4 Ancient Tamil Drama: An Overview

Dr. Ritika Batabyal

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In this module we will discuss ancient Tamil Drama, how it developed and the various forms of Tamil Drama during the ancient times. In the ancient Tamil society different kinds of Kuttus were performed in honour of the deities as Vettuva Vari for Korrai, Aycciyar Kuravai for Mayon and Kunrak Kuravai for Murukan to name a few. Thus religion was linked with the development of drama in ancient Tamil society. These Kuttus generally involved singing in praise of the deity and dancing. It is assumed that drama in ancient Tamil society might have developed form such singing and dancing.


Origin and Development of Drama in Ancient Tamil Society


In order to trace and understand the development and origin of Tamil drama one has to depend on the evidences found in Cankam literature since none of the texts of ancient Tamil Drama has come down to us. Drama was referred to as Kuttu during the Cankam period. Kuttu mainly means dancing but the term has been also used to mean drama. Tamil language is considered to have tripartite division: Iyal, Icai and Natakam. The Cankam poets used the term Natakam in its perfect sense. There are again two kinds of Kuttus – Abhinayam and Natakam. Abhinayam denotes a kind of dance played in concordance with a specific song. Natakam, on the other hand, enacts the scenes from a story or a narrative. Kuttu has also been identified with Paratanattiyam. The latter term signifies a dance which enacts a song or a part of a story by a single person or a group of persons accompanied by harmonious musical instruments during some festivals. Thus it is in this sense that Kuttu comes closest to drama and drama in ancient Tamil society mainly comprised of these Kuttus. Natu can be considered to be the root of Natakam, which signifies a resemblance. Thus Natakam resembles life and activities of people through imitation. In the villages of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu a dance called Camiyattam is organised to appease the dead spirits. One person dances in trance representing the life of the dead spirit. Here dialogues are used seldom and it is one person’s show. It is considered that this type of Attam had helped in the development of Tamil Drama. Thus Tamil drama in all probability is indebted to dance. The term Kuttu thus means both dance and drama. The dancers received patronage from the village headman. They presented stories and incidents from the Puranas and the epics. In general it is assumed that the representation of individual songs is called dance while the enactment of a story is called drama.


Types of Kuttus


In the commentary of Atiyarkkunallar an explicit account of the Cantikkuttu and Vinotakkuttu is found. The former aims at the successful progress of the hero. The Vinotakkuttu evince a kind of relationship with drama. The Akakkuttu tries to portray the characters and gives the expression of feelings. This shows that the different features of a drama are found in the Tamil Kuttus. Virutti is another form of drama as described by Atiyarkkunallar. The characters playing the different roles are important in classifying the different forms of Virutti.


It is conjectured that the subject matter of drama should be Aram (righteousness), Porul (wealth), Inpam (pleasure) and Vitu (salvation). The five parts that characterise drama are – Mukam, Piratimukam, Karuppam, Vilaivu and Tuittal. Dialogues of a drama are divided into three types – Puraccol (open speeches), Utcol (soliloquies) and Akayaccol (asides). It is assumed that Tamil Drama had a close connection with ritual dances. It would be significant to have an idea of these dances in order to understand Tamil Drama.




This form was very popular among the ancient Tamils as mentioned in the Cankam literature. People living in the Mullai (forest) and Kurunci (hilly) regions organised this dance. It was played with the rhythmic beatings of the drum. Generally seven or nine men and women participate in this Kuttu. They sang in praise of Mayon or Velan. As the action progresses both the erotic and the heroic sentiments are unfolded. Interceding dialogues are used which indicate the gradual change of dance into drama. Generally the Kuravikkuttu portrays the story of Kannan.




This form was famous during the Cankam Age and was performed by a man called Velan. This is usually performed in the hilly regions. The Velan danced fiercely indicating that he is inspired by the spirit of Lord Murukan. This dance is in praise of Murukan.




It is performed by a woman. The performer sings in praise of a hero who suffered for the cause of her country. In the Cilappatikaram this dance has been mentioned.




It is a dance performed both by men and women as a sign of their gratitude to Goddess Valli for conferring peace and prosperity upon the people.




This dance was performed when the people of the Palai region were dividing their booty looted on the wayside. The dance represents lot of merriment and is performed in the temple of Goddess Korravai.




This dance is equivalent to rope-dance and the performer danced to the rhythmic beating of the drum.




This celebrates the victory of kings in wars. The dance is performed with a lot of music and feasting.




This was famous during the time of the Cilappatikaram. It was a difficult performance as the dancer had to dress and act in a way that he resembled Siva from his right side and Uma from his left side.




Here the story was developed with the help of a picture made out of skin. The Cuttiratari remained behind the pictures in order to make them move and act with the help of sticks. This dance form came very close to drama.




It is almost similar to Torpavaikkuttu. Here the pictures are replaced by dolls which are moved with the help of strings. This form also has much dramatic elements.


