Pallava period (Social and Cultural History)

by S. Krishnamurthy | 2017 | 143,765 words

This study examines the Social and Cultural History of the Pallava period (as gleaned through the Sculptural Art). The Pallavas (6th-9th century A.D.) mainly ruled over the Tondaimandalam (Tondai Nadu) region in the Northern part of Tamil Nadu (South-India). The Pallava dynasty ensured a golden age of architecture, arts, and spirituality and while ...

Musicians, dancers and theater artists

[Full title: Socio-Religious Life of the Pallava Period: Musicians, dancers and theater artists]

Sculptures also throw light on the existence of specialized artistic groups in the society like musicians, dancers and theatre artists. The series of sculptural panels from the Thantonrisvara temple at Kanchipuram are the earliest of the secular sculptures from Tamil Nadu and interestingly it provides the first artistic evidence of dance performance by men and women in pairs or in groups. These panels are regarded, as of Pre-Mahendravarman period, the artistic style of which according to R. Nagaswamy[1] resembles the late productions of Amaravati and can be datable to 5th century A.D.–6th century A.D. Of the total six panels, five of them show clear picture of men and women in dancing pose (fig. 24). Only one panel appears to be little different from the rest, as there is animated communication among the different members of this group. This panel (fig. 25) portrays three men and a woman. Of these, one man with a prominent mustache and a sword tucked at his waist followed by the other two men is seen expressing something to the lady in front, for which she reciprocates with a gesture by her hands.

Unfortunately, as these six sculptural panels are now no longer in their original context and are thus in disturbed state, it is impossible at this moment to state, whether these panels together narrate some part of a story or all are individual portrayals. If the former explanation is accepted, then it is most probable that they depict some stage play, which may be identified as representing Theru kuthu.

It is well known that the art of theater is popular in the Pallava period as attested not only by the inscription from Mamandur but also from the two plays viz., Mattavilasaprahasana and Bhagavadajjukam. From the inscription at Mamandur (first quarter of the 7th century A.D.)[2] it is learnt that king Mahendravarman I was the author of both these plays. They belong to the category of prahasana or farce i.e. humorous in style. Bhagavadajjukam[3] itself refer to the popularity of enacting plays in royal palace and mentions that a good performance will be recognized and receive royal patronage. As if attesting to this statement, though far removed in time, the historical panels of the Vaikunthaperumal temple in Kanchipuram also depicts in some of them, musical and dance performance by men and women in the royal court as witnessed by the king and queen accompanied by other courtiers. Such dancing troupe could be noticed in the northern and southern walls of the cloister. A panel on the northern wall shows a male dancer in the middle accompanied by a pair of women dancers (fig. 26). In another panel on the same wall can be seen a troupe of nine people consisting of musicians and dancers (fig. 27). In the words of C. Minakshi[4] “The first member of the troupe is a drummer playing on his drum. He is followed by six men and two women dancers. It is interesting to learn from this panel that the Pallava monarch patronized group dancing consisting of men and women”. A very clear portrayal of of dance performed by a single individual in the royal court accompanied by the playing of musical instruments like drum and flute can be seen in two panels (fig. 28) on the southern wall. If this view and description on group dancing is compared with the panels from the Thantonrisvara temple, then the assumption that it also depicts a group dancing, probably forming part of a play gains strength.

The miniature sculptural panel of Krishna in the act of performing the kuda kuthu dance in the Pundarikaksha-perumal temple at Tiruvellarai (fig. 29) also hints at the popularity of this form of dance in this period. Literature like Silappadikaram[5], also describe this kind of dance as exhibited by Vishnu after defeating Banasura. Probably during festive occasions as it is done today, even in Pallava period such dance performances are given.

Many sculptural representations of men and women in the form of ganas, gods, goddesses, celestials like Kinnaris, musicians and common villager are seen playing various musical instruments. Even though the depiction of divine and semi-divine beings as such appear to be mythical in nature, yet the kind of musical instruments depicted along with them, like the harp, flute, tabala, tambura, conch, cymbals, lute and vina indicate they were used by the people of the Pallava period.

So from these epigraphical[6], literary and sculptural evidences, it can be surmized that one of the occupational class in the Pallava period, could be theatre artisans consisting of actors, dancers, acrobats and musicians. Once the dancing troupe gains popularity, they may also have been sumptuously rewarded by the king. Apart from the actors, there could also have been another group of people, who served them as assistants looking after their needs of food, costume, ornamentation, etc. It is difficult to say with certainity whether these theatre artisans or dancing troupe were full-time professionals or they had other occupations and performed on special occasions only.

Footnotes and references:


R. Nagaswamy, The Art of Tamilnadu, Chennai, 1972, pp. 9–10.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy no. 38 of 1888.


Veturi Prabhakara Sastri, op.cit., pp. 1–2.


C. Minakshi, op.cit., p. 17.


Chapter VI, Kadaladukadai; ll. 54–55.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. IV, no. 827; Ibid., vol. XII, no. 14. It is interesting to note that the Vilavetti plates (Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXVI, pp. 296–303) also refer to mukha-dharakas i.e. Mask actors and Rajjupratihara i.e. Rope-jugglers.

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