Sunday, 3 August 2014

Origins of Tamil Drama

Karthigesu Sivathamby

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 - 23 April 1966

The richness of the cultural tradition of the Tamils is expressed in the concept of Muttamil, which classifies Tamil into three sections - Iyal (Literature), Isai (Music) and Natakam (Drama). 
Origins of Drama
 It is generally accepted by all, that drama had its origins in the religious rituals of the primitive communities." Ritual drama, he shows, is based on a myth, and that myth must be in a narrative form. There is personification. "The chief actor in a ritual drama pretends to be a god or hero in order that he may be able to exercise that power which that God or hero is believed to have exercised." .
Religious ritual, which has within itself all the characteristics of drama, is thus practised, and out of it emerges the popular drama. The emergence of Greek Drama as a popular entertainment from rituals. "We know from tradition that in Athens ritual became art, a dromenon became the drama.
 Akam, Puram Divisions in Tamil Literature
The references in Tamil literature relating to the origins and early development of Tamil drama should be read in the light of the general principles outlined above. In employing Cankam literature as a source for any study, we must take into count its chief characteristic, viz. the division into Akattinai (poetic tradition which deals with subjective experience - love and family life) and Purattinai (poetic tradition which deals with the objective experience - military exploits, raids, royal achievements etc.). Poems which deal with these themes are called Akam poems and Puram poems respectively. There was also the grammatical prescription - done so, after an exhaustive study of the texts -of what should form the background of the poems of each of these divisions. (7) The references relating to Tamil Drama are seen in both divisions.
 Ritual Drama in Puram Tradition
Tunankai, is there described as the dance which is executed with the movement of the shoulders, on the fall of a king,  and the dance "that is executed, with the movement of the shoulders, in the battlefield which is heaped with corpses".
Tunankai dance arose out of the belief in a myth. It was believed in ancient Tamilnad that female devils ate the corpses of the dead soldiers and they danced with glee at the sight of such corpses, bending their arms at their elbows and striking against their sides, feeling immensely grateful to the one who killed those soldiers. This Tunankai dance of the victorious leader and his men is the ritualistic imitation of the dances of the female devils.
  It can therefore be safely assumed that Tunankai, which started as a cannibalistic ritual must have emerged as the ritual dance of the warrior hero performed to maintain the solidarity of the group. Such type of dances are characteristic of the "heroic age".
 Tunankai at that stage becomes far removed from the world of reality and was assimilated into the Vedic mythology. With the diffusion of this once cannibalistic ritual into the Vedic myth we find its slow disappearance as a popular dance form. The assimilation takes place somewhere about A.D. 5th - 6th centuries and by that time the Akam and Puram tradition, which is characteristic only of primitive living, disappears too. The militaristic myths of the Tamils are revived only during the time of the Imperial Colas and that too only in literature. Kalingattuparani depicts that revival.

The Term "Tunanki"
Tamil Lexicon derives the word Tunankai from `Tulanku' meaning, "to move; to sway from side to side". Thus it becomes clear that the word refers to the physical movement. Further, the word tulanku itself may be derived from the word "tullu"-leap or jump. It will be interesting to note that the word `tullal' denotes dance in Malayalam.
 Ritual Drama in the Akam Tradition
The ritualistic origins of Tamil drama is well seen in the dances mentioned in the Akam tradition. 
The most conspicuous of all such rituals is the Veriyattu, the dance of the priest possessed by Murukan. The great number of references to this dance in Sankam literature reveals the importance it had in that culture.  The contexts described in the poems indicate that Veriyattu was performed by the Velan to find out the ailment of the lady love whose body lost its lustre because of her anxiety regarding her lover.
This ritual has not yet lost its significance. This also arises from the myth that one falls sick when one is possessed by a spirit. 

The Peykkoothu
(devil dance) performed by the Pariahs of South India reveals how fervently this ritual is carried on at present. "Among them, when an individual is attacked by some malignant spirit  the priest performs a ceremony to exorcise the spirit from the victim's body." ( Veriyattu has not yet become a dramatic form. It is yet religion.

