Tanjavur Natyam: A Love Affair with Dāniké

A Love Affair with Dāniké

By Jeetendra Krishna

Wednesday, August 29 2018 (First Published: May 21, 2006)

All Rights Reserved © 1996-2018 - Sathir Dance Art Trust

[Article edited and condensed from an elaborate writing]

The Art Of Dāniké 

Have you ever had a love affair that lasted for almost forty years? Well, I have—with a varnam! This varnam is —dāniké, which is a masterpiece of a composition. The varnam, dāniké, with lyrics and music in the ragam todi, is a work of outstanding artistry written by Śivanandam of the Tanjavur Quartet. The varnam extols the last of the Maratta kings, His Highness the Maharajah of Tanjore Sivaji II, who ruled from 1832 to 1855. It is presented through the words of a court dancer. She, while presenting a plea on behalf of another woman, goes into raptures about the King’s virtues, thus betraying her own carnal craving for the king!

Ménage À Trois

Śivanandam Pillai was one of the prolific composers of the Tanjavur Quartet. The varnam’s lyrics and music are a work of outstanding artistry, and was praised by Maharajah Sivaji and his Excellencies as a varnam of unsurpassed quality. The arangetram of the varnam at an audience before the Maharajah was performed by the court dancer, Meenakshi [acc., to Kittappa Pillai, July 4 1997].
The varnam impressed the King so much that it became the start of an intimate lifelong friendship between the King and Śivanandam.
Śivanandam then went on to write many varnams, often specifically in praise of his patron and friend, Maharajah Sivaji. The beauty of dāniké lies in the originality and well-planned placement of its words. The poetry is lifted to excellence by the use of the majestic todi ragam. A passionate story of intense desires is told using ordinary words, but conveys something extraordinary. The poetry provides the dancer great space for expression of the human body through dance. The lyrics tells us an intriguing ménage à trois that is in the making. The courtesan makes many passionate pleas trying to convince the King of the desires another woman has for him. She tries to dispel any doubts the King might have, assuring him that the other woman is as passionate as she herself is for him. The lyrics of the varnam are tongue-in-cheek: laced with subtle sarcasm, witty remarks, humour, and innuendo. The words of the varnam thus play well with this subtlety. Quite clearly, the King, the nattuvanars and the court dancers were not taking themselves or the lyrics too seriously and were obviously having fun.

There are a few adapted versions of dāniké with some minor changes to the original words. One such version was written by Śivanandam brother, Ponnayya, who edited the words of dāniké to have it now praise the pretender King, Serfoji III [the adopted son of Maharajah Sivaji II].
Ponnayya Pillai also applied the todi ragam musical score of the varnam to set the lyrics of his penultimate composition, samininne korinanura; later, he set the varnam in a varnamalika format. It is in this format that it is still popular and danced today. Interestingly, it was this composition, samininne korinanura in ragam todi that my teacher, Rajamani danced when she initially learned the art of Sadir.

A Love Bizarre

The art of dāniké is certainly not for all dancers. The challenge lies in trying to capture the tongue-in-cheek tensions between both body and soul, between sexuality and spiritual love. The lyrics of the song have much more meaning in the subtext underneath what is actually stated in the mere words. To study only the padartha, or the literal meaning of words, would not be unravelling the mystery of the poetry. This is because the words express as much directly as they do not express. Only a serious study with the right teacher will reveal this mystery. If not, the artist cannot really bring truth and honesty to the dance composition. If the subtext is truly understood, it can free the artist from a prefixed, from-beginning-to-end, set-in-stone kind of Abhinaya. The latter, unfortunately, is in vogue today.

A Love Affair

My own encounter with dāniké began around forty years ago. I remember discovering dāniké for the first time on a 78 LP record with music for Indian dance, which my mother had in her collection. This old recording, from the 1950s, is the full varnam, including the last fourth caranam lyric. I often listened to the varnam, and was intrigued by the words and music, although I was too young to understand any of it. I just knew I loved the song.

My love affair with dāniké truly began many years later when I was invited for a luncheon at the home of the dance teacher, Rajamani Mohan, a senior disciple of the Nattuvanar Tanjavur Kittappa Pillai. When I arrived at her home, she was busy in the kitchen and told me to wait in the living room. While I waited there, some music played softly in the background and I could still hear the song. I was immediately intrigued by the sound of it, and I asked Rajamani what it was. “It's dāniké...” she said with such an intense look on her face, as if she spoke of a lover! I turned up the volume to hear the song more clearly. I instantly fell in love with the varnam, recalling that I had heard the varnam many years earlier but had now forgotten about it. The rest of the afternoon we spoke of nothing else but dāniké. Rajamani demonstrated decorous mudras as well as the abhinaya or expressive dance in many imaginative interpretations, and encouraged me to try it as well. Rajamani told me it was her first-ever varnam, that had been taught to her by a hereditary artiste, when she was a young girl. Later on, she studied the varnam again with Kittappa Pillai. That afternoon spent with my teacher is still edged in my mind, even though many years have passed since then. When I left that day, she gave me a copy of the music and told me to listen to it regularly. Since that day, I have listened to it, almost every day, often the entire composition, and sometimes just a part of it. And so, I first learnt dāniké from Rajamani, and later, I went to Tanjavur to study the varnam again from the master of Bharatanatyam himself, Kittappa Pillai (the Kai for the varnam).