Decline of the Kuttus


When Tamil Nadu came under the rule of the Kulappirar dynasty during the third century A.D. the Kuttus started to decline. The Kulappirar dynasty was firm believer in Jainism and was inimical to the promotion of fine arts. Thus there was a steady decline of the Kuttus which reflected the joyous note of the Cankam Age.


Tamil Folk-dance


Tamil Folk-dances have much dramatic element and they also have their share in the development of the Tamil Drama in ancient times. The different forms of these dance performances can be divided into the following heads.




This is performed by men or women and sometimes by both. It uses melodious songs. Songs and short dialogues are used to develop the story. Clapping of the hands is an essential part of this performance.




It comprises of men dancers. The story of Murukan, Kattavarayan and Maturai Viran are generally portrayed here.




It uses dolls to develop the story. The story is taken usually from the epics. This is quite similar to the Pommolattam dicussed above.




Here pictures made of skin or thick paper are used instead of the dolls to portray the story.




In the villages of Tanjore small group of actors perform this form of dance. Stories from the Puranas and the epics are enacted here. Dialogues form an important part of this dance and it comes very close to drama.




Here one or two persons participate and sing in praise of the temple deities with the request to protect them from disasters and hardship. At times they act comically to provoke laughter.


Karaka Attam


Usually a girl with a decorated pot on her head is seen performing this dance. During temple festivals it is organised with great pomp. Sometimes men also take part in this dance.




This dance is in praise of Lord Murukan.




Professional group of dancers performed and enacted stories from the Puranas. It seemed more like a dramatic performance.


Kaniyan Attam


Here dancers sing songs portraying the story of temple deities with the beating of the drum.




Here dancers wear masks which are huge and have ferocious faces resembling human beings. These masks are made of straw and bamboo sticks. The dance is performed when the village deity is taken in procession.


Kuravan and Kurattiyatal


Here a man and a woman perform speaking in a humorous way.




Here the story of Manmatan being burnt is enacted. Songs are sung and heated arguments develop in a healthy way.




It enacts the incident of the stealing of curd by Kannan. In different places it is enacted in different ways.

Poykkal Kutiraiyattam


Here a man performs while riding on a decorated horse made of cardboards and wood. He enacts small stories like that of Sivaji.




Here a man dressed like a tiger performs fiercely in the streets. It is performed as a penance during times of intense drought.


These different types of folk dances tried to portray different stories or incidents usually form the Puranas and the epics. In these dances one can find songs, dances and the development of dramatic elements through the use of dialogues. These folk dances led to the development of ‘modern’ drama in later times. The various Kuttus and folk dances prevalent in the ancient society served the purpose of drama.


Stereotypical Musical Plays


With the decline of the later Chola Empire, Tamil Nadu got fragmented into pieces and the strong connection that existed among different parts of the land was completely lost. Art and culture also suffered a setback during this time. The great plays patronised by the Chola kings were no longer in vogue. During this time it was only through the temple festivals that social entertainment was fostered. For entertaining the audience these plays made use of beautiful songs. Mostly they were performed in the streets or the open ground. These plays were written in honour of the temple deities or the chieftains. The themes of the street plays were mostly love as their main purpose was to arrest the attention of the audience. They portrayed erotic tales and witty riddles of life. Pallu, Kuravanci, Nonti and Kuluvalm were the important forms of these plays. The plays were written elegantly and had dramatic values. They used different songs, portraying a series of sequential events in a story pattern and hence they are often considered to be dance dramas. These street plays thus marked the development of drama from dance.




It is a dance drama where the main action is played by the ordinary people of the Pallar community. This genre was very popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are many references in the Cilappatikaram which can be correlated with Pallu. Pallu begins traditionally with an invocation song praising particular gods. Then the main character, Pallan, appears on stage praising the God and boasting of his personal talents. The prosperity of the country was reported in details.




It follows the traditional practices of invocation after which the Kattiyankaran announces the arrival of the hero in a procession in the streets. The hero passes through the streets with great grandeur and casts glances at the gathering of the people. But seeing the magnificence of the hero the women suffers a lot from pangs of love for the hero. The heroine of the play also feels intense passion for the hero. Then there is the character of the Kuratti and the Kuravan who plays significant roles in the play. The Kuravanci tries to portray the joys and sorrows of human existence. The tensions and sorrows are a part and parcel of every life irrespective of their socio economic status. Comic element is sometimes added according to the requirement of the play. Through the Kuravanci the writers had tried to evolve a philosophy of life. These plays were enacted during festival times in the temples.


Nonti Natakam


It is a public performance where a single man poses as a lame man and performs. With the help of songs he enacts his past life. There were innumerable uses of comic techniques. In most of the Nonti Natakam the theme and form remain the same. As the story of the life of the man unfolds it becomes clear that he was not born lame but the circumstances of his life and his various vices led him to this situation. There is a reference of divine grace which ultimately saves this man. Simple and lucid songs were used to make the performance more attractive.


Kuluva Natakam


These performances were written with the idea of praising a hero, a god or a