Song of Surrender

Monday, 11 April 2016

A Trip to Tamil Nadu’s Cultural Capital

By Pradeep Chakravarthy

If there was to be an award for Tamil Nadu or even South India’s cultural capital for the classical arts there is little doubt that Thanjavur will win the award. Bharathanatyam as we know it today owes its codification to Thanjavur. Carnatic music as we know it today owes its codification to Thanjavur. The temples, palaces of the district hosted some of the finest yakshaganas and theatrical performances a few that still happen. The perennial waters of the Kaveri supported Thanjavur in becoming a cradle not only for the performing arts but painting and all crafts. 

While writing Thanjavur – A Cultural History, I yearned for the day I could read out the music and dance passages in the locations and was therefore excited to host with Priya a group of 37 guests to Thanjavur in February.

We got to know each other in the train and headed out on Friday morning with the sun being kind to us. Our first stop was Kailasa Mahal, the resting place of the kings and queens, these brick and stucco structures are a well-guarded secret even in Thanjavur and sadly are ruined and encroached. We were dazzled by the delicate workmanship. Efforts are on by the palace devasthanam to conserve the structures and this must be supported.

Our next stop was at the palace and our guide became Vijayaraghava Nayaka himself. His Telugu kavya Raghunatha Nayaka Adbhuthayamu recounts one day in the life of his father Raghunatha and deserves to be a text book in schools for the minute details it gives of life in the palace. We passed each part of the palace reading passages translated by that wonderful scholar Pandit Vishwanathan of the Sarasvati Mahal. Lists were aplenty. Lists of the king’s costume and jewels were read just outside his bathing quarters. Lists of his elephants next to the stables, the story of Kshetrayya and his Yadukula Kambodhi Padam Vadarakka Po Poove outside the Sangeetha Mahal and details of the more than 30 dishes in the king’s feast next to the Rama Sowdham. His image in bronze captivated us as did two of South India’s earliest bronze Vishnu images casually heaped into the corner of a display case.

The small museum of the Sarasvati Mahal Library had very few of its vast music and dance manuscripts on display but the painted manuscripts, the tablets made in Maratha hospitals and the Thanjavur paintings had our attention riveted. We also went to see the Shiva Sowdham that has many Hamsa birds carved into the ceiling and pillars to remind the king to reward only the best poets. How many 1000’s of anklets and instruments these pillars would have heard!

Moving upstairs into Serfoji II’s private audience hall, we played TM Krishna’s rendition of Kanakangi in Todi. He is able to wring every last bit of yearning from the notes and it was not difficult for us to imagine devadasis' dancing to the same song in the same room in the 19th century.

On the way back to the hotel, passing Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple on the West Main street  and the veena makers in the South Main street, we had more music to listen to. Sangam hotel had recreated recipes from 18th century court recipe books like the Sarabendra Pakashatra for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian tastes and we appreciated the unique blend of spices and gravies with many pages of recipe jotting. After all, what is the Thanjavur delta without good food and vethalai paaku?

The focus in the afternoon, after a quick visit to a church Serfoji II built for his dear mentor Father Schwartz, we spent time in Thanjavur's greatest gift to the world, the Brihadeeswara temple. I sang Karuvur Devar’s verse in Ahiri to the grand Adavallan image – the only one that remains from all the images Raja Raja gifted to the temple. Much time was spent on the inscriptions that detailed land and houses given to the dancers – all of them with clear door numbers, the list of gold musical instruments gifted and details of the plays enacted in the temple, including one that was also enacted in Thiruvidenthai near Madras!

The next day we headed out to another forgotten gem – the Maratha fort of Mahadevapatnam – near Mannargudi. Built by the second Maratha king, the temple an exquisite structure in brick is in ruins but the fort campus inside filled with coconut trees is idyllic. When the temple was built, Tulaja I wrote and had performed Shivakami Sundari Parinayamu and Navneet Krishnan was kind enough to sing a daru from the dance drama – this must be the first time in more than 300years the walls reverberated with the same raga and Sahitya!

On the way back we listened to a few songs on the Mannargudi Rajagopala but after listening to Viribhoni by the immortal MS, what other songs can we remember. The temple was another venue to read translations of many other yakshaganas that deserve to come back to stage. WE ended our Mannargudi stay with a sumptuous thalai vazha elai (full banana leaf) meal with the lip-smacking elai vadam or rice gruel dosa that we roll of the wet banana leaf and eat. 

On the way back as we entered Thanjavur we spent a few minutes outside one of India’s largest forgewielded cannons that has not rusted even now named Rajagopala Beerangi. Photos taken, we glimpsed the Vellai Pillayar temple that has an interesting Kuravanji on the temple as we headed back to catch our train.

The stunning architecture, music, dance and theater got the group together and gave us enough energy to wish for a wonderful year ahead and remind ourselves of Thanjavur’s stellar contribution to the performing arts.

Future tours this year will be to Pudukottai, Vellore and Tirunelveli to see the Kaisika Natakam in December. We are always looking at ways to incorporate the performing arts into the temples we visit. If you can help, connect with us on pradeepchakravarthy75@gmail.com

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