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Tanjavur natya on canvas

The British Museum, London and the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington (London) preserve a good collection of Indian Art, either deposited or bequeathed by British Officers who served in India in the 18th or 19th Century A.D. During my recent visit to London, the Museum authorities opened up their reserve collections for me to make a special study. The India Office Library has also an impressive collection of South Indian paintings, but I could not make a study of the same.

In the late 18th Century Europeans serving in India evinced great interest in the life style and costume of the people and specially commissioned artists to paint men and women of different castes and professions. Many albums containing such paintings exist in European Museums and one such album in the collection of Victoria and Albert Museum, carries about sixty paintings. I am certain that this particular album was painted in Tanjore by the artists of the Mahratta Court, for some of the pictures carry labels written either in Tamil, Telugu, Nagari or Modi script. From the records available it is seen that such paintings reached the Museum, before 1840's and were probably painted around 1800 A.D. That was just the time when the great patron of music and dance, Raja Serfoji II,ascended the throne.

Two pictures in the collections, depicting dance scenes, are of great interest to lovers of Indian dance. A Bharata Natyam dancer wearing traditional dress is shown striking a pose. Six musicians stand behind her playing different musiciai instruments. The musicians wear dhoti in Kacham, Jippas and Mahratta headgear. One plays a maddalam, the other a violin and the third a flute. Two men playing the cymbals were obviously the Nattuvanars. The sixth plays on a bag-pipe, which was called Tutti. At the rear stand two dancing girls by the side of their mother. Obviously the picture was intended to depict a contemporary dance. A label beneath the painting in Telugu script, reads Tanjavur Natya. That the violin was an essential instrument in music and dance concerts, as early as 1800 is indicated by the painting. The costume and jewellery of the dancer, deserve mention. All the three dancing girls wear a long garland across their body from the right shoulder. The Bharata Natya was known as Thanjavur Natya around 1800 A.D.

The other painting depicts a dance scene in altogether a different tradition. Three girls in north Indian costume, are shown dancing. Two musicians are shown playing the sarangi, while three others play a tambura, a mrdangam and cymbal. They wear pyjamas, kurta and turban. No label is found in this painting. That it represents the north Indian dance tradition is clear from the both the costume and musical instruments. It is known from M0di records in the Tanjore Saraswathi Mahal library, that this form of dance was known in Tanjore as Hindustani Natya. Another painting depicts a temple procession of Lord Siva, with a label in Telugu reading "Siva Devada Parappadu". The procession shows the Pancha Moorthis, Ganesa on a mouse, Subrahmanya with his Consort on a peacock, followed by the Somaskanda on Vrshaba (Bull) and Devi on a lion. At the end is Chandikeswara. Ganesa, Subrahmanya and Devi are shown on golden vahanas. There is a large gathering of devotees. Immediately preceding the main deity of Lord Siva are six dancing girls.

R. Nagaswamy


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