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Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam - Part X
Epic Grandeur of the Tanjore Quartet margam (TQM)
- Chandra Anand

July 14, 2015

The Tanjore Quartet margam is the codified formula of presentation that a Bharatanatyam artiste follows to display her/his art. The concept of the jivatma yearning for the paramatma is the main theme in the repertoire of TQM which denotes the quest for self-realization as explained in Hindu philosophy. This kind of serious theme requires an elevated style of presentation. Therefore the Tanjore Brothers have made use of the epic style which is known for its grandeur. Thus we analyze the TQM features with the characteristics of the epic style of writing.

An epic in its most specific sense is a genre of classical poetry originating in Greece. The conventions of this genre are several:

(a) It is a long narrative about a serious or worthy traditional subject.

The TQM imparts the traditional knowledge of the 'self' as preached in the Vedas or Vedic philosophy. Through its long structure of art presentation or lineup of items, it puts forward at the outset the truth of the human life (sabdam), then the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam) and then the realities of life (padams and javalis) and ends expressing the hope to attain or regain the epitome of life (shloka).This theme can be equated or put close to the theme of the epic poem "Paradise lost, paradise gained" by John Milton (1608- 1674), an English poet.

By using philosophy, religion and human experiences in its art construction, the TQM touches all perspectives of life which is also an epic feature.

(b) The narrative focused on the exploits of an epic hero or demigod who represents the cultural values of a race, nation or religious group.

TQM projects the culture of Indian nation at its best. Since ancient times, Hindu religion and Indian philosophy has played a large part in Indian arts and the way of life. Indian/Vedic philosophy gives knowledge of spirit of man or 'self', his existence and relation to the world.

Veena Londe explains the spiritual outlook of our country thus, "Both in life and in philosophy, the spiritual motif is predominant in India. Indian religion recognizes the spirit as the truth of our being, and our life as a growth and evolution of the spirit. …... The inner spirit of man is significant clue to his reality and to that of universe."[1]

As in Indian philosophy, "India's concentrated study of the inner nature of man is, in the end, a study of man universal,"[2] the TQM imparts the knowledge of the interminable truth and goal of every single being in the world. So, the human being is the hero of the TQM and the theme of spirituality is applicable universally.

The TQM has attempted to incorporate Hindu philosophy through their structure of art presentation. It carries forward the narrative by using bhakti marg or religion as the medium unifying the different ideologies of the systems of Hindu philosophy. In the present times, it is bhakti marg through which the common man can contemplate on God or 'Self' - the Supreme Truth, goodness and beauty of which perfect happiness essentially consists - easily.

The hero is 'man', whose embodied being is a spark of the divine, the manifest self of the Unmanifest Form. Thus man's divine origin is established. "The epic moral code represents moral ideals and taboos (the purusharthas) in the behavior of the hero and antagonist. The hero's behavior and the lessons he learns along the way represent the culture's ideals; what the hero does, all men should strive toward."[3]

(c) The action contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess.

"Milton had found true heroism in obedience to God and in the patience to accept suffering without the loss of faith. He created a Christian epic that focuses not on the military actions that create a nation but on the moral actions that create a world."[4]

The idea in TQM is man's yearning or desire to be united with the Ultimate Being. It explains the struggle of the embodied being of man to attain the highest goal of life/ reunion of the soul with the Absolute Soul/freedom from bondages of human life. The path to seek the salvation is not easy. At first, one needs to acquire the theoretical knowledge about self and its relation to god and the world. A guide (guru), also an epic feature, is required for this. Then with belief in the knowledge one has to realize it. And one should pursue this goal with utter faith in God and belief in oneself and lot of perseverance. This needs great strength of character and courage.

TQM is concerned with the art of natya where the function is to entertain. It uses the medium of the arts, dance and music, to inform about higher realities of life through rasa-experience. Creating awareness about God and His graces is only incidental.

(d) The action takes place in a vast setting; it covers a wide geographic area. The setting is frequently set some time in the remote past.

(i) Here man is at the centre of the universe and his world he sees is as he makes it out to be. The entire lot of experiences he gathers, whether inherent, imbibed or learnt, is part of that world as he perceives and connects with it.

(ii) The setting is in the remote past for it portrays mythological and historical characters as the heroes of the narrative. They are also the gods of Hindu religion. The use of archaic language also helps take the setting to past times.

(iii) Besides, the art of natya, through its presentation transports the audience, transcends them with its magic of combination of gestures, movement, costume, and music to another world where time and place lose its relevance.