Years later, in 2003, Rajamani passed away. I continued to go to her house regularly to meet her husband. On one of those visits her husband gave me an old box and told me Rajamani would have wanted me to have this. I opened the box and inside, besides many other varnams, was dāniké, with notes and elaborate details of the varnam, written by her and by Kittappa Pillai, as well as old recordings of the music. “She told me you would treasure it”, her husband said. I have had, and still have, love affairs with other Tanjavur Quartet varnams, the rarer varnams, not so much with those that are in vogue today–but never have I had such an intense love affair as I have had and still have with dāniké. My love for this varnam is so much that, over the years, I have made twelve different studio recordings of the varnam. However, I still mostly listen to that ancient scratchy LP record version I have, in which the music is set to an appropriate madhyalaya pace throughout the song. It is sung by unknown female singers, who sang the lyrics with such passion that through their emotions I imagine how it must have been performed originally at the palace. Never would I love another varnam as much as I love dāniké !

[Article continued below the video]

A Lover's Paradise

Some elaborations beyond padartha, or the literal meaning of the lyrics of this Varnam, dāniké, illustrate the tenets of this song of desire, sung as it were in a lover's paradise...
Meenakshi sings and dances at an audience before the Maharajah... bōsalakulāpati! bālarā silarānelarā vēlarā ipudu! My lover! My courageous warrior King! Sri Sivajendra! Hujūr, now that I have become before you, accept my request, for this young lady is good natured! Yes, she is a perfect match! The time is now! Salaamu! Salaamu! Sarabhendra! Maharajendra! Ruler of Tanjore! dāniké tagu jānarā My beau, if a sālam is what I have to do, I will do just that! But do consider my praise for her, as she is the purest! Accept her and join us! The time is now! she is suitable for your desires, she is clever, a perfect match! dāniké She will please you in every which way, King of mischief! She will worship your golden feet if you praise her beauty. Considering she is all yours, bring sweet scented blossoms for her silky hair, close her lotus like eyes and embrace her tight. You are a truly romantic man, I know! Offer her your full delicious lips, she might accept! Come with me and let us make love! nīvu dayayuncarā Oho! be compassionate, will you not? dayayuncarā īvela for you to be compassionate the time is now! Unbeknownst to yourself, my lover, she has seen you in her dreams, over time she has fallen for you. daya! Oho! Be compassionate, will you not? Not even precious gems can match this woman's beauty! She is not steady, that damsel is suffering. On a bed of fragrant-scented blossoms, with the moonlight in her eyes, she awaits your arrival. daya! The time is ripe for the fulfilment of her desires. O ho, do not pretend to be otherwise engaged! daya! Do not delay, take my request and come with me! She is no ordinary woman! As you are right for her, she is right for you! That damsel wants to experience your lovemaking skills! rā ra! My lover boy, are you not? Come with me, forthwith! This is the right time for passionate lovemaking! Why this delay?! Oh lad, she is not a cunning woman! Do not dilly-dally pretending you are not interested! Hujūr Mallārji, to do so, is it right? Does it befit your King! What is the murmur in his mind? Do tell me! Do not stand on royal protocol, accept my request, the time is now! Sabash! You good fellow! rā ra! dayayuncarā nīvu you have to go, O ho, have mercy! dayayuncarā īvela for you to be kind, the time is now. Do not tarry because she has not come here herself! dāniké tagu jānarā! She has recognized your royal qualities and has made herself available for you alone. So thinking, I have come to tell you, dāniké tagu jānarā nīvu dayayuncarā īvela!

ALSO READ: Tanjore Quartet—Tanjavur Natyam


Extracted from: “Dances of Desire by the Tanjore Quartet” a manuscript which I have written during my extensive travelling to Tanjavur and Madras between 1995-2003. It features in-depth documentation of forty varnams of the Tanjore Quartet. I became particularly interested in further understanding the historical context of the Tanjore varnams when I studied the varnams, “Nī Sāti Dora” and “Dāniké Tagu Jānarā”. Both varnams are revolve around the courtesan’s desire and the object of her desire, the Maharajah of Tanjavur. Looking deeper into the poetry of the songs opened up a magical world of courtly musicians and dancers who dwelled at the palace of Tanjore, to entertain the erudite Maharajah and his entourage. The varnams of the Tanjore Quartet are dances of desire, of love found, lost and found once again. Danced and sung by the unmatched courtesan, the nattuvanars, and the musicians of the royal court.  Most of my insights into the history of the Tanjore Quartet came from my dance teachers. To me, learning from these teachers has meant coming as close as possible to travelling back in time to the Tanjore royal court, and be a witness of the marvellous dance and music of the Tanjore Quartet. I’m thankful to have found my teachers who have filled my life with the joy of dance Art —Rajamani M. (?-2003), without whom I could not have had access to Tanjavur Kittappa (particularly in 1996/1997). She shared with me the Dāniké and Nee Saati Dora varnams (among other pieces) -and provided me with the documentation for the same. Tanjavur K.P. Kittappa Pillai (1913-1999); Pandanainallur M. Gopalakrishnan Pillai (1938-2015); Pandanainallur C. Subbaraya Pillai (1914-2008), and additionally, I am thankful to dance guru, Chithra Muralidaran for graciously sharing many insights into contemporary Bharatanatyam.

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Can you please send me a MP3 record of the Varnam ,Danike rendering which featured in the youtube video given with your article? please send to ajithraga@gmail.com. I love he varnam very much and searching a lot for a long time