The Kuravanji Story

Kuravanji, now popular as dramatised in dance, is placed among the minor literary genres in Tamil (‘sitrilakkiyam’). The spread of this form can be traced from the 17th century. In a sense, this is a composite category, amalgamating elements like ‘kura-p-paattu’, ‘ula’, figuring in Sangam and later literature. ‘Kurathi’, may now convey a nomadic gypsy image, but the Tamil tradition accords a dignified place for the tribe, with its own ethos and accomplishments. The ‘Valli’ association has given enhanced pride and pedigree to the clan and the ‘kurathi’ character is ‘seen and heard’ often, referring to this fact. Women poets of the Sangam period included some from this clan.

If a typical lingo is conveyed through the lyrics in the Kuravanji-s, the lilt is accentuated through appropriate music-setting and also in the mime and movement; the check-pattern skirt costume, ‘reserved’ for this character is also a distinct feature. This genre has also evoked enough interest to undertake many research works. Available data indicate names of more than 100 Kuravanji-s; however, the lyrics, in full or in parts, may be available for just half the number. Among these, some have been part of the temple-related repertoire, as for example, the Tyagesar and the Kumbhesar Kuravanji-s. In the case of the Sarabhendra Bhoopala Kuravanji, with a king as the hero, it has been presented in the Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjavur during the festival occasion.

As regards stage presentation, the Kutrala Kuravanji, may be referred to as a trendsetter in many respects. The ‘kurathi’ item became a stock, if sterotyped, ‘tukkada’ in many solo programmes of Bharatanatyam also. The theme and the story line of the Kuravanji conform, mostly, to a pattern: a heroine intensely in love with a Divinity or a dignitary, seeking union, comforted by a companion (‘tozhi’), appearance of a ‘kurathi’ (‘singi’) well versed in soothsaying, cheering the distressed lady with a favourable prediction about the fulfilment of her desire and getting amply rewarded, the ‘kurathi’s husband (‘singan’) finding her after a long wait and search, initially angry and also suspicious about the gifts, ultimately getting convinced, all ending in a joyous mood. While the ‘kurathi’ element is common, other characters, locations and landscapes, references to legends, style of narration, etc. vary in specification, in the different Kuravanji-s.

In the current festival series, two Kuravanji presentations, one familiar and the other relatively less known, have proved hits, due mainly to the quality of music and dance.

 Viralimalai Kuravanji

Viralimalai Kuravanji, presented by Padma Subrahmanyam and Nrithyodaya artists, at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, evoked total appeal. The production is based on the research of the late Shyamala Balakrishnan, Padma’s sister-in-law, retaining the original music of the work composed more than 200 years ago. With Padma as the kurathi, adding dimensions to the characterisation, and Bharatanatyam dancer and actor Vineeth, as the ‘kattiyakkaran’ and ‘singan’, there was no dull moment. The dancers, portraying the other main roles—Rajamohini (Nandhita Prabhu), friend Suradavalli (Gayatri Kannan), and sakhi (Ashwini) were quite competent and lively. The orchestral support was very effective; the involved performances by the vocalists, Vidya Kalyanaraman and Radhika, Sudhaman (mridanga) and Kannan (veena and khanjira) contributed substantially to the total quality.

Ardhanareesar Kuravanji

Ardhanareesar Kuravanji (aka Thirucchengottu-k-kuravanji) was presented at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium during the series organised by Kalapradarsini. This Kuravanji gained wider notice after the publication of the lyrics by the U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer Library in 2002. It has some interesting distinctions. According to the Publisher’s note, the author was a lady poet named Poongkothai. The date assigned to the work is early 17th century, making it the earliest available in such literature. The language and the style excel in many aspects. Appropriate verses were selected and set to music for the dance presentation in an exquisite manner by musician S. Rajeswari. The variety in the raga and tala scheme was imaginative, to suit the different situations like entries, descriptive narration, reflective mood, etc., heightening the impact. 

Priya Murle as Mohanangi was resplendent and restrained. Lavanya Ananth as ‘tozhi’ was aptly impish without overacting. Roja Kannan as the kurathi stole the show through winsome articulation that was appealing. N. Srikanth’s depiction of the ‘singan’ in various moods—assertive, angry, suspicious, and finally pacified, was on the fast track. The stage space at the venue was a constraint for his expansive angika and movements. For the same reason, the opening scene depicting the ‘bhavani’ (procession of the deity), in the mallari with as many as eight dancers, was clustered. The temple backdrop used was odd and unrelated to the ‘location’ and not relevant to the particular Kuravanji. The show had a full house sitting through and a standing ovation at the end. This is a praiseworthy addition to the repertoire.