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20 rare facts about King Serfoji II in the field of dance and music
- Prince Pratap Sinha Raje Bhosle

March 16, 2017

King Serfoji II devoted his life, interest and wealth for the cultural uplift in spheres of literature, medicine, music, dance, drama and other fine arts which paved the way for an upheaval in art, literary and cultural fields.

Swati Thirunal, Maharaja of Travancore, kept contact with King Serfoji II (Maharaja of Thanjavur from 1798 to 1832) even before he came to the throne and exchanged scholars, musicians and even their personal compositions. Saint Tyagaraja, Syama Sastrigal, Muthuswami Dikshitar - the musical trinity - were the contemporaries of Rajah Serfoji II. Eminent dance masters like Gangaimuthu, Salapathy, Subbarayan, Mahadana Annachi, Tanjore Quartet and Sundari were patronised by Serfoji.

Serfoji II was also called “SARVENDRA RATNADHI PATI” since he was the author of the 72 volumes of the “SARVENDRA RATNAVLI,” a compilation of the immense knowledge and wisdom of all the Shastras and Kalaas (Natya Shastra).

Serfoji II wrote hundreds of songs in Sanskrit, Telugu, Marathi and all are set for music and dance recitals.

He is the author of several dance pieces of Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam and Padam. He has composed numerous kavuthuvam, slokavarnam and prabhandas all adapted to Bharatanatyam. Sollukattu, swaras, jathis and sahithyas with their respective notations in Indian swaras are given for every item with meticulous care.

His collections on Bharatanatya dances are the largest in the whole of India. Nowhere in India in one single place can be seen such a huge collection of sampradaya natyam. Such rare types of dances like jakkini, perani, dharupad, desi navadadam and kuravai were in vogue and we have evidence of their being practiced at his court. These types of dances have now become obsolete.

He was praised by Lord Valentia who visited him in the year 1804 as capable of composing tunes in English. His orchestra comprised of several native and English instruments richly ornamented with diamonds and pearls.

He composed songs in several Indian languages capable of orchestration in western musical instruments.

Maharaja Serfoji also composed tunes in English. Malbrook played in his orchestra.

His Tanjore Band consisted of both European and Indian musical instruments.

Indian tunes and ragas were set to European staff notation fit to be used in his orchestra. They  are recorded in several of his music books.

Bharatanatya was then at its peak and several prodigies whose compositions are now considered the best that south India has every produced, flourished at his court.

The traditional Bhagavatamela, the oldest type of drama of the south, received support at his hands. To the artists of Bhagavatamela of the villages of Saliamangalam, Thepperumanallur, Needamangalam, Serfoji Rajah gave gifts of land and cash.

To many of his chatrams, Bhagavatamelas were attached and provisions were made for them in the chatram (free resting place for visitors). 

He patronized poets and scholars at regular intervals. He used to call for vidwat sadas and delighted in hearing extensive poetry, panegyric (a speech or a piece of writing that praises someone or something) and discussions on Tharka sastra and subjects on music and dance.

Serfoji devoted his attention not only towards revival of serious types of dances but introduced to Thanjavur, some lighter types of folk dances like modi dance with bag pipes, kanchin naatch and a kind of street dance drama with some adaptations from the Kathak dance of north India, and dummy horse dance, a kind of folk dance in stilts of the nomadic religious mendicants of Maharashtra accompanied by sammela kirikatti like twin drum used by Gondhalakar of Thanjavur.

Works like Kumara Sambava Tika, Mudraraksha Charya, Smriti Iswagraha, Palakappuja and Gaja Sastra Pradhandam are attributed to his authorship.

Serfoji Rajah invited learned scholars and distinguished poets from different parts of India to adorn his court. He patronized poets and scholars and flooded them with gifts of cash and lands.

He encouraged folk art forms such as Kuravanji dance drama, and authored a book called “Devendra Kuravanji.”

Kottaiyur Sivakkolundu Desikar composed the Sarabendra Bhupala Kuravanji, a ‘natakam’ or dance drama of the Kuravanji genre. In praise of Serfoji, it was danced by a group of selected Devadasis on festive occasions.

A palace dancer of his period whose name became a legend was Veenabhashini Ammal. She is supposed to have been the Rajamohini or princess in performances of the Kuravanji in Thanjavur. The gurus of the Thanjavur palace also directed the ‘Manmatha Nataka’ in the temple on special occasions. Artists flourished. His permanent gift to the Tamil tradition is the vast collection of manuscripts housed in the Saraswati Mahal Library, an adjunct of the Thanjavur palace. Serfoji himself composed many songs for dance, and lent his name as a signature to compositions by court musicians.

Reference: Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Saraswati Mahal Library (TMSSML)

Prince Pratap Sinha Raje Bhosle, Sadar Mahal Palace,Thanjavur, is the 6th descendent of King Serfoji II. He is the author of ‘Contributions of Thanjavur Maratha Kings with a Brief History of Cholas and Nayakas.’

Thanks for providing so much insightful information about King Sarfoji II's contribution to Bharatiya sanskriti and parampara. I would like to know more about the chhatrams that he opened. I am also interested in the thought of Tirumular who stressed feeding the poor and hungry. Did Sarfoji II write about him?
​- ​ Shrinivas Tila​​k (16 Aug 2017)

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