Thanjavur and the Courtly Patronage of Devadasi Dance

From the mid-1670s, Thanjavur was ruled by the Marathi-speaking Bhosala clan from North India, until it came fully under British control in 1856. As Marathi-speaking people running a kingdom administered in the Telugu language, and ruling over a Tamil-speaking population, the Maratha kings developed a uniquely hybrid and innovative courtly culture. Dance, music and literature in all of these languages (plus Sanskrit, Hindi and later English) was patronized and supported by the court. The rich aesthetic heritage of the devadasis embellished the courtly culture more than ever before. The Maratha court also encouraged writing by such women. The most notable example is that of Muddupalani, a woman from King Pratapasimha’s court, who wrote a masterpiece of Telugu literature called Radhika Santvanamu (“Appeasing Radhika”). This highly erotic work describes Krishna’s love for his new young wife Ila, and Radha’s feelings of jealously that follow. Published for the first time in 1887, it was banned as an “immoral work” by social reformers in 1911, and in the same year was re-published by a defiant devadasi, Bangalore Nagaratnammal. Its precarious authorship by a devadasi and much of its erotic contents are still the source of much debate in contemporary South India.

King Serfoji of Thanjavur (r. 1787-1832) The second-last king of Thanjavur, under whose patronage courtly dance was radically transformed and hybridized. Photography Hari KrishnanIn the year 1799, the English-educated king of Thanjavur, Serfoji II (r. 1787-1832), signed a treaty with the East India Company. From then on, Thanjavur was a British province, though the king and family were guaranteed certain privileges, including an annual income of twelve hundred thousand rupees, and the right to collect revenue in a few towns. Serfoji himself commissioned nirupanas – clusters of court dances in the Marathi language that included a series of new dance genres such as serva, tarana and triputa along with existing genres such as varnam, abhinaya pada and sabda – couched in the context of a linear narrative presentation. These were written down in the form of Marathi texts referred to by their Tamil name, korvai (“link” or “chain”). Building on the already existing genres such as those from the Marathi nirupanas commissioned by Serfoji, a group of fourdance-masters known as the Thanjavur Brothers (tanjai nalvar) created a systematized format for the hitherto diffused and somewhat random presentation of court (or “concert”) dance.

Chinnaiya (1802-56) and Ponnaiya (1804-64) were the eldest among the four brothers known as the Thanjavur Quartet. This painting, likely commissioned during the reign of king Sivaji II (r. 1832-1855) is located in the house on West Main Street in Thanjavur city which was gifted to the Quartet’s family a generation before they were born. Photography Cylla von Tiedemann

Their re-visioning of the court repertoire consisted of seven primary genres: alarippu, jatisvaram, sabdam, varnam, padam, javali and tillana. The ethos of this repertoire was situated within the courtly aesthetic realm of bhoga (enjoyment), with the primary agent in the poetry of the songs being the dancing woman herself. By the nineteenth century, the dance had a hybrid vocabulary and was a regular part of courtly displays of ritual at the Thanjavur palace.

Serfoji’s son Sivaji II ascended the throne in 1832, and in 1856, the kingdom was fully annexed to the East India Company. With this, cultural patronage in the city of Thanjavur officially collapsed, and most dancers and musicians moved to Madras city, turned to the smaller feudal kingdoms (zamindari samasthanams) for patronage, joined emergent Tamil theatre companies, or left the practice all together.

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