Sunday, 21 July 2013

Tholkaappiyam, Bharata Naatyam and Cilappadikaaram

What do Bharatha's Natya Shaastra ( a Sanskrit book on classical Indian dancing), the Tholkappiyam ( a book on Tamil grammar, prosody, and vaguely geography), and Cilappadikaram ( a long narrative Tamil poem about Kovalan and his wife Kannagi, titled after her anklet) have in common? 

In a brilliant exposition, Dr Nagaswami renowned archaeologist, historian and scholar in both Tamil and Sanskrit, connected these in his talk at Arkay Convention Center on Sunday, July 14.

The oldest Tamil literature, of the Sangam age - considered to be between approximately 300 BC to 300 AD by most historians - is divided as (1) Agam - Internal (2) Puram - External. Agam refers to domestic themes, mostly of love, marriage, longing, separation, adultery, lust, infatuation, disillusion, domestic bliss and discord, families etc. Puram refers to worldly affairs, battles and wars, street scenes, affairs in the royal courts etc. 

Tholkaappiyam also divides the land into five geographical regions, each with its own ruling deity :
1. Mullai - Forest ( Deity : maayOn - Krishna in Sanskrit)
2. Marudham - Farm land ( Deity : vEndan - Devendra in Sanskrit)
3. Kurinji - Hills ( Deity : cEyOn - Subrahmanya in Sanskrit)
4. Neithal - Sea coasts ( Deity : varuNan - VaruNa in Sanskrit)
5. Paalai - Desert ( Deity : koRRavai - Durga in Sanskrit)

Interestingly, the Sangam poems mentioned above are also classified according to these geographic categories (called thiNai in Tamil) besides the Agam / Puram classification. This is known to most educated Tamils, but is generally unknown to the rest of India.

Dr Nagaswami's fascinating contention was that Bharata's Naatya Shaastra also follows a similar geographic division, the corresponding words being
Vanam - Mullai / Forest
Parvatam - Kurinji / Hill
Saagaram - Neidal / Sea Coast
Mrittika - Marudam / Farmland

In fact he contends that this classification is mentioned in the Vedas. This is the first time I have heard of the thiNai concept in Sanskrit literature. He also stated that the wordpaalai refers not to desert, but to localities where two or more of the other types of geographical aspects are present. This is the first time I heard such an explanation for paalai - but it would explain two things - 1. There is no genuine desert in the Tamil country, though there are arid regions like the Sivakasi area. 2. Songs of the paalai outnumber songs of all the other categories, which is quite puzzling otherwise.

He also mentioned that in Bharata's Natya shastra, there is a geographical division of the performing space, into four quarters. The paalai equivalent, say a city scene, would be performed where the four quarters meet, i.e., in the central area. Please note that he is talking about theory & practice from 2000 years back, not the manner of performance or design today. Initially, there were only eight rasas; the ninth rasa, shaantham (tranquility) was added much later.

The Sanskrit concepts Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha have equivalents in the Tamil, aRam, poRuL, inbam and veeDu, respectively. He further contended that agam covers the kaama (inbam) literature, whereas puram covers the other three. 
The Sangam poems are in two collections - 1. Paththuppaattu (Ten Songs) 2. ettuthokai (Eight Anthologies). The former is ten individual long poems each composed by one author, the latter is a collection of poems of similar themes by various poets. He contended that ALL these works were written as musical dance performances, with long prose narrations as required. It is because they were performed for the public, that they were preserved while no other texts have survived from that period.

He said the Cilappadikaram (The Anklet Saga), an epic poem composed at the tail end of the Sangam age (or just after it in other scholars' opinion), conforms to this style, grammar and tradition. It was meant to be a dance-drama, with songs and dances in all five regions, with the characteristic themes and styles of each region. Some of these are extraneous to the story, and there is a gratuitous continuation of the story well after the hero and heroine ascend to heaven. In the continuation, a dance performance of the hilly region (kurinji) is included, just so all five themes are covered, because in the Kovalan-Kannagi story, there is no real scene in a hill region. And finally, the Chera king Cenguttuvan is glorified and praised, because the epic was first presented and performed in his court. The Cilappadikaaram, said Dr Nagaswami, is the most comprehensive composition, that displays all the elements that are prescribed in both the Natya shastra and the Tholkaappiyam.

I have covered the outline of his talk, some salient and breathtakingly new opinions / interpretations, his deft weaving of the links between the three great works. You can see the video when it is posted on the web for all the details and nuances, or read his articles in his website


  1. Biased article towards sanskrit

  2. மழை பொய்த்த காலங்களில்,

    " முல்லையும் மருதமும் முறைமையிற் திரிந்ததோர் பாலை ஆயின " என்று தமிழக பாலை நிலம் குறித்து கூறக்கேட்டிருக்கிறேன்.