[see also Tamil
Drama & Film - நாடகத் தமிழ், திரைப் படம் and
Ritualistic Origins of Tamil Drama - K. Sivathamby]
"This is a pioneering work, in which the author applies the method of
historical materialism to a new field. Not only does he throw new light
on features of Tamil drama which were previously obscure, but he also
points to some significant parallels with Greek drama. In this way he
points the way to a new field of comparative study. His work is
valuable, both for what it achieves and for what it will help others to
achieve." From the Foreword by
From the Conclusion - Factors in Origin and Development of Drama in
An examination of the efforts so far made to assess the character and
trace the development of Ancient Tamil Drama has revealed to us the
necessity to approach the problem in a way different to the ones adopted
earlier. It was suggested in the first chapter that, in view of the absence
of literary dramas, it would be better to make a comparative study of the
social aspects of a well developed dramatic form. Such a study, it was
argued, would enable us to use the available evidence in a more positive
manner and sec new light in those areas which remained dark when viewed in
The preliminary outline of the social aspects in the history of
Ancient Greek Drama, and the ensuing review of the available Tamil
sources in which an effort was made to assess the exact nature of the
evidence and the true characteristic of those features which are said to be
associated with drama, made it imperative that, we should sketch the
socio-historical background of Ancient Tamilnad. The available literary
evidences viewed against that background brought to light the social
impulses that lay behind the institution of drama and revealed development,
which, like the society itself, had a
caste basis. A comparison of the features of this dramatic tradition
with those of Ancient Greece confirmed that the Tamilian development was
consistent with its social developments.
After having thus traced a probable line of development it now remains to
see whether it is able to explain the features observed at the first
instance and account for them. Such a check would validate the line of
The study of the origins of drama did not engage the attention of the
literary scholars because there was no dramatic literature. To the
historians, drama was just a part of the social entertainment and did not
deserve any serious inquiry. Whatever has been written on the problem of the
origins of drama has been in relation to other subjects like the concept of
poetry and the influence of monastic religions. It may, perhaps, be said
that as long as there was no history of Tamil drama, there was no need for a
major inquiry into the origins of it.
But to a student of the history of drama, the origins of Tamil drama can
never be a problem, because,
ritualistic association of drama is yet a living reality in Tamil Nad.
Dramas are even today enacted for ritualistic purposes. We have already seen
how the Draupati Natakam is staged for ritualistic purposes with a great
religious zeal. 1
As in South India, in Sri Lanka too, among the more backward communities
drama is performed as a votive offering. In the villages of Tumpalai and
Karaveddi in North Sri Lanka dramas are staged as thanks-giving at the cult
centres of Kali, the mother goddess. The classical dance of the Tamils -
is even now, nominally, a temple art. Though Bharata Natiyam as it is
performed is no more a ritual, there survived till recent times rituals in
dance like the Navasandhi which were expected to be performed by the dancing
girls attached to the temple. Because of the association with the temple, it
has now become difficult to distinguish the religious from the secular.
In spite of the survival of the primitive function of drama, it cannot be
said that the myths depicted in these dramas are the same as those of the
Early Tamils. Our
study of the socio-cultural development has shown that the most important
feature in the religious sphere had been the mingling of cults. In some
cases, North Indian myths replaced the indigenous ones; in some the local
myths were given a Brahminic flavour. As had been mentioned earlier, the
fusion is best seen in the Southern rescensions of Mahabharata and
The change in the myths had been so radical that it would be difficult in
most cases to postulate with any degree of certainty
the features of the original myths. We have seen that the South Indian
dramatic forms have taken on these new myths as the theme of their plays.
This change has given an All India character to the Tamil dramatic forms.
This break in the continuity of the themes of the drama - makes it
difficult for a student to chalk out the continuity in development. The
change in the religious beliefs and the social values could be seen in the
only Tamil legend relating to the origins of drama. It speaks of Agastya,
Indra, Jayanta and the dancers in Indra’s court. The similarity this myth
has with the myths in the Sanskrit tradition has already been mentioned.
