Rajaraja Chola And The Dance

The Chola emperor Rajaraja I, the thousandth year of whose enthronement was celebrated with pomp and ceremony in Tanjavur recently, was a great patron of music and dance. During his rule of thirty years, he gave his people not only economic prosperity but the enjoyment of the arts as well. Ample evidence is available to bear this out, according to archaeologist Dr R. Nagaswamv. The following report based on archaeological findings has been furnished by Dr Nagaswamy.

The Brihadiswara temple in Tanjavur was the crowning; achievement of Rajaraja. The temple inscriptions have a wonderful tale to tell of the king who, with meticulous care, laid the foundation for the Tamil ethos reflected in the sustained love of the Tamils for music and dance. Among; the inscriptions in the temple (originally called Rajarajeswara) are two, one relating; to dance and the other to music, and from them can be gleaned the invaluable contribution of the emperor to dance, particularly to what has later come to be known as Bharatanatyam. T h e inscriptions reveal that when the great temple was completed, Rajaraja transferred four hundred dancing girls known for their accomplishments in various temples of Chola Mandalam to the grand edifice. He wanted that the girls performing in the great temple should be highly proficient in their art. They were to perform exclusively in the Rajarajeswara temple during daily rites and festivals.

He built a colony for them around the temple, allocated a house to each of them and arranged for annual payments of paddy in perpetuity. This ensured their uninterrupted service. The concentration of hundreds of talented dancers in one temple, performing daily, probably raised the art to such perfection that Tanjavur must have resembled a veritable heaven of dance. Many of the dancers came from Tiruvarur and Palaiyarai — the greatest centres of dance before Rajaraja's time — and other well-known centres. Some of them bore the names of Chola queens — Cholamadevi, Kundavai, Rajaraji and so on — perhaps a testimony of their excellence. Names like Madanvalli and Kamamohi probably indicated voluptuous beauty, while Karanavidyadharni, Madhuravachaki and similar names pointed to mastery over special fields of dance.

One girl was called Nakkan Chaturi, that is, a clever and dextrous dancer. As a group, the dancing girls were known as Taliccheri pendugal, while in other contemporary inscriptions they were described as Devar adival-s or Rishabha taliyilar-s. In Rajaraja's time, conducting a dance service was an elaborate affair involving nattavanam (now called nattuvangam), vocal music, instrumental music and a variety of percussion instruments. The inscriptions mention six nattuvacharyas, several vocalists, three flutists, two veena players and five players of an instrument called pataka. The list also mentions three who played the conch and two who played kottumaddalam. Pakkavadya players (a word still in use) also included those who played the udukkai and sagadai. Several musicians and instrumentalists were drafted from military regiments which maintained their own musical troupes. Two other classes of dancers are mentioned in the inscriptions. First, there were five male dancers who could sing, dance and play musical instruments and whose performance was called Kottu Attu Pattu. They were dance-dramatists like the four male dancers belonging to the second class of dancers called paanan. An interesting title conferred on both these classes of dancers was Chakkai, close to Chakkiar which is the term used to describe present day Kudiyattam dancers in Kerala.

T h e Paanans were accompanied by female dancers called Virali, identical to the modern Nangaiyars dancing with the Chakkiars of Kerala. Today, this dance-drama form has lost much of its classical quality and in Tamil Nadu survives only as Terukoothu (street-play). There is more testimony regarding the excellence achieved in dance in Rajaraja's time, in the form of Chola frescoes and sculpture in the Tanjavur temple. On the back wall of the main sanctum is depicted a scene of celestial dancers who are shown as moving through the air, welcoming saints. Their flowing movements and the bhava-s on their faces surpass in beauty even the best Ajanta frescoes, while another figure of a dancing girl is a perfect portrayal of the prishta swastika pose. Created by master artists, these dance panels depict the enchanting beauty of the dancers and their mastery over mudra-s, their anga bhava-s and the emotions evoked by them.

Besides, in the upper storey of the sanctum walls, Lord Siva is depicted in sculpture, performing the one hundred and eight natyakarana-s of Bharata. Rajaraja was perhaps the first Indian ruler to have portrayed the natyakarana-s in sculpture. Amidst the wealth of available evidence, the Siva dance in sculpture speaks most for the kind of dance patron Rajaraja was. Rajaraja's love for the dance did not spring from ephemeral values but from his deep devotion to the Supreme Cosmic Dancer. The main deity of the great temple was visualised as the Paramananda Tandava Murti and dance constituted the main form of worship. It was yoga, natyayoga, leading the devotee to lay a — the dissolution of the individual ego in the cosmos. [Pataka, Kottumaddalani, Udukkai and Sagadai are all percussion instruments. In the prishta swastika pose, the dancer twists her torso so that she sees in the opposite direction.)

Published in 1985