(Last Updated on : 28/01/2013)
The depiction of plays in Tamil literature
provides a wealth of information about the ancient dramas and plays that were composed and performed during the ancient period in the Tamil country. Theatres, plays and troupes of actors have existed in the Tamil country from the ancient period. According to the various works in Sangam literature
, musicians like panars, dancers like, porunar, kuttar and viraliyar gained immense popularity in ancient Tamil Nadu
and contributed much to the art of drama in India. Moreover, as adequate importance was given to dance and music during that era, Tamil plays developed too much extent and was admired in the ancient Tamil country. The work of Tolkappiyam
mentions about the conventions of theatre while describing the 8 emotions or rasas.
As these initiate on the stage, thus they could be comprehended only by those spectators who consisted of keen sensitiveness. In the section identified as meyppattiyal in the Tamil work Tolkappiyam, all these are elaborately explained. Meyppattiyal further reveals that the poet narrated all the literary emotions from the view point of dramatic art. In earlier period, plays and dramas developed along with dance. As both of the performing arts are similar in various aspects, the grammatical work of Tolkappiyam mentions very little about the art of dance separately. But there are several references to other forms of dances and folk dances which were based on the accounts provided in the Tamil epics such as the Manimekalai
and the Cilappatikaram
References found in the different epics and other grammatical works in Tamil literature depicts the presence of various forms of dramas in the Tamil land. The earliest dramas were not preserved as properly as the scholars protected the ancient Tamil poems. Thus a huge collection of ancient poetic literature, referred to as the Sangam classics, is still available. But not even a single collection of ancient Tamil plays are in existence. The Tamil people, who had witnessed and enjoyed the plays and dramas, also did not take any steps to conserve them. According to the descriptions related to plays in Tamil literature, plays and dramas were categorised into two segments, Potuviyal and Vettiyal, in the early periods. Vettiyal was exclusively meant for the enjoyment of kings and other noble men; and Potuviyal was meant for the common populace.
During the medieval age, the Tamil works were segregated into 3 different categories, which were Iyal (prose), Icai (poetry) and Natakam (drama). As a result of the categorization the Tamil language obtained the name muttamil, or 3 kinds of Tamil, that is prose, poetry and drama. The commentator of the Tamil grammatical work of Iraiyanar Kalaviyal has stated the names of some of the Tamil plays. Some of the plays amongst them describe the rules and the dramatic conventions. Atiyarkkunallar, in his commentary on the Cilappatikaram, states the titles of a few grammatical works in Tamil which are related to various Tamil plays such as Kuttanul, Kunanul, Ceyanmurai, Vilakkattar Kuttu, Mativanar Natakat Tamilnul, Ceyirriyam, Muruval and Cayantam.
The work of Kuttanul provides adequate information related to rules and conventions for dance and drama, and offers a lot of information concerning the existence of theatres, their conventions, the types of plays enacted and even the popularity of actors. The work also narrates about the lighting arrangements for the stage. The work of Cilappatikaram mentions about 3 types of screens, like karantuvaral elini, porumuka elini and orumuka elini. The Karantuyaral elini screen is folded at the top of the stage which rolls down and covers the entire stage. The porumuka elini screen comes from both ends of the stage and meets at the centre and covering the whole stage. The orumuka elini screen comes from one end to another and covers the entire stage.
After the Sangam age
, Tamil plays and drama was patronised and staged mainly within the boundaries of temples. Organizing dramas and plays was considered among the primary attractions during festivals in temples. According to information obtained about plays in Tamil literature, a troupe of actors, led by Acharya Vijayarajendra, staged a drama Vaikaci festival during the period of Vaikaci festival. The Tamil play was based on various historical events which had occurred during the epoch of the greatest Chola king Rajaraja I
. After this era, folklore plays such as the Kuravanci gained popularity. Amongst the various folklore plays, Carapentira Pupalak Kuravanci Natakam and others are available even at the present age. Another form of folklore play known as the pallu
illustrates the life of a farmer. Both the works of kuravanci and pallu are in poetic form.
Nantanar Carittiram by Kopalakirusna Paratiyar and Iramanatakam by Arunacalak Kavirayar are amongst the few noteworthy and popular poetic plays which were composed in the 18th century. Some other Tamil plays like Nontinatakams, where the wretched life of a person engaged in sensual pleasures in depicted became rather popular during the eighteenth century.