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Maratha contribution to Bharatnatyam – Part 1

Niranjan Bhombe

Rushikesh Shinde

11 December 2022

"The oldest classical dance tradition in Bharat is Bharatanatyam. Bharatnatyam is a...."

.....significant type of Indian classical dance that has its roots in southern Bharat. It reflects South Indian religious themes and spiritual ideals, primarily those of Shaivism from Hinduism. Being state dance of current south indian state of Tamil Nadu, it is one of the eight internationally renowned Indian classical dance genres. Tamil region was ruled by many dynasties for several years; out of them the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom period is considered as one of the golden period in Tamil history for its contribution in the field of arts and architecture. The Maratha era in Thanjavur is where a large portion of the current Bharatnatyam repertory originates.


The Maratha rule in Thanjavur started in 1675 when it was conquered by Venkojiraje; half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who founded the Maratha Empire. Venkojiraje defeated Chokkanatha Nayak-the ruler of Madurai & further became a king of Thanjavur. Maratha rule continued for a century and a half which marked the beginning of cultural revival and blossoming of the artistic tradition. The Marathas of Tanjore maintained a separate identity from the date of its inception. The kingdom had to contend with the political resistance of diverse Muslim and Hindu monarchs on one hand and the trade concessions of Western nations on the other. They had to maintain a balance between internal and exterior groups due to the competition among them. Although there was no room for political expansion, it kept blending many civilizations. Tanjore thus became a hub of court culture.


During the Maratha period, there were frequent ownership changes. Continual waves of Telugu, Kannada, and Maratha immigrants arrived in the Tanjore region. Telugu and Maratha immigrants eventually filled the administrative positions. They received compensation in the form of large land grants known as maniams, which allowed them to amass vast estates. Since the beginning of time, dance and music have coexisted. Tamil Nadu's temple and court cultures were characterized by a prominent dancing performance. The governing households fostered this skill for generations, preserving the dance legacy. The princesses remained drawn to the courtly dance custom. Royal patronage of dance reached the pinnacle during the time of Marathas.


Devadasis and courtesans performed it as a solo form of Natya in the temples and durbars of the ruling classes, where it developed a refined style. 29 Sadir, Dasiattamand Thanjavur Natyam was its former name. The four brothers, Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandan, gave the Sadir dance a chiseled form and established a pattern and syllabus. They executed the style in contemporary fashion. They were the famed Subharaaya Nattuvanaar's (Tulaji's court musician) sons (1763-1787). They were known as the "Thanjavur quartette," and they graced the Serfoji court (1798–1832). They established the clothing code for dancers. The revered Tanjavur Quartette codified the traditional dancing format, which has earned fame. Shahuji's successor and brother Serfoji Maharaj was also a talented composer. The fact that a dance piece called "Tandava Nritya," which is a part of the Yakshagana repertoire of distant Andhra Pradesh, was in Marathi and the exponents did not even know the language was Marathi, demonstrates the breadth of the Maratha impact on the arts of the area.


Classical vocalist Aruna Sairam noted, “The art of playing mridangam as we know it today is the result of the hybridization of the Carnatic playing tradition of mridangam and the Marathi style of percussion accompaniment. The entire style of accompaniment on mridangam evolved immensely. Sakharam Rao, a great musician of the time, imbibed and incorporated many aspects of the Marathi percussion." The inclusion of Abhangs in contemporary repertory is another indication of the Maratha impact on modern Carnatic performance. The Maratha rulers of the time invited Morkarbua, a famous singer, to Thanjavur so he could establish an ashram and instruct young people in the Marathi keertankar tradition. The proponents of Maratha abhang gave the traditional "naamkeertanam" practise in the South new life, and their form's ferocious virility contributed to its rise to new levels of popularity. The costume in a painting of a Kathak dancer on a wall in the Brihadeeshwara temple was from the North, while her hairstyle was obviously influenced by the South, historian Dr. Rajashree Rajagopalan noted. She continued that some jewelry is also Maratha-inspired.