It is interesting to note at this juncture that it is the classical
form - the vettiyal tradition-that has this legend of origin; there no such
traditional account available for the origins of the potuviyal tradition.
This absence of a legend of origin show s that the performers of the
potuviyal tradition were not a socially important group. It is an accepted
maxim that the need for a history arises only with a class or group
We have examined in Chapter III, the efforts made to relate akam and
puram poetry to an original dramatic form. A, is evident, these were
propounded with a view to understand literature not drama. Our examination
of these views revealed the inconsistencies in the arguments put forward. We
also found that a fuller explanation of the exact nature of the akam and the
puram poems could be had, not in drama, but in folk poetry and heroic
Drama and Society
It has been said that art is a form of organization of social energy.3
It, therefore, reflects the relationship individuals and groups have with
the society at large. An art form achieves greatness only when it expresses
a wider social force.
The analysis of the different historical phases of Ancient Tamilnad shows
that at no stage was there any one social or religious activity which could
bring all the people or at least most of them together.
In the heroic phase, in spite of the existence of a common tradition,
which brought the ruler on almost equal terms with the ruled, the emphasis
was on aggrandizing the heroic monarch and singling him out from his fellow
men. Hinduism, to be exact Brahminism, provided the emerging rulers with
ritual sanction and authority over the rest. This led to the fall of the
bardic groups and the decline of the art forms connected with them. It is in
that period we see the beginnings of the vettiyal tradition in music.
With the rise of the rulers and the emergence of the landlords, the
social differences between the developed groups and the backward communities
were beginning to assert themselves. The displacement of the traditional
bard from the royal courts symbolises the pattern of social developments.
The evidences we have for the ensuing feudal phase deal mainly with the
developed agrarian regions. The social characteristics of this period are
well reflected in
the mullai poems in
The bard has become a family retainer. The uneven economic development of
the regions creates sharp differences in the social ethos of each of the
regions. Thus, in this period too there was no one social or religious bond
that could unite all. Instead, we see the emergence of different forms of
entertainment at the different social levels. At the aristocratic level,
arose a dramatic form which catered to the aesthetic, if not erotic,
pleasures of the aristocracy. The available evidence for the mercantile
phase shows that the social reality of caste division has become the
guideline for the classification of the art forms. The performances that
catered to the needs of the court were called the vettiyal and those which
catered to the common pleasures of these classes were called the potuviyal
It could, thus, be seen that in the period up to
Cilapathikaram the emphasis has been on the differences that existed
among the different social groups. In such a situation, art too was bound to
be as varied and different as the different groups in society. Our analysis
showed that at each level of society a particular form of dramatic
entertainment was popular. This meant different types of performances and
different types of performers. At the aristocratic level there were the
maidens of celestial descent with their leader, the Dance Teacher; at the
non-aristocratic level were probably the kuttar and the down graded Brahmins
referred to in
Cilapathikaram respectively. Naccinarkkiniyar's commentary on
Tolkapiyam: Purat: 36 amply illustrate this.
Therein, he refers to paracavar (those born to Brahmin fathers and sudra
mothers and vellalar to those who perform to vilakku-dramatic poetry, to
those who perform (most probably ) acrobatics, and to pole dancers. Below
these two levels was the tribal set-up in which ritual and art were not
distinguished. The examples for such performances could be seen in Aycciyar
kuravai and Vettuvavari.
It was the art of the aristocratic performers that emerged as the
classical one. It is relevant to note here that Ranganath shows an almost
parallel form of development in Kannada drama.4
The question could now be raised as to why the classical art was unable
to get universal appeal, and all-round popularity.
Here again the answer lies in the social organisation. At the
aristocratic level dance and drama were the exclusive profession of a group
which was associated with harlotry. Though the performers had an important
social role to play, they were always kept out of the active life of the
community. Thus their art could never become a popular one. It should,
however, be pointed out that this group was not as exclusive as it was in
the Pallava and the Cola periods.
