarasamputa and Abhinaya Navanita by by Chetlur Narayana Ayyangar

One of the earliest examples of a printed work on dance is a Tamil work entitled "Abhinayasarasamputa" (Vessel Containing the Essence of Abhinaya) by Chetlur Narayana Ayyangar, published in 1886. This work, and its companion, a text called Abhinaya Navanita (Refined Essence of Abhinaya) were edited by V. Raghavan and published in 1961 by the Madras Music Academy.

The Abhinayasarasamputa is divided into six sections dealing with a range of topics related to the theory and practice of abhinaya, from discourses on Rasa and Nayika, to the various typologies of head and neck movements and hand gestures, all based on the Abhinayadapana by Nandikesjwara.

The final section is entitled "Bhava Prakasham" (Illuminations on Bhava). It notates word by word abhinaya for twenty padams in Tamil and Telugu, including Tamil compositions by Subbarama Ayyar and Telugu padams by Kshetrayya, and also suggestions how to perform abhinaya for each word in the text of the song.

Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam by Gangaimuttu Pillai (1837-1920)

This Tamil work was written in Tirunelveli in the year 1898.

Gangaimuttu Pillai himselfwas a nattuvanar employed by the Minakshi temple in Madurai.

Two other Tamil works, "Sabharanjita Chintamani" and "Sangita Bharata Sara Sangraham" are also attributed to him.

Like the work of the Thanjavur Quartet, the "Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam" also seeks to document older compositions that appear to be declining in current practice. The older compositions preserved herein are largely Telugu Shabdams. Some of these appear to be compositions of Bharatam Kashinathayya, and thus date back to the time of Shahaji Maharaja (1684-1712), who is thought to have been Kashinathayyas patron (Ramayana Shabdam, Tripurasamhara Shabdam, a Salam Shabdam on King Pratapasimha, Gopala Shabdam, Venkataramana Shabdam, Mukunda Shabdam, Kodandarama Shabdam, likely a composition of the Quartet, and Subrahmanya Shabdam, all recorded in the first part (purvabhagam) of the Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam.)

In addition to courtly compositions such as the Shabdams, the early part of the Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam also presents us with devadasi temple repertoire, in the form of ritual dances called "Kavuttuvam". The text contains the full cluster of the nine famous Navasandhi kavuttuvams, and in addition, nine other kavuttuvam compositions. In the form of the kavuttuvams these rituals were performed by devadasis at the Thanjavur Brihadishvara temple and the Madurai Minakshi temple until 1946 in Thanjavur and 1955 in Madurai.

The Navasandhi kavuttuvams are a set of nine compositions that invoke the deities of the eight cardinal directions (called lokapalas or dikpalas) plus the god Brahma in the centre (Brahmasthanam) of the temple during a major festival (Mahotsava). The ritual is accompanied by the worship of the structure called Balipitha (seat of offering), and thus is thought of as part of a larger offering often called Balidana or Baliharana.

The texts of the songs of the Navasandhi kavuttuvam are descriptive in nature. The both Sanskrit terms (such as the Krantaka karana movement from the Natyashastra, and hand gestures Pataka and Arala mentioned as those used to depict Vayu in the Abhinayadarpana) and Tamil terms, (including the names of the basic pans (ragas) of ancient Tamil music) are used in the text.

The other kavuttuvams found in Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam are the following: Ganapati kavuttuvam (on Ganesha); Subramaniyar kavuttuvam (on Murugan); Sirkali Campantar kavuttuvam (on the nayanar Tirujnanasambandar); Chidambara Natesar kavuttuvam (on Shiva-Nataraja); Tiruvalankadu Kali kavuttuvam (on Kali); Tiruchengodu Vishnu kavuttuvam (on Vishnu); Srivilliputtur Nachiyar kavuttuvam (on the alvar Andal); Madurapuri Chokkar kavuttuvam (on Shiva-Chokkanatha of Madurai); and Darukavanam Mahalinga kavuttuvam (on Shiva-Mahalingasvami of Tiruvidaimarudur).

