The Maratha connection

Indira Viswanathan Peterson, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, U.S., focuses on King Serfoji II and his contributions to the Big temple, as also the performing genres such as kuravanjis, nondis and pallus.

Updated - January 13, 2011 04:30 pm IST

Published - January 13, 2011 04:13 pm IST

The king of Thanjavur, Serfoji II, who made significant contributions to the Big Temple.

The king of Thanjavur, Serfoji II, who made significant contributions to the Big Temple.

“I see Serfoji II, a Maratha who grew up in Tamil Nadu and who knew many languages, as my alter ego!” says Indira Viswanathan Peterson, a Tamilian who grew up in Bombay, and knows 12 languages.

Indira is the David B. Truman Professor of Asian studies at Mount Holyoke College, U.S. Her book on the Big temple, which she has co-authored with George Michell, has been published this year. Recently, Indira spoke on Serfoji’s connection with the Big temple at the C.P. Ramaswami Iyer foundation.

One catches up with her later, and asks her why she published a book on the Big temple. Isn’t there a surfeit of material on the subject? “Yes. But most studies focus on Chola contributions. I was more interested in Serfoji II’s association with the temple.”

“Serfoji’s contributions to the temple are significant for many reasons,” she elaborates. Serfoji was the adopted son of King Tulajah, and his legitimacy as royal heir had been challenged by Amar Singh. So Serfoji had to strengthen his claim to the throne. How better to do it than by leaving his imprint in the Big temple? Others such as the Thriuvarur temple, for instance, were administered by adheenams and mutts. Serfoji wanted a temple that he could call exclusively his own, and luckily for him the Big temple had no claimants! Serfoji, in fact, may be credited with turning the spotlight back on this temple, points out Indira.

Serfoji had been educated by the Christian missionary Schwartz, and the correspondence of the period shows that the missionaries expected Serfoji to convert to Christianity.

Indira says that Serfoji’s public demonstration of his faith in Saivism, might have been to reassure his people that he remained a Hindu. “I also think he was firm in his belief in Saivism and wanted to show himself to be a Hindu dharmic king,” says Indira. “That is why he installed 108 lingas in the Big temple, besides making many gifts to the temple.”

Indira’s love for literature encouraged her to study the literature of the Maratha period from the 16th to the 18th centuries. “And there was an explosion of genres during this period. I find the kuravanjis, nondi and pallu particularly interesting. The first kuravanji was performed in the Maratha court. In Shahaji’s time, there was a polyglot kuravanji, in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu.”

On the popularity of the kuravanjis, Indira’s guess is that the migration of nomadic communities to South India could be one reason. Curiosity about the nomads, the local population’s interaction with them and the changes in the economy brought about by the European presence in Thanjavur- all could have made the kuravanjis popular, as they “offered a commentary” on changes that were taking place.

“There is a little bit of everything in kuravanjis- geography, gods, kings and eroticism. The kuravanji was both cosmopolitan and hybrid. And it was performed by the Devadasis.”

Interestingly, the Christians wanted to have their version of the kuravanji. So Vedanayagam Sastri wrote the ‘Bethlehem kuravanji.’ He even wrote ‘Gnana nondi’. The nondi genre appealed to the Christians, because of their belief in faith healing. Vedanayagam Sastri wrote hundreds of Christian kirtanas, and he also gave Christian musical discourses, resembling a Harikatha, with abhinaya and hand cymbals!

“Another genre popular during the Maratha period was the bhana,” says Indira. The word ‘bhana’ is from the Prakrit word ‘bhanati,’ which means ‘to speak.’ Bhana plays enacted in the temples of Thanjavur, were risqué monologues, about the liaisons between Brahmin men and Devadasis. The audience consisted only of Brahmin men.

Maybe the monologues were just vicarious, literary trips, to escape the

claustrophobia of orthodoxy, one suggests. “Maybe some of them were. But some of them must have been true,” she says. “I find these bhana plays interesting, because here we see the Brahmin community self- satirising.”

Bhana literature was popular in the Gupta period, and Indira says that the Telugu ‘Kreedibhiramamu’ of the 15th century perhaps took off from the bhana genre. But the genre became popular in South India mainly from the 16th century onwards.

“There is so much about the Maratha period that requires study,” says Indira. She sees Serfoji as a visionary, who took pains to build a magnificent library. In one shipment from Europe, he had 650 books, all of them just for his medical studies! His collection includes 4000 books in nine European languages, and these books are about European literature and science. Interestingly, many of these books have also been found in Benjamin Franklin’s and Thomas Jefferson’s collections! And this similarity makes Indira want to study Serfoji in the context of the intellectual history of Europe and America.

Indira’s translations of some Tevaram hymns have been published. Why has she not translated verses of the Azhwars? “There already are many translations of Vaishnavite literature, but not Saivite literature, because Vaishnavite literature has the advantage of having many commentaries. These help (one) to understand usages and meanings.”

Why does she think there weren’t any commentaries on the works of the nayanmars? “That’s a very interesting question I haven’t analysed this, but I think the reasons would be very complex.”

Indira has introduced Indian literature to her students, whom she has taught the ‘Jataka Tales,’ ‘Panchatantra,’ ‘Kathasaritsagara,’ ‘Sangam’ and Prakrit poetry and stories from the ‘Ramayana.’

“The students found the ‘Aesop’s fables’ pale in comparison with the ‘Panchatantra,’ for the latter has animals, kings and so much of everything. They also like the bhakti poems of Meera and Surdas. Lord Krishna is, of course, a favourite.”

Indira feels there is so much in Indian literature that needs to be translated for Western audiences, such as Krishna Deva Raya’s ‘Amuktamalyada.’ Indira’s book on Serfoji II is under consideration for publication in 2011.

Indira has a B.A.(Honours) in English literature from Bombay University, and a Master’s degree and a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard University. She has held many fellowships, including those from the American Council of Learned Societies, The National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute for Indian studies, the Social Science Research Council, the

German Government’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. She is the editor of Indian literature (500 B.C. to the present) in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, and the Norton Anthology of World literature (2001).

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