(e) Often, the main protagonist undergoes a terrifying journey--sometimes a descent into the underworld--i.e., into hell or the realm of the dead.

Philosophically, when a man is ignorant about his true self; when the veil of maya is screening him from the true nature of self and world he exists in, he is living in hell created by his own mind.

(f) The hero's success or failure determines the fate of an entire people or nation.

When the man realizes his true self, his entire approach or outlook towards the world is modified. He learns the difference between transitory happiness and eternal happiness. He understands the realities of life and develops equanimity and a sense of detachment. He is then at peace with himself and the entire humanity. "The epic culminates around the hero's journey of self discovery and emotional/psychological/spiritual maturation."[6]

(g) The poem begins with the invocation of a muse to inspire the poet--i.e., a prayer to an appropriate supernatural being. The speaker asks that this Being provide him the suitable emotion, creativity, or diction to finish the poem. Often the poet states a theme or argument for the entire work--such as "arms and the man."

At the beginning of the recital, a prayer song invoking the deity Lord Ganesha is sung. When the concert starts alarippu, a nritta item is performed which is philosophically considered as an offering or prayer to God {to paramatman (Self)}, who resides in all living beings as jivatman (self). Then the theme, the story of the 'journey of the self towards salvation' is indicated in the sabdam which is the first abhinaya item. Here the devotee expresses his desire "to always be at His feet and only be thinking of Him."

(h) The epic contains long catalogs of heroes or important characters, focusing on highborn kings and great warriors rather than peasants and commoners.

In an epic story there are many allusions to previously written histories and mythologies. The purpose of the references is to extend the reader's understanding through comparison. Thus in an epic many other minor epics are also included. Therefore many heroes of national stature from former epics and histories are alluded to in the epics. TQM follows the prthgartha style of nritya where the items are isolated from one another. Therefore in the full presentation many stories relating to various gods and kings can be presented.

Here in the margam, we portray the zenith that a human being has the possibilities to reach (varnam). So naturally, it is done by narrating or illustrating stories about the great qualities of the hero who is definitely a god or king. Description of his beauty and other stories of his valorous and generous acts are mentioned or enacted with exalted actions.

In padam section, the dance of the dancing God, Lord Nataraja, is performed. The symbolism of the whole of Shiva's form is explained through padams. "The tandavamurti of Siva represents his "panchakriya sakti" i.e. fivefold power viz. srishti or creation, sthiti or protection and preservation, samhara or destruction and revolution, tirobhava or illusion and moksha or benevolence and salvation."[5] The different icons he carries on himself are described with their symbolism. Krishna nee begane describes Krishna, and En palli kondeeraiyaa the story of Rama in summary form. Here the acts of listening (sravana) and remembering (smarana) of stories of God of the navavidabhakti of bhakti yoga are put into practice.

TQM follows the prthgartha style of nritya where the items are isolated from one another. Therefore in the full presentation many stories relating to various gods and kings can be presented.

(i) The narrative starts in medias res, in the middle of the action. Subsequently, the earlier events leading up to the start of the poem will be recounted in the characters' narratives or in flashbacks.

In the margam, the padams and javalis present empirical experiences of life. This can be taken as presenting flashbacks of the man's life as he was and lived before setting on the journey/path of salvation. In this part, realities of life are projected where man is shown with human frailties.

(j) Gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action to affect the outcome. This supernatural intervention often implies two simultaneous plots.

Theistic allusions are one of the features of the epic style. Even the padams, which are empirical in nature and have all time themes, there are allusions to mythical and historical characters. For instance 'Maalai puzhudinilay oru nal' is a sweet song by Kalki. It tells about the dream a young girl sees. She dreams of Lord Muruga, the epitome of perfection, a God considered to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva. Another example is a javali-Saramaina ….ganudaina …shri padmanabha. Thus the heroes are mythological characters and if people are not aware of mythology and history they will find it difficult to follow the significance of the reference.

In the padams, many stories from the epics are also enacted where the artist gets to show off his/her histrionic abilities. In these stories, it is due to god's help calamities are averted. Few examples are Gajendra moksha, Draupadi vastraharanam, Sudama-Krishna. The kings are tested by Gods- King Shibi. The devotion of many devotees are depicted- Nandanar, Shabari, Kannapan etc.

The Kuravanji dance ballets normally have two simultaneous plots.

(k) The epic employs extended similes (called epic similes) at appropriate spots of the story, and a traditional scene of extended description in which the hero arms himself.

