The roots of legacy: A visit to Thanjavur Quartet's house

House with a history An inside view of the residence of the Thanjavur Quartet in Thanjavur. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam  

It is a historic landmark — 1818, West Main Street, Thanjavur. Situated behind the western walls of the Brihadeeswara Temple, on a fairly busy street, one can not locate the house easily.

The gate opens to a broad patch of dry mud, as you make your way through a grassy pathway, you spot a single-storey house with a narrow verandah.

This is the residence of the celebrated Thanjavur Quartet, synonymous with the modern day Bharatanatyam repertoire. Chinnayya (1802-1856), Ponnayya (1804-1864), Sivanandam (1808-1863) and Vadivelu (1810-1845) were nattuvanars at the court of Maratha King Serfoji II (1798-1832 A.D.) in the early 19th century.

Take two short steps and open the door to find yourself in a small chamber. A few more steps leads to another door that opens up to the mutram or courtyard around which are the living rooms. Supported by pillars, the 5,000 sq. ft. house is lit by skylight windows. On the sides are artefacts and objects of everyday use, on the walls are family photographs and a 100-year-old Thanjavur painting of little Krishna. In a corner, on a wooden bench, is seated K.P.K. Chandrasekhar, clad in a spotless white shirt and dhoti. He belongs to the eighth generation of the Thanjavur nattuvanar family.

“Beginning from Gangaimuthu Nattuvanar, grandfather of the Thanjavur Quartet and father of Subbarayan, the family has continued its artistic endeavours, contributing immensely to the field of Bharatanatyam. My father Kittappa Pillai was a great teacher, who popularised the art form across the globe. This house was gifted to my ancestors by Tulaja II,” says Chandrasekhar.

Ponnayya was a composer and vocalist, Chinnayya was a choreographer, Sivanandam, a mridangam vidwan and nattuvanar, and Vadivelu was a composer and violinist.

A narrow dark staircase leads to the roof. As you take a stroll on the roof, you imagine how the brothers would have debated over jatis sipping hot kaapi.

“Vadivelu learnt the violin from a Christian priest in the Thanjavur court. Impressed by his playing of Carnatic kritis on this western instrument, the Travancore king Swati Tirunal gifted him an ivory violin in 1834,” informs Chandrasekhar.

This violin with rusted, worn out strings is kept in a glass case in the house. Though it is said that Vadivelu left Thanjavur and never returned. Chandrasekhar clarifies that he did come once to leave this violin back in his ancestral home.

Many legendary dancers such as Vyjayanthimala Bali and Yamini Krishnamurthy have been trained in this house, and a whole new generation of artists, is now being nurtured. Chandrasekhar is doing his bit to keep the legacy alive. He runs the Kittappa Natyalaya. His 12-year-old son Sabhapathy is inclined towards mridangam and his daughter, Charumati, 17, has finished her arangetram.

The heir feels in today’s world it is difficult to survive by taking up dance as a profession. “Artists are not paid well. Earlier, royal patronage took care of the artists.”

Chandrasekhar works in the Government Music School, and also conducts workshops . “Thanjavur compositions are always in demand. Thankfully, apart from coming up with new and innovative works, dancers still value the traditional repertoire which the audience too enjoy,” he says.

Among the vast repertoire of pada varnams, swarajatis and kritis, it is the navasandhi kavuthuvams that continue to be a big draw. These kavuthuvams are hymns based on temple rituals. Since these were strictly meant for temple rituals, they were not taught to ordinary dancers. “But these are great compositions and need to be passed on to the next generation. I make it a point to teach these kavuthuvams,” he says.

Discussing the teaching methodology, the nattuvanar says, “We sit and guide the dancer. Movements are not demonstrated. That’s our style of teaching because we are nattuvanars.”

What about the future? “Art is no longer hereditary. On the one side, it is good that many are pursuing the art form, but it is sad that families traditionally practising it are sometimes sidelined. We must value the old as much as the new.”

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 4:25:56 PM |

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