Natyashastra written by Bharata is the acknowledged earliest extant literature on the subject of 'dance'. The term 'natya', includes all the artistic elements of theatre art. Dance had been a part of drama; probably Drama could also have been a part of dance. It is difficult to discern a bifurcation between these branches of art. As made out 'natya' in its complete form includes music, dance and communication through expression. References available in early Tamil literature (Cilappathikaram particularly) suggest that dance and drama were one and the same to begin with and in course of time Indian drama slowly emerged as a separate branch. Music had been an inevitable adjunct of both dance and drama.
The art of drama draws heavily on melody and rhythm to effectively communicate Bhava (rasa). Meippaatu in Tamil language is approximately the equivalent of bhava. The renowned Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam has a section entitled Meippattiyal Out of Meippaatu eight rasas (Suvaikat) take their origin. This provision enables any author to narrate the happening to the audience exactly as they are visualised by him. The success scored in this way is to the techniques of composition. The Laya (rhythm) is chosen in consonance with the words used to suit the context. The music adopted is perceptibly a development in steps since the Tamil theatre developed in stages as Marappavaikkuttu, Pommalattam, Torppavaikkuttu, Nilalpavaikkuttu Nattiyam, Nattiyanatakam and Natakam. The renowned Tamil stage actor Awai T.K. Shanmugam claims that the Tamil theatre is a refined form of various dances with individual characteristics mixed. Pallu, Kuravanchi, Nondinatakam and Kuluvanatakam are the adumbrated literary plays. Dramatic adumbrations are a variety of Terukkuttus (enacted in streets) with a style of their own aimed at catering the tastes and on the spot demands of the audience. Themes are mostly love and divinity.
Terukkuttu is staged outside the temple and is an 'art of the masses'. Each important character is introduced, the character before introduction being shielded by a hand-held screen. The Guna (calibre) of the character is emphasized through the use of gaits. Principal characters whirl round the stage several times in a fast tempo (Girikai). The professional reckoning of girikai is Ati-talam erardu (eight). Erardu literally means 'increasing/ascending'. The folk-artists are not familiar with the angas of a tala. Hence we are not sure whether Ati-tala in the context could be taken as the one currently in use. To assert that Terukkuttu is an early form, we are not armed with tangible evidences (literary or epigraphic). Evidence suggests that in the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries it had been used as a petty means of livelihood by a stock of wandering actors. What they enacted remain as folklores. Many of them were forgotten because of neglect and lack of adequate patronage. In many respects Terukkuttu stands in comparison with the Veethi Natakam of Andhra Pradesh, Payal attam of south-Canara, the Lalit of Maharashtra and the Pavai of Gujarat.
Dance drama is an evolved form and the adumbrations in their format and conduct are almost like full-fledged dramas. They are full of songs. The adumbrations mark a change in the evolution of dramatic-art. A conspicuous fact that the study of early forms of dramatic art projects is that the tunes employed may not conform to the rules of Lakshanagranthas (of later times), it looks as if the very charm and appeal are the result of apparent disregard to the requirements of Lakshana. In the matter of rhythm, the Ati-tala (four or eight unit interval) is apparently universal; the Tisra-eka comes next.
The earliest inscriptions pertaining to dance-art in Tamil Nadu are those found at Arichchalur (1962). The inscriptions are dated AD 200-250. The antiquity of dance tradition is confirmed by these inscriptions. Later evidences suggest that the progress of the art had been unbroken. The Pallavas of Kanchi were great patrons of the dance-art. During the rule of the Vijayalaya Cholas (Tanjai Cholas) one get references to Nanavita Natakasalais (theatres used for varieties of Dramas). Up to this period the Sahityas (texts) in compositions dominate, tune-setting takes a secondary place. Sahityas seem to have been devised to fit into preconceived Varnamettus (tune settings). These are metrical Sahityas. Yet the incontestable fact remains 'No music, no poetry'. Different qualitative and quantitative measures of sound are experimented to excite aesthetic pleasure. In an attempt to produce an artistic form, the continua of measured sounds are to be methodically split for alignment. Rhythm becomes the nerve centre. On this basic need the entire range of tones are built. Tone along with rhythm makes the variety (sets of patterns). Rhythm helps to break the monotony. Innovation of patterns had commenced.
When the Tamil theatre attained full stature (as understood currently) cannot be easily ascertained and authentically expressed. Inscriptions at the Brihadeesvara temple at Thanjavur (A.D 984) speak of Rajarajisvara natakam conducted annually in the month of Vaikasi (Tamil). Tiruppantalainallur Pasupatisvarar temple inscriptions refer to Rajaraja Natakam. In one of the inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I, Tirumala nayanar natakam is mentioned. Tiruppatirippuliyur temple inscriptions mention about Kannavan purana natakam. The form and content of the various plays mentioned are not known since they live only in names. At best, we are able to discern that they are different from Kuttu or adumberation. They are separately referred to and could be identified individually. Some scholars, however, affirm that they are the predecessors of modern Indian theatre.
During the reign of the Nayakas of Thanjavur and their successors, the Marathas, witness unprecedented progress. The Vijayanagara rule in general witnessed an integration of the cultures of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kannadiga. Dance and dramas forms undergo a process of elaboration and are presented under new captions. This integrated culture was fostered not only in the imperial capital, but also in the capitals of the provincial Nayakas of Madurai, Gingi etc. Thanjavur city became the cultural centre of the south under the Nayaks of Thanjavur. New and perfected art-forms were evolved in this crucible of culture. The Maratha successors elaborated the idioms and in the true sense set the modern norm for musical and other allied arts.
Dance-dramas Qsai Natya Natakani became popular during this interval. Some of the well known plays are Tyagaraja Vinoda Chitra Prabhandam, Pancharatna Prabhandam, Regunatha Abyudayam, Mannarudasa Vilasam, Chitrakutamahatmyam - many of which works have been published by the Mannar Serfoji Saraswathi Mahal Library.
The opera enacted by men of the Brahmin community (Bagavatars) has its origin at Melattur, near Thanjavur. Popularly known as Bagavatha Mela, it derives inspiration from Narayana Teertha's Krishna leela tarangini and the Yakshagana play Pariyata apaharanam. Venkatarama Bagavatar of Melattur, an elder contemporary of St. Tyagaraja (Tiruvaiyaru) composed in Telugu, twelve-opera plays based on Puranic themes. These were enacted in the presence of the local deity of the temple. Balubagavatar of Sulamangalam, an adjoining village is another well known exponent of Bhagavata Mela. The actors and the playback musicians moved about all the time (at present the musicians tend to be stationary) before the gaze of the audience. Melattur Virabhadraiah is an important name associated with this art. For the purpose he composed Svarajatis, Varnams, Raga malikas and Tillanas. Perhaps, he is the first to compose Tillanas as indicated by his surname 'Margadarsi Virabhadrayya'. Most of his compositions are in Telugu language and Sanskrit language and few are in Tamil language and Marathi languages. These are Mela nataka compositions.
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