The segregation of the performers as one social unit always has a great
impact on their behaviour, which ultimately influences the attitude of the
society at large towards them and their art. Ethno musicological studies
have shown that in societies in which musicians hold a low status they are
allowed the privilege of deviant behaviour and that they capitalise on it.5
Such a behaviour is viewed with dislike and thus develops the tendency to
downgrade the, art itself. The Griots of Senagambia in Africa, an endogamous
group of bards, are cited as the classic example of such a group. 6
The deviant behaviour of the performer is tolerated because of his important
role in society.
In Tamilnad too, the performers as harlots were performing an useful
function in the preservation of the family unit by affording a socially
acceptable outlet for the extra marital activities affluent men without
infringing upon the segregated system societies of private property and its
transmission. These performers also in performed ritualistic spite of the
importance of their art and the social acquiescence to their deviant
behaviour, their art will not get practitioners outside the group.
It could be said with confidence that a social tabu against dancing
exists even to this day in Tamilnad because of the deviant behaviour of the
devdasis This could very easily be taken as one of the reasons which
prevented drama and dance from becoming an art form which had popular
participation and drama from becoming a respectable literary genre.
Attitude of the Buddhists and the Jains
It has been said that the opposition of Buddhism and Jainism had been the
main cause for the decline of Tamil drama.7
We have seen in Chapter VI that the Buddhist and the Jaina opposition
might have been prompted by social considerations too. Their main attack on
drama centred on its association with harlotry. It could be argued that had
there been no such association, they would not have attacked it. Whatever
had been the cause for their attack; the effects of it have been very great.
Historically speaking, the Buddhists and the Jains were at the peak of
their influence during the period of the Kalabhra Interregnum. The history
of Tamil literature shows that it was during this post-Carikam, pre-Pallava
period that most of the important didactic works were written. It is
generally accepted that literature as their main weapon in propaganda. Being
organised monastic religions, they naturally dominated the literary scene.
During his period their control over the literary world was a complete one.
Brahmin scholars did not have their traditional royal support during this
period because of the political disorder. This control over the literary
world and the avowed opposition to he pleasure giving arts like drama and
dance, led to the ostracism of drama from the world of literature. It is of
some interest to note the difference between the permissive and indulgent
life depicted in
Paripatal and the austere moralism that is seen in the didactic works
like Elati and
didadactic works adopted the venpa metre instead of the more musical kali
and akaval metres.
It is thus clear that the Buddhist and the Jaina opposition to drama had
been one of the chief causes for its exclusion from literature.
Drama and Literature
Apart from these external factors which denied drama literary sanction
and social respectability, there were certain features inherent in the Tamil
dramatic tradition which discouraged a literary development.
First of such features is the over-riding importance of mime and gesture
in the performances. Ilanko's order of mention the artistes reveal the
comparatively law position the `word' had in a performance. The librettist
is mentioned after the dance teacher and the musician. A comparison
with the Greek performance tradition revealed that certain features in the
Tamilian classical tradition like the mime, the gestures, and the enclosed
theatre, did not allow the `word' or speech to dominate the play. The words,
extricated from dance and music, would not have been able to bring out fully
the varying moods in the play; and this is a very important aspect of the
Another important feature of this dramatic tradition was that it varied
according to the level of society to which it catered. Literary drama could
possibly have evolved only out of the classical form. But with that
form inextricably wedded to dance and music, there existed a natural barrier
to a literary development of drama.
It is of interest to note at this juncture that not one of the major
Dravidian languages has ancient dramatic literature. The first known Kannada
drama was written only at the end of the sixteenth century.8 In
Kathakali itself is a later form. Besides, the libretti of
and other secular and religious performances never gained major literary
recognition. In early Telugu literature "drama is conspicuous by its
It is generally accepted that in each of the languages, drama belongs to
the popular or desi tradition. In the case of Tamil, the first time a
libretto is given literary sanction is in
Mukkutarpallu. It could, therefore, be said that the gap between the
classical and the folk forms of drama was one of the factors which led to
the exclusion of drama from literature.