Epic similes serve as a poetic device in order to foreshadow and keep the reader interested. Similes deepen the reader's understanding of the individual or action taking place through a word-picture association that the reader is able to relate to. Epic simile is an extended simile that is used typically in epic poetry to intensify the heroic stature of the subject. Homer uses similes in two different ways: those that stress physical motion and those that stress emotional disturbance. Since Bharatanatyam is a performing art, an aural and oral medium, there definitely is going to be a difference in the way similes and imageries are presented.

The descriptions of nature, the way the nayika awaits her nayaka, how she dresses for him in the padams or describes his qualities, looks and valorous acts in the varnam etc are acted out in detail.

(l) Its diction is elevated in style. It employs a formal, dignified, objective tone and many figures of speech.

Any classical art is a formalized form. Highly stylized and formalized movement is the technique of Bharatanatyam. The Carnatic music system of classical music is used for presentation. The diction in the lyrics used is of a very refined and decorous literary language.

The rendering of classical style is of a suggestive nature. Therefore the emotions are conveyed through the words and gestures by the artist only to the point where the audience then takes the meaning and understand the import of idea. Since the concept is of a sublime nature, it should be carried forward in a very dignified manner.

The Bharatanatyam recital is a solo format. The artist is dressed in rich clothes and jewels and signifies a bride suiting the philosophical theme of the nayika as the jivatma awaiting her union with the nayaka as the paramatma.

The two aspects of dance, nritta and nritya are combined in a judicious proportion in the TQM setup. The rhythm and moods are fused to bring oneness of mind, body and spirit through nritta and reveal higher realities of life to society through nritya and abhinaya. 'Nritta' is enjoyed by the common man as it does not tax his intelligence and 'nritya' a combination of bhava-rasa, sophisticated gestures and literary content becomes a scholar's delight. There is no place for subjectivity in the artist's mind during the performance, so objective tone is maintained.

The length of the epic poem allowed the author enormous leeway to present different types of poetry within the overall framework of the epic. In the same manner, the TQM presents many items with different structure, function and ideology. This is termed as the prthgartha style of nritya.

The concepts in natya are more metaphorical in its approach. The theme of yearning for union with the soul is shown with instances of human experiences. The vipralambha or sambhoga shringara [7] is used to explain the theme of love and devotion to God. The TQM follows the prthgartha style i.e., the items are isolated from one another, still this theme is echoed in every item.

Thus the TQM qualifies for these epic features.

The satvatti vritti of Natyasastra:

(The researcher first recognized the epic qualities of the TQM, as given in Greek and English classical poetry and then ventured to compare it with grand style i.e. satvatti vritti as explained in the Natyasastra of Bharatamuni.)

Epic style is grand style of writing in English literature. The satvatti vritti is the grand style of presentation as explained in the Natyasastra. According to this vritti, the rules are as follows. "This is endorsed with the satvika quality, the nyayas and metrical patterns. There is an exuberance of joy and the emotional fervor of sorrow is completely curbed. This vritti is also to be known to consist of representation of words and gestures and of power in the speeches and acts showing the rise of spirit. This vritti has the vira, adbhuta and raudra rasa. It excludes sringara and karuna rasa. There is no place for despondency. The characters therein are mostly the majestic and the defiant ones." [8]

Dance is a combination of two aspects, that is nritta and nritya. Therefore one can conclude that the nritta items follow this vritti. The dance movements are adavus that pertain to the rules of araimandi, angasuddam and shoustavam. It is set to metrical pattern. In fact, in dance both nritta and abhinaya movements are set to music. The performance of nritta has its basis in yoga philosophy. Thereby it raises the energies and the spirit of the dancer. It only reflects the mood of the melody. Naturally all ragas selected for dance will be of exuberant nature. In nritta there is only joy exhibited which arises from the heart or inner being of the artist as he performs. The movements are of majestic and graceful quality and there is no place for sorrow.

In an epic, the acts are focused on highborn kings and great warriors and containing superhuman feats of strength or military prowess where there is use of the vira, adbhuta and raudra rasa. Thus it excludes sringara and karuna rasa. Here, there is the indication perhaps the padams and javalis were also devoid of any sringara rasa and karuna rasa. They showed the nayikas always speaking about the right conduct and expressed superior thoughts and behavior. So naturally all emotions are shown more with satvika abhinaya where there is minimal use of gestures. The madhyama and adhama characters were avoided. It is likely that even the padams and javalis during the times of the Tanjore Brothers only presented stories from the mythology and history pertaining to Bharata's dictum of presenting only the puranas, kathas and itihasas. These stories from the epics show all the human experiences that the human beings undergo in this world. Thus this margam brings to us the philosophies of life through these stories in a concrete manner.

