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Kuravanji Nattiya Nadagam: A Dance Drama from Madras State Edwina Ranganathan One of the most prevalent preconceptions concerning drama and the other arts in the modem Western world is that the author—and, in some cases, even the performer— should make something new. Originality of plot or incident is not, however, the goal toward which the dance drama of India strives. The artist works within a given framework which might, in Western terms, involve stereo­ typed characters and episodes. Yet the dance drama in performance is given artistic life and, within its traditional limits, reaches a high level of achievement. While there is no striving for newness, the rich elaboration of a basic story may provide a genuine and deep aesthetic experience. In the dance drama which is known as Kuravanji Nattiya Nada­ gam from Madras State, the basic story revolves around fortune tell­ ing, proclaiming one of the skills associated with the Kurava hill tribesmen. The heroine, seeing a nobelman or deity passing in pro­ cession, falls in love with him. She is from a wealthy family, and hence is surrounded by several handmaids or sakhis to whom she divulges her love. They console their mistress and call upon a gypsy fortune teller woman (kuratti) 1 who predicts that the girl will one day be united with her lord. As a reward, gifts of jewelry are showered upon the fortune teller by the heroine. The Kuravas were a tribe specializing in fortune telling, but were also famous for bird hunting, catching snakes, and basket weaving. They could also sing and dance, and would come down from the hill area (kurinji)2 to entertain the rich people of the plains ( marutam) with their amusing poetic accounts of their unorthodox way of life. I The word Kuravanji is thought to have been derived from the Tamil words kuram (fortune telling) and vanji (woman). It has been suggested that the dance drama itself ultimately develops from two ancient dance forms, the Kuluva Nadakam and the Kuram.3 The latter of these is a song, represented by four extant texts, in which 110 Edwina Ranganathan 111 a gypsy woman predicts the fate of a girl— usually a wealthy young lady, although sometimes a courtesan— who sometimes also actively participates in the action of the poetry. The gypsy woman dances and illustrates her song, gives picturesque descriptions of her mountain abode, and tells of the greatness of her tribe’s exploits and traditions. In Kulava Nadakam, which comes down to us only in one known text, Midilaipatti Vaiddyalinga Kuluva Nadagam, only gypsy char­ acters are portrayed. The dominant figure is the kuluvan, the assistant of the kuratti’s husband. Neither the heroine nor the prince appear, though the kingdom of the prince provides the setting for the action— the catching of birds by the kuluvan and the gypsy husband (singan). Pleased with his good catch, the singan wishes to tell his wife (singi) and thus sends the kuluvan to search for her. The wife, who has received rich gifts of jewels from the heroine, comes onto the stage and is in an amusing scene accused of being unfaithful, for the husband is curious about the source of the valuable jewelry she is wearing. Eventually, she convinces him of the truth: her cleverness in predict­ ing fortunes has resulted in her enrichment. These simple forms of dance inspired composers to elaborate on the theme. They actually introduced the heroine and deity passing in procession onto the stage. The emphasis was placed upon the worship of the deity, thus making the compositions suitable to be performed in temples. It was not long before they were included in temple festivals and performed by the temple dancers, the Devadasis. These dance dramas, now known as Kuravanjis, were performed through the medium of classical dance in the temple courtyards. Highly pop­ ular, they reached the height of their development in the late seven­ teenth and the eighteenth centuries. Written versions of these dance dramas are extant, and are included among the 96 prabhandas or types of Tamil literature^ however, many exist only on palm leaf manuscripts and have never been published. As the Kuravanjis were incorporated into the life...


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pp. 110-119
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