The inability of the dramatic form to become a literary genre did
not, however, stop literature drawing from `dramatic traditions'. The
adoption of kali as a literary metre is due to the influence of drama on
literature. The dramatic character of Uralkali is the unassailable proof for
this. Tolkappiar's mention of Pulan as a 'genre composed in colloquial
dialect and the commentator's citation of Vilakkattar kuttu as an example of
that genre provide another instance.
The social order which grouped the various dramatists into exclusive
groups made dance and drama at professional level) a family tradition. This
enabled an oral transmission of the spoken part of the performance. Even if
a manuscript had to be made it was always kept within the family. Thus the
preservation of the text of the drama was never a serious problem in
Tamilnad. It should be recalled here that we are able to have today the
texts of the masters of Greek drama because they were consciously preserved.
The social organisation of Tamilnad never permitted such a situation.
This naturally raises the question of the exact nature of the works which
are mentioned as lost. Atiyarkkunallar mentions the total loss of Paratam
and Akattiyam and the partial loss of Icai nunukkam, Intirakaliyam,
Pancamarapu, Paratacenapatiyam and Mativanar Natakattamil Nul. As has been
pointed out already, these works are not plays nor creative musical
compositions but works which deal with the technicalities of the art. It is
possible that works of these types were used by the various groups of
performers. To maintain that the loss of the works resulted in the loss of
the art is putting the cart before the horse. If there had been a
flourishing practice of the art, the works would never have been lost. The
loss of these works indicate an age long negligence the art form.
There is yet one more problem and that is the reference to Natakak
kappiyam -a dramatic epic in Mani. Cattanar, while mentioning the different
artistes speaks of
atarkkuttinoju avinayam terivor
natakakkappiya nannul nunippar (XIX: 79-80)
"Those who know dance, drama and gestures and those who delve deeply into
the dramatic epics."
This reference has been taken as evidence for the existence of dramatic
literature.10 Any examination of this passage should observe the
distinction made between the dramatists who are skilled in dance, drama and
gestures and the literary scholar who makes a searching study of the epic.
The distinction between the two are very clear.
Kavya is as Sanskrit literary genre. Almost all the Indian languages
including Tamil, got the epic form from Sanskrit The literary and social
history of Tamilnad shows that the indigenous vilakku and vari or any of the
libretti never got such an attention from our literati. It is, therefore,
clear that tlm works referred to must be Sanskrit ones. The first Tamil work
written in the typical epic style is Civaka cintamani and it belongs to the
The History of Tamil Drama and the Concept of Muttamil
This account of the features of the development of Tamil drama raises
certain important questions about the concept n Muttamil. According to this
concept, Tamil language has three distinct traditions-literary, musical and
dramatic. They are referred to as Iyattamil, Icaittamil, Natakattamil.
The traditional view is that this classification has been in existence since
The compatibility of this concept with the outlined development of Tamil
drama should now be seen.
Studies in Language and Human Behaviour have shown that such
a classification is not possible at the earliest stage because as Thomson
says, "the three arts of dancing, music and poetry began as one. Their
source was the rhythmical movement of human bodies engaged in collective
labour. This movement had two components-corporeal and oral. The first was
the germ of dancing, the second of language."11
Cankarra literature shows that in early Tamil tradition no distinction
was made between poetry and song. The word for the most popular metre of the
period, akaval, is a derivative of akavu, which means "to utter a sound as
peacock, sing, dance as a peaccck, call, summon" (DED:11). The word for both
poem and song was Pa,tal, derived from the verb patu which means "to sing,
chant, warble, hum" (DED:3348).
The analysis of the kali metre and the dialogue songs of Kalittokai
showed that dancing/drama was not divorced from song.
