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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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[see also Tamil Drama & Film  - நாடகத் தமிழ், திரைப் படம் and The 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 George Thomson

From the Conclusion - Factors in Origin and Development of Drama in Tamil Society

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 isolation.

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 development postulated.
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 - Bharata Natiyam 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 Ramanaya.

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. 2

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 consciousness.

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 ministrelsy.

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 Tolkapiyam, Kural and the mullai poems in Kalittokai.

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 ones.

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 Tolkapiyam and 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 Kalittokai and Paripatal and the austere moralism that is seen in the didactic works like Elati and Kural. The 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 literary drama.

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 Malayalam, the Kathakali itself is a later form. Besides, the libretti of Kutiyattam and other secular and religious performances never gained major literary recognition. In early Telugu literature "drama is conspicuous by its absence" 9

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 Pallava period.

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 beginnings.

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 song in Paripatal 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
(Paripatal:6: 60)
"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 (Pattirupaatu: 62).

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 period. 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 and dance.

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 to temples.

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



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