HERITAGE Once used as a godown, the beautiful Sangeetha Mahal, inside the Thanjavur palace complex, is again reverberating with music.
Places that had “bounteous rainfall, a wealth of agricultural produce and facilities for leading a comfortable and carefree life… became seats of music,” wrote Prof. P. Sambamurthy. It is easy to see why Thanjavur District, with lush fields and the Cauvery flowing through it, would have fit the bill. Thanjavur was also blessed in its rulers, under whom music and other arts flourished.
Talking about the Tamil music tradition, Dr. Deivanayagam, Professor of Architecture, Tamil University, Thanjavur, says there were books on music even in the Sangam era, as for example ‘Isai Nunukkam', ‘Perumkurugu' and ‘Peru Naarai'. The Tholkappiyam explains how letters should be pronounced, and how words should be articulated while singing.
“The Silappadikkaram talks of how the stage has to be designed for a drama. Even details about the kind of curtains to be used, are given. And drama those days involved music too. So the stage would have been designed in such a way as to ensure that the music reached every member of the audience,” Deivanayagam elaborates.
“Bharata mandapams, where the Ramayana and Mahabharata were recited, were built in the Pallava period and later during the reign of the Cholas. Raja Raja I built many such mandapams,” he continues.
The tradition of royal patronage of the arts continued under the Nayak and Maratha kings. Visitors to Thanjavur usually include the Saraswathi Mahal Library and the Art Gallery in their list of places to see, but somehow don't pay much attention to the auditorium called Sangeetha Mahal, which is also in the Palace Complex. It was built in the 1600s during the reign of Sevappa Nayak.
Descriptions in the literary works of the Nayak period paint vivid pen pictures of the Palace Complex. Govinda Dikshitar, a Sanskrit scholar, whose knowledge of music matched his knowledge of the language, was a minister under three successive Nayak kings - Sevappa, Achyuthappa and Raghunatha. His second son was Venkatamakhin, a familiar name to those who know Carnatic music. Govinda Dikshitar's first son Yagnanarayana Diskhitar wrote a book titled ‘Sahitya Ratnakara' in which he described the layout of the palace.
In one verse, he says that there were many halls in the palace complex, where dancers would perform. In his play ‘Raghunatha Vilasa,' he says that to the South of the Lakshmi Vilasa (now known as the Maratha Durbar Hall), there was a place where women were trained in various arts. He refers to the place as ‘Kala Pariseelanasala.'
Rangaji, a woman poet during the time of Vijayaraghava Nayak, says in her book ‘Mannaarudasa Vilasa' that the king, along with his family, used to listen to religious discourses by Srinivasa Thathachariar and also watch dance performances.
Vijayaraghava Nayak himself was an accomplished writer and wrote a book about the exploits of his ancestor Raghunatha Nayak, titled ‘Raghunathabhyudayamu.' In this book, he describes a ‘Navaratnamanamaina nataka sala' or ‘a theatre adorned with gems.' It is this hall which is now known as Sangeetha Mahal, a name that it acquired during the reign of the Marathas.
The Sangeetha Mahal is a rectangular hall with a vaulted roof. It used to have four punkahs that spanned the breadth of the room. “The design of the hall is such that it would have helped in balanced absorption and deflection of sound waves,” says conservation architect Sakthi.
“The chandeliers and other decorations must have helped in sound dispersion. The many perforations would have ensured that excess amplification was avoided. There used to be a pit in front of the stage, which would be filled with water. This too must have helped in proper deflection of sound waves to the upper gallery.”
The Sangeetha Mahal was used as a godown and government office during the British rule and even after Independence.
In the 1950s, through the efforts of I.A.S. officers Sankaravadivelu and Palaniappan, the offices were moved out of the Sangeetha Mahal and repairs carried out. Unfortunately, some of the damage caused to the hall could not be completely reversed. “But the good news is that the hall once again came to be used for music concerts and dance programmes,” says Venkatraman, curator of the Art Gallery, who is also in charge of the Sangeetha Mahal. Dr. Rama Kausalya, former principal of Government Music College, Thiruvaiyaru, who has participated in many programmes at Sangeetha Mahal, says, “Legend has it that music contests between great vidwans used to take place in the Thanjavur court. I suppose many of them would have taken place here. Every time I am at the hall, I get goose-bumps, when I think of the great vidwans who would have performed here in the past.” The hall may have been altered substantially, but luckily, it still retains its majesty and quite a few of its acoustic properties too.