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Thanjavur: A Cultural History.

Thanjavur: A Cultural History, by Pradeep Chakravarthy, with photographs by Vikram Sathyanathan. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2010. 220 pages, illustrated throughout. [INR] 1250.

This book presents a kaleidoscopic view of the state of Thanjavur under various dynasties, and of the changing cultural fortunes of this renowned 11th-century political and ecclesiastical capital of Rajaraja I (985-1016 CO of the Chola empire (c. 850-1200 CE). In course of time, the Brihadishvara temple which dominates the landscape of the city, fell into disuse and was, for a time, used as a garrison by both French and British troops. However, unlike Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara empire, about which Sewell writing in 1900, lamented: "the very existence of this kingdom is hardly remembered in India", Thanjavur, thanks to the royal patronage of the Nayaka rulers, followed by the fervent zeal of the Maratha ruling family of Bhonsles, had a continuous cultural dominance till the early 20th century. It is then that it began to lose its importance to the newly emerging commercial capital of Madras (present-day Chennai), at a time when patronage patterns shifted.

In 2010, the Brihadishvara temple hosted a government-sponsored extravaganza celebrating the 1000th year of its founding. (Incidentally, in the same year, Hampi celebrated the 500th year of the coronation of Krishnadeva Raya). Visibilities on such a grandiose scale are classic examples of the reclaiming and/or reinventing of history with nationalistic, iegional, and cultural agendas. As a result a spate of publications appeared in the market on the Brihadishvara temple and on the history of the state of Thanjavur, including the present work.

Chakravarthy deals with the literature, arts, crafts, performing arts, political economy, and several other interesting facets of the state. While he concentrates on the Nayaka and Maratha periods, he unfortunately begins his book with a rather lacklustre description of the Cholas and their temple, about which brilliant tomes have been written both in English and in Tamil. Possibly being aware of this Chola centricity, and nervous of being carried away by his own passion for historical inscriptions, he seems to race through the Chola background with no reference to sources, and his anxiety communicates itself to the reader. On page 18 he points to a very interesting poetic hyperbole regarding the wealth of the Chola state (no sources cited) and talks of the descriptions of a Chinese traveller, but fails to even mention his name as that of the famous Chau Ja. Kua. This is in sharp contrast to his later discussion on the Nayakas and the Marathas. The author, however, must he commended for an excellent diagram of the Brihadishvara temple complex, which clearly and simply delineates the various chronological stages in which the series of structures were completed. On page 6, Satyanathan has a charming shot of the much photographed temple with the moat full of water. The book has several such appealing photographs; that of the kuravanji dancers on page 93 is just one other example.

Excluding the Appendices, Glossary, and Bibliography, this 150-page picture book is divided into six chapters, which begins with a short history of the Thanjavur rulers, followed by a history of painting in this region, and then a discussion of the evolution of Carnatic music as well as the modern-day forms of the classical and folk genres of dance and dance dramas. Chakravarthy addresses the issue of the authorship of several of the librettos, for which Thanjavur and its environs were famous. He has provided several delightful descriptions of life in the courts of the Nayaka and Maratha rulers. His concluding chapters deal with the arts and crafts and a very brief survey of photographs of this region taken in the 19th century. The short survey of the treasures of the Sarasvati Mahal Library in Thanjavur, which the author places in a separate Appendix, makes this book really wide-ranging in its scope.

Chakravarthy refers to works, of several kings such as Raghunatha Nayaka and his son Vijayaraghava, and describes a genre of literature called the abhyudayamu, which "literally records the life of the king in one day", often written by the heir apparent or a member of the royal entourage. The author has painstakingly translated sections from the Raghunatha abhyudayamu, a 1.7th-century Thlugu manuscript preserved in the Sarasvati Mahal Library (page 23).

The Nayaka (1565-1676) and Maratha (1676-1903) periods, the former in particular, witnessed great tension between inflated claims and limited political power. The author has therefore rightly concentrated on their cultural contributions. Though not a professional academic, he has nonetheless done rigorous research and amassed a vast amount of details such as the fact that the veena as we know it today was a creation of Raghunatha Nayaka (page 70); he gives the names of several women poets and artists under the Nayakas and even recounts the fees they were paid. He delves into a fair amount of detail on both textual and epigraphic sources such as the Koothunul by Sattanar, and the Arachanur inscription (which he dates to c. 250 CF, though the more general ascription is to the 4th century CE), with dance mnemonics engraved on the cave wall.

While somewhat romanticizing the past in general, and the role of women in particular., Chakravarthy has nevertheless included a photograph of the square within the Thanjavur palace, where the collective suicide of the wives of Vijayaraghava Nayaka took place (page 25, figure 19).

In the chapter on painting he has delved into theoretical treatises like the Vishnudharmottara and delineated the rubrics of painting, but then suddenly and abruptly ends his discussion by concluding that Thanjavur painting maintained "this unbroken style". What unbroken style is he referring to? From Chola to Nayaka? Or is he referring just to the tradition of painting both murals and wall hangings?

The description of the poems of Kshetrayya (c. 1600-80) and the intrigues in the Nayaka court against him make interesting reading. Chakravarthy's translations of some of the padams are lyrical and he meticulously states the sources of his information in this section.

It is well known that the Maratha kings encouraged extensive musical research, and several of them actually authored musical treatises, in addition to composing songs. Shahaji II (1684-1712) was both a composer and a scholar of music, composing padams and prabandams, and writing a book that classified ragas and their attributes, called the Sahaji Ragalakshanamu. Chakravarthy has given the exact numbers composed by this illustrious royal personage as 22 prabandhams and 208 padams. However, what captivated my attention was his mention of a work called the Satidanasuramu, by Shahaji II, in which a low-caste woman who falls in love with a brahmin is given in marriage to her lover by her ex-husband! That must have been a revolutionary work in its time. The author devotes entire sections to the development of Kuravanji natakams and other drama/dance forms such as Yakshagana. Invariably the terrain extends to neighbouring Tiruvarur and the trimurtis of Carnatic music receive their fair share of adulation. The Thanjavur quartet of dance masters and choreographers are also treated with the respect they deserve as contributing to the Thanjavur cultural tradition. This phase of cultural development in Tamil Nadu has received a lot of attention in recent years from scholars like Indira Peterson.

However, often elaborate and little-known facts are juxtaposed with oft-repeated information and offered in the form of a collage - made up of interesting pieces in themselves but somehow without a firmly binding narrative. This ambitious work would have benefited greatly with a little input from a good editor. Nonetheless, the book is a very readable introduction to the late medieval-early modern cultural milieu of Tamil Nadu. While it is aimed at the general, albeit serious, reader, a researcher should also benefit from the copious primary and secondary references.
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Author:Ghose, Rajeshwari
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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