Perhaps the speeches were used to compere the performance. As the ideology behind the items are the systems of Hindu philosophy this theme made use of superior thoughts and words. It is possible that the compere not only told about the idea related to human experience present in the item to be witnessed, but also explained the philosophy behind it.

Those days, the performance following the rules of satvatti vritti, were replete with cadences of movement that brought out the satvika abhinaya. The artists of those times performed without the modern equipment of acoustics and lighting. The artists had to reach out to the audience solely with their physical and spiritual energies. Then one can imagine how energetic, spirited and intense their presentation of the emotions must have been.

TQM was used for both the temple dances as well as the court performances. Definitely, one can see that the TQM has gone through enormous change in the past years. Experiments with navarasas and bhavas and other concepts in Natyasastra like ashtanayikas, nayaki-nayaka bhedha etc might have brought a lot of changes to the original format. Allarippu has been replaced by kavuthvams, kirthanams, pushpanjali, mallari. Kritis and kirtanams are performed instead of sabdam, padams and javalis. Still, the spirit of TQM has been sustained and it shines through the changes, a validation for its timeless and dynamic quality which allows for a lot of experiments and innovations within its format.

The art construction of the TQM presentation thus projects the epic qualities. One must understand that when the brothers presented or conceived this method of art presentation it was contemporary for their times. It suited both the temple and the court performances. It must have been accepted because it was also within the format of the traditions accepted then.

The TQM presentation explains the Hindu philosophy in an entertaining manner and let all know about the spiritual aspect of life. Surely their margam presentation can be called as Bharatanatyam for the word "bhara (in Sanskrit) means to honor, protect, guard"[9] and yes, the TQM protects, guards and honors the spiritual, cultural and historical traditions of India by encapsulating them in their structure of presentation. Thus, TQM becomes the yantra by which Indian traditions with its spiritual, cultural and philosophical values could be spread around the world.

Dr. Radhakrishnan writes, "The need of philosophy today is for a world perspective. ….Social and political conditions in the several areas of the world depend, in the final analysis, upon the philosophical and spiritual thought and the ideals of the peoples of the world. ….. The future of civilization depends upon the return of spiritual awareness to the hearts and minds of men. To this purpose the contribution of Indian philosophy, with its age long spiritual emphasis, is inestimable and indispensable."[10]

Notes to reference:
  1. Veena Londhe, Notes on Hindu philosophy, pg 5-6.
  2. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, Princeton University Press, USA, 1957, General Introduction, pg xxx.
  3. Six elements of the epic
  4. About paradise lost
  5. Abhinayadarpanam of Nandikeswara, translated by P.S.R. Appa Rao, A Natyamala Publication, M/s. Vipla Printers, Hyderabad, 1997,Nataraja, the lord of dance, pg vii.
  6. Six elements of the epic
  7. Chandra Anand, Upacharas in Bharatanatyam
  8. The Natyasastra of Bharatamuni, translated into English by a Board of Scholars, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, India, 2000, pg 305.
  9. Kamala Subramaniam, Srimad-Bhagavatam Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 7th edition, 1997, pg 295.
  10. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, Princeton University Press, USA, 1957, General Introduction, pg xxxi.

  1. A Source book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Radhakrishnan Sarvepalli & Moore A. Charles, Princeton University press, USA, 1957.
  2. Abhinayadarpanam of Nandikeswara, translated by P.S.R. Appa Rao, A Natyamala Publication, M/s. Vipla Printers, Hyderabad, 1997.
  3. The Natyasastra, translated into English by A Board of Scholars, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, India, 2000.
  4. Srimad-Bhagavatham, Subramaniam Kamala, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 7th edition, 1997.
  5. Hiriyanna M, The essentials of Indian Philosophy, 2nd edition, Blackie and son publishers Pvt. Ltd. Mumbai, 1973.
  6. Londhe Veena, Notes on Hindu philosophy, distributed in class.
  7. Subrahmanyam Padma, Bharata's Art- Then and Now, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute Bombay, 1979.
  10. Anand Chandra,

Chandra Anand is a Bharatanatyam artiste and teacher. A student of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharatanatya Kalamandir since 1972, she is presently training under guru Lata Raman. Apart from MA in Eng Lit. from Bombay University (1990) and B Ed from Bombay University (1994), she has an MA in Classical Dance (Bharatanatyam) from Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune (2014). This article is adapted from the dissertation titled "Education in Spiritual Values through Bharatanatyam" under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Malati Agneswaran.

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