The Marvellous Nee Saati Dora

Article • Tanjavur Quartet Art

The Marvellous 
Nee Saati Dora

By: Jitindra Krishna
May 9, 2018 @5:12PM
All Rights Reserved © 1995-2018

The Tanjavur Quartet, early 19th century musicians in the court of the Maratha King Serfoji II at Tanjavur, composed a collection of exquisite dance varnams in praise of court dancers and their royal patrons, Maharajah Serfoji II and his successor, Maharajah Sivaji II.

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"The unmatched beauty of the Tanjavur Quartet varnam is this: what you finally desire to achieve with the varnam, you may not know precisely - until you dance it. Even then, you may never know completely. But only know that you want to dance it again and again…"

Among the many varnams penned by the Quartet, several stand out distinctively as lyrical and musical masterpieces. I was fortunate to learn quite a few of these masterpieces, which are referred to as “rare” varnams today. One such varnam is Nee Saati Dora written by Ponnayya Pillai. The varnam is set in the musical framework or raga, Bhairavi, with four additional ragas: Kalyani, Kambhoji, Todi and Mohanam beautifully placed, as icing on a cake, in the fifth and last caranam stanza.

The Nee Saati Dora varnam is most likely the first-ever dance varnam presented by the Quartet before Maharajah Serfoji II. There are references to this varnam in palace manuscripts, which recount several anecdotes pertaining to the unmatched beauty of this varnam. The varnam, with lyrics and music of outstanding artistry, is, however, not known to many Bharatanatyam practitioners today. Most dancers do know, and have danced to the Tamil adaptation of the varnam (written in the early 20th century by a noted descendant of the Tanjavur Quartet), This adaptation, Mohamana en midil, is set to the musical notation of Ni Saati Dora.

The marvellous Nee Saati Dora celebrates the brilliance of a court dancer, who in turn extols the virtues of her lover, the King of Tanjavur, Maharajah Serfoji II. The courtesan makes many passionate pleas of her burning desire for her lover, and the varnam vividly expresses those desires in poetic terms. Because the text describes a real historical figure, it is essential to study the social and historical context that influenced the composition of the lyrics. Being composed with utmost care to details, the varnam reveals the nuances of the artistic and vocational practices of the court dancer.

The pada varnam is laced with witty remarks, humour, subtle sarcasm and innuendo. "Sami! My loverboy! Show me all mischievous ways in lovemaking! Oho! This is not the time for your dilly-dallying, come on, get going! Enough of playing tricks with my heart! Why do you pretend to be otherwise engaged? Is it fair? O ho, be compassionate now, why don't you? King of mischief, this is the right time, please accept my request, for I am waiting!" 
The verses also beautifully intertwine the erotic and the spiritual by referencing Vedic beliefs and practices followed at the Tanjavur court during that period. "My King, son of the courageous Maharajah Tulajendra! Only you, as if Devendru, revels in all of life's pleasures, the master archer! connoisseur of lovemaking! Bhoga! Candra!" 
The challenge lies in capturing these tongue-in-cheek tensions of both body and soul, sexuality and spiritual love. The originality and well-planned placement of the words give the dancer a great deal of space to explore the poetry in motion.

The framework of this varnam, as well as other Tanjavur Quartet varnams, by the way they were written, do not only speak of the greatness of the composers. They also provide a unique model that one can only find in Indian classical dance — wherein a protagonist expresses her intimate desires in the presence of not only her lover, the King, but also in the presence of other excellencies and connoisseurs of art, music and dance. The words of the varnam play well with subtlety in such a setting. Obviously, this dance of desire involving the courtesan and the King would have been clearly understood by the two of them, but it would have left the other excellencies guessing at what exactly was afoot! One can only imagine how the lyrics must have been explored and interpreted by the court dancer and the nattuvanars while presenting the varnam before the Maharajah. What is certain, though, is the fact that the King, the nattuvanars and the court dancers were obviously having fun and quite clearly did not take themselves or the lyrics too seriously!

To design the dance sequences for Nee Saati Dora can be a serious challenge. There is so much that is all subtext underneath what you actually see looking at the words. For to study only the padartha, or the literal meaning of words, would not unravel the mystery of the poetry. The words express as much directly as they do not. If you do not get this, you cannot bring truth and honesty to the dance composition. But if you do, it can free you of a prefixed, from-beginning-to-end, set-in-stone kind of Abhinaya, which, unfortunately, is in vogue today.