Of these, four (those on Ganesha, Murugan, Nataraja, and Tirujnanasambandar) were among the five Panchamurti kavuttuvams sung by the descendants of the Thanjavur Quartet every year during the festival of Tiruvadirai (also known as Arudra Darshana) at the Brihadishvara temple. These four songs plus another kavuttuvam on the saint Chandikeshvara would be sung by the dance-master as they played the cymbals (talam) while the processional image of Shiva as Somaskanda would be taken around the temple grounds.

Abhinaya Svayambodhini (1915) by Devulapalli Viraraghavamurti Shastri

Abhinaya Svayambodhini is a Telugu text written by Devulapalli Viraraghavamurti Shastri in Kakinada in the year 1915.

In the preface, the author explains why he has written this text. He claims that the repertoire of the Andhra devadasis is fast disappearing before his very eyes, and thus, this is perhaps the first conscious attempt to document the living traditions of the Godavari Delta for posterity.

The text consists of four sections (Adhyayas):

  • The first is an assemblage of concert music songs (kirtanas and svarajatis);
  • the second is purely devoted to Padavarnams;
  • the third is dedicated to Kshetrayya padams; and
  • the fourth, deals with theory and dance technique such as Shirobhedas, Drishtibhedas, Grivabhedas (movements for the head, eyes and neck), and Hastas (hand gestures) and their applications.

The fourth section clearly follows the codification in the Abhinayadarpana.

The description of each composition includes the sahitya plus suggestions for how to interpret each word or phrase through abhinaya. The author states, that he got these abhinaya suggestions from the devadasis of the Godavari Delta region. The text also contains several compositions of the Thanjavur Quartet, indicative of their popularity in the Godavari region at the turn of the century.


  1. Inscribing Practice: Reconfigurations and Textualizations of Devadasi Repertoire in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-century South India by Hari Krishnan.
  2. Abhinaya Sara Samputa. Chetlur Narayana Ayyangar and Abhinaya Navanita, Chetlur Narayana Ayyangar and Tanjore Panchapagesa Nattuvanar, ed. V. Raghavan. Madras: The Music Academy, 1961.
  3. Abhinaya Svayambodhini. Devulapalli Viraraghavamurti Shastri. Kakinada: Sarasvati Mudrakshara Shala, 1915.
  4. Adi Bharata Kala Manjari. ed. K.P. Kittappa and K.P. Sivanandam. Madras: Natyalaya, 1964.
  5. Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji. ed. A. Srinivasan. Madras: Aintinai, 1988.
  6. The Dance Compositions of the Tanjore Quartet. ed. K.P. Kittappa and K.P. Sivanandam. Ahmedabad: Darpana Publications, 1961.
  7. Natanadi Vadya Ranjanam. Gangaimuttupillai. Tirunelveli: Union Central Press, 1898.
  8. Natya Pattisai: Tanjai Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji. ed. K.P. Kittappa and Gnana Kulendran. Thanjavur: Tamil Palakalaikkalagam, 1994.
  9. Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, Subbarama Dikshitar (5 vols), ed. B. Rajam Ayyar and S. Ramanathan under the supervision of L. Venkatarama Iyer, C. Venkatarama Iyer and V. Raghavan. Madras: The Music Academy, 1961-83.
  10. Tanjai Nalvarin Natya Isai. ed. K.P. Kittappa Pillai. Chennai: The Music Academy, 1999.
  11. Tanjai Peruvudayan Perisai. ed. K. Ponnaiya Pillai. Madras: 1940.
  12. Gita Govinda with Abhinaya. ed. K. Vasudeva Sastri. Thanjavur: Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji Sarasvati Mahal Library Society, 1950.
  13. Sangita Saramrita. ed. S. Subrahmanya Sastri. Madras: The Music Academy, 1942.