 Kuravai dance- Ritual Dance of the Fisher Folk
when the fisher folk found their nets did not provide sufficient reward for their toils, the fisher women assembled and danced around the horn of a shark that is planted for the purpose'.  This dance form is referred to as Kuravai dance. We shall soon see how this Kuravai (soon becomes an entertainment form.

Tolkappiyar refers to yet another dance which seems to have been a fertility rite.  It is explained as a dance in which both men and women took part. Naccinarkiniyar in his commentary states that  it had become a dance form seen only by the low and uncivilised .Valli is the creeper plant which is often taken to denote fertility. The name of the hill country girl whom Murukan wooed and married is also Valli. In view of these associations, one wonders whether this dance could have been a ritual of sexual character.

Tai Neeratal
In Akananuru refers to a group dance of females performed during the last days of the month of Tai. This dance comes at the end of a month long fast observed with the aim of getting the husbands of their choice. The original dance ritual is yet retained in the Tiruvatirakkali of Kerala.

A study of the festivals and the dance plays performed in those early festivals forms an essential part in the reconstruction of the history of drama.  Festivals are defined as "Collective rituals often centering round magical operations. Festivals probably spring from the early communal feast and its attendant sacrifice."

In Sankam literature we find references to festivals which have not lost their ritualistic character and festivals which have lost their significance and were taken as occasions for social gathering. Dances were performed at both the instances.

Of the festivals the most important was the Intira festival.  This festival later emerges as the national festival of the Tamils. . Intira, the Lord of Clouds, was worshipped. Both the works referred to earlier give detailed descriptions of the many dances and dramatic performances that were conducted during the festival.Cilappatikaram (32) and Manimekalai (33) testify amply to the fact that it was a festival connected with fertility rite

Onam Festival
 Onam day, the day on which Mayon, the deity of the Mullai region, was born.An important feature of that festival was the sham fight put on by the Mallar.  Onam day is not celebrated in Tamilnad today. It is an important day of festivity in Kerala. 

Thus we find the dances which were originally ritualistic in character turning out to be recreational. We also note that as society developed, dancing was becoming the activity of one class of women, viz. the courtesans.
Dramatic Performances
It is in that stage that we see dramatic performances being staged by a class of people called the Panar and their women counterparts called the Viralis. No study of the origins of the Tamil drama is complete without a complete knowledge of their activities.

 in Tamilnad,  bardism had developed itself into an organised institution. The bard had a troupe which consisted of himself and young female dancers. This female dancer was called Virali because she could exhibit the various emotions and sentiments in her dances in a very telling manner. Viralis danced to songs sung by the Panars. 

Emergence of Natakam
The Virali expressed in dance form what was sung by the Panan (bard). Heroic ballads speak of heroic incidents. Thus the dance depicted the incidents. In this we see the birth of Natakam, which as defined by Atiyarkkunallar is the dance that describes a story. But soon this entire art of `drama' came into the hands of this class.

Feudalsim and the Displacement of the 'Heroic' Bardic Tradition
Heroic age is only a transient age. It marks the transition from tribalism to feudalism and the transition is always fast. Heroic age leads to well defined territorial settlements, with proprietary rights and security of those rights. Militaristic exploits do not have a place in that economy. War at this stage means destruction of the means of subsistence. And it was quite natural that the bardic tradition, the finest artistic flower of that age too suffered with the change. The character and function of art changed.

In the new society they had to perform for the delectation of an audience. Sankam literature shows that many such performances were held.  Such ones as rope-walking too became performances of art.  This era marks the fall in the social status of the artist. Along with the art, the artist too becomes a commodity and the Viralis who danced, now become concubines and hetaerae. Panan, the male member of that caste group becomes the pimp.

That brings us to the end of the Sankam Period. Collective rituals had now become artistic forms. Performance has come to be confined only to a class of people. Post Saankam age reveals that all the dances were performed by this caste and that vedic myths have replaced the indigenous myths. Ilanko Atikal's description of Matavi and her eleven dances shows this change.