For any artist who has danced a varnam of the Tanjavur Quartet it remains in the heart and mind forever. The unmatched beauty of the Tanjavur Quartet varnams is this: what you finally want to achieve with the varnam, you may not know precisely - until you dance it. Even then, you may never know completely. But only know that you want to dance it again and again...

Some elaborations beyond the literal meaning of the lyrics of this Varnam, Nee Saati Dora, illustrate the tenets of this song of desire, sung as it were in a lover's paradise:
nī sāti dorā nīvani neranamminānu nenaruncarā īvēla nā sāmi bhōsālakula sri tulajēndruni tanayā bhōga dēvēndrudaū sarabēndra candra! “Salaamu! Salaamu! Sarabhendra! Maharajendra! my courageous warrior King! Sami, at this time be compassionate and accept my request … my lover, King of all men ... equal to you there is none, this I strongly believe … so thinking … I have come this way ... for I am most suitable for all your oddities! This is our secret! There is no lover equal to you, but my loveliness is without equal in the universe, I am no ordinary woman! My heart is filled with desire … embrace me and kiss me with your delicious lips … the time is now not dilly-dally and delay my request any longer! Now do not think you are unbeknownst to me, compassionate King! I have dreamt of you even before you came into my life! My loverboy ... generous and merciful King of my heart … now that I have come here, do not pretend to be otherwise engaged! Do not ignore this beautiful woman! My beauty is unsurpassed … Aha! As you are right for me, I am certainly right for you! Do not smooth-talk … while you break your promise! Oho! You are the son of the great Maharaja Tulaja! … Is your delay fair? Does this befit a King? Now that I have come before you, all decked up … my desire witnessed by all … you have to protect me! Sami, you are a generous man ... are you not? A mighty courageous warrior, devoted to Lord Indra … are you not? Connoisseur of life ... are you not? Is it fair for you to delay my request? My beloved, who revels in life's pleasures, I have come before you ... the time for loving is now, not tomorrow! … you alone can be my lover … I have to understand the distance betwixt us, tell me what is the murmur in your mind … come on, get going! Do not hesitate or stand on royal protocol ... the time for lovemaking is now … Let us start, with gay a'bandon! … I am intoxicated … intoxicated with desire ...” nīku tagu sati nēnani nī samukhamuna vacciti nannu paripālanamu sāyavēlarā ipudu valapu nilupa tagadu solasi kalayavelanu nimishāmu yuga madanasastravidhi calapu vaccitini sarasudancumari “I am a befitting woman for you … Yes! That kind of woman! … So thinking, I have come into your presence ... Oho! … now you must protect me and look after me! I am intoxicated with desire ... the time is right... I cannot afford to be tired, and be separated from you ... Is this fair? Have you forgotten me sooner than I want? A minute feels like an eternity … I cannot wait any longer! Oh Sami, the time for passionate lovemaking is now ... knowing that ... accordingly I have come ... my loverboy! Yes, I am that kind of woman ... a match for you ... If you protect me ... look after me and respect me ... I will give myself to you ... with you alone I shall experience the Kāma Śāstra! Oho Sami! 
Alas ... the spirit of desire has arrived, what shall I do now?"

[Article edited and condensed from an elaborate writing]

All rights reserved © 2018 
The Article:
“The Marvellous Ni Saati Dora" 
may not be reproduced, re-published, cached or otherwise used in any form, without the prior written permission of the author:
 Jitendra Krishna (Hirschfeld)
Jitindra Krishna
 “The Marvellous Nee Saati Dora" 
–first published in 2008–
edited and condensed from an elaborate writing, is part of the documentation of around forty-five Tanjavur Quartet varnams.
A 'Blueprint' of the Tanjavur Quartet songs was shared with me by: Nattuvanar, Tanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai (1913-1999). The legendary dance master was an authority on the Tanjavur Quartet repertoire, the interpretation and inner meanings of the poetry.
The late Rajamani Mohan, a senior disciple of Kittappa Pillai, also provided me with documents and interpretations of lesser known Tanjavur Quartet varnams which were part of her repertoire during her initial learning of Sadir.
 And additionally by:
Pandanainallur Subbaraya Pillai
Pandanainallur Gopalakrishnan Pillai.
Tanjavur Kittappa Pillai Rajamani Mohan
Tanjavur Kittappa Pillai - Rajamani Mohan