It would, therefore, be interesting to knovv the data of this
classification. According to Vaiyapuripillai, the earliest reference we have
to Muttamil is in
Paripatal. He cites the fragment quoted by Parimekalar in Kural (23).
Terimantamil mummait tennam poruppan
parima niraiyir parantanru vaiyai
"Vaiyai, the river, is not as expansive as the cavalry of the Poruppan
(Pantiyan) of the South of the 'Three Great 'Tamil."
Parimekalar states that the word mummai denotes number. He did not
specifically state that the three Tamils referred to are iyal, icai and
natakam. The question, therefore, is to check whether it was possible for a
to mention this classification.
First of all the lines referred to are the only ones we know of that
poem. We do not know the exact context in which this `three Tamil' is
mentioned. Vaiyapurippillai would have us believe that the word Tamil in
this context refers to language and literature. But the use of the word
'Tamil' in another Paripatal lyric shows that it need not be so.
Tamil vaiyaittannam punal
"The cool waters of Tamil vaiyai."
The word `Tamil' here probably refers to Tamilnad. The word Tamil has
been used in
Cangam texts to denote the country (Purananuru:35, 50, 51; Akananuru:
22, 31). In one instance the word has even been used to denote the army
The lines referred to speak of the military greatness of the Pantiya
king. It, is, therefore possible that the word refers to the region. If so,
what could be the significance of the number three? No one needs emphasise
the importance of the three established monarchies in Cankam literature.
Cankam texts refer to the three kings as just muvar-the three (Purananuru:109,
110; Pattirrupaatu:20; Akananuru:31) It is, therefore, likely that the
Pantiya king is referred to as the Tennam Poruppan who rules the three great
states. In view of these possibilities it would be unsafe to treat
this fragment as positive proof of the classification.
A more reliable check would be of the conditions of drama during the
Paripatal belongs to the feudal phase of the Ancient Period and is
itself an example of the marriage of poetry and music. We have even the
names of those who set the lyrics to music. It is, therefore, not possible
that the classification into muttamil would have been mentioned as an
abstract concept in the same work.
This concept of a three fold classification could have arisen only after
years of separate development of each of the arts. Our review shows that it
was not possible at the earliest phase and that such a tendency of separate
development begins only with the increasing dominance of Buddhism and
Jainism. Even though it starts in the feudal phase, it was in the
mercantilist phase that the distinction is discernibly seen. If so, could we
then take it as the date of the classification too?
The basis of the classification is the recognition and acceptance of the
independent development of the three arts as a noteworthy aspect of the
language. Such a recognition implies an equal treatment of music and drama
with literature. This could not have been possible in the mercantilist phase
because of the Jaina and the Buddhist influence. It would, therefore, be
most likely that this feature of independent traditions for each of the arts
was recognised some time later by those who gave equal importance to music
Such a situation did arise in the Pallava period when the Hindus reacted
to the supremacy of the monastic religions by resorting to a popular revolt
against them. The hymns of the
Nayanmars and the Alvars reveal the importance of music in
literary composition. It was during that period that dancers were attached
Significantly enough the first unambiguous reference to Muttamil implying
the threefold classification is seen in the hymns of Thirunavikkaracar
mula nai tirkkum mutalvan kantai
muttamilum nan maraiyum anan kantai
How and why this change took, place forms the next landmark in the
history of Tamil drama and is a subject for another study.
l. T. Janakiraman, loc.cit.
2. Balwant Gargi, Folk Theatre of India (London, 1966).
3. C. Caudwell, Illusion and Reality.
4. Ranganath, op-cit.
5. P. Alan Meniam, The Anthropology of Music, p.123 ff.
6. Ibid., pp.138-40.
7. Maraimalai Atikal, op.cit., p.13.
8. Adya, Rangacharya, Indian Drama, p.67.
9. Chenchiah and Bhujango Rao, opcit., p33
10. Cuppiramani Iyer, op.cit.
11. SAGS Vol. 1 p.451