The Marathas carried on the royal patronage of art and literature. The Maratha rulers are notable for not only mastering South Indian language but also becoming consummate exponents of art and literature. The brilliant literary renaissance period was primarily due to the inspiring works of highly accomplished kings - Shahji - II, Tulaji - I, Pratapsimha, and Serfoji - II. During the Maratha period, "Dasiattam" became known as "Sadir," which is now known as "Bharatanatyam developed." The Sadir performed in temples and at court steadily improved, particularly during the reign of King Serfoji - II (1798 – 1832).


Venkojiraje Bhonsle:(1675-1684)

He was the progenitor of the junior branch of the Bhonsle family which ruled Thanjavur until 1855.A Sanskrit manuscript Bosalavamsavali narrates how Venkoji conquered Arni and proceeded to Thanjavur to liberate it from the shackles of the Nayak of Tiruchirapalli. The manuscript further narrates that while camping at Tirumalapadi near Tiruvadi, God appeared to him in a dream and asked him not to leave for home. Sanskrit and Telugu literature flourished during this period. His wife, Deepabai Ingle, wrote short verses and was the author of several devotional and philosophical poems. Ekoji's minister, Narasimha Rao, wrote several books in Sanskrit and Marathi, while the well-known Marathi poet, Raghunatha Pandita, wrote his Damayanti Swayamwara and Pativrata Dharma at this time. A contemporary Telugu work by Shivarama Kavi entitled Karnakalanidhi describes Ekoji's heroic defence of Trichi Fort from the Mysore army. Venkoji himself is said to have composed a Telugu version of the Ramayana. This paved the way for further development of literature & music & royal patronage of Thanjavur Marathas for the same.


Shahuji–I :( 1684 – 1712)

He was the oldest child of Ekoji I, the first Maratha king of Thanjavur and half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. He ruled between 1684 and 1712.Shahuji II, a scholarly king, showed a keen interest in promoting the arts and literature and over time proved to be a capable administrator who worked to make his kingdom prosperous. His close ties to revered musicians like Sadashiva Brahmendra and Bodhendra Saraswati demonstrate his keen interest in spiritual matters. By giving villages as tokens of appreciation and encouragement to academics who provided credit to literary works, he continued the historical practice of patronage. There were several luminaries attached to his court who were highly proficient is Sanskrit, Marathi and Telugu. Shahuji himself was one of the outstanding royal composers and musicologists of high repute. He also had mastery over Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi and Hindi languages and this is seen from his literary and artistic works which is in abundance. His works are Pallakiseva Prabandha, Tyagaraja Vinoda Chitra Prabandha, Chandrashekhara Vilas Nataka, and Panchabhasha Vilas Nataka. The Panchabhasha Vilas Nataka is composed in 5 languages which shows that he was not only a multilingual but had profound knowledge in literature.


His distinctive works include several lovely padas of his own deity, Tyagesha. In Sanskrit, Marathi, and Telugu, he has penned over 208 padas on a variety of subjects, including bhakti, shringara, hasya, vairagya, bhava, mangala, and niti. Every single pada perfectly combines music and thematic content and inspires dancers to express a range of feelings and thoughts as well as the many states/avasthas of the Nayika and Nayaka. He was the first royal composer of the Marathi musical plays Sita Kalyanam, Sri Krishna Vilas Nataka, and RadhaBansidhara Vilas Nataka at Tanjore. The admirers of art had referred to him as "AbhinavaBhoja."The title "Sarvadyna Chudamani," honoring him as the "heart and soul of the muse of learning," was one of many titles bestowed upon him in recognition of his skill as a judge of scholarship. Many Marathi saint poets founded various mutts in Tanjore and spread "Harikatha Kalakshepa" art, kirtana paddhati, and bhajana during his rule. Tanjore naturally evolved into a bilingual and multicultural community.


Serfoji I :( 1712-1728)

Serfoji II consolidated the hold of Marathas over the Thanjavur. Sarfoji also gave art and literature a substantial amount of patronage. He was a kind and devout king. He had also given Agraharas to Brahmins. There were still many of the academics and ministers who graced Serfoji's rule. The king demonstrated excellent military skills by preventing the Madura King from destroying the Kaveri dam. He was praised as "Vidyabhoja" and was a renowned scholar.


Stay tuned to read more about how the Marathas contributed to Bharatnatyam! Part 2 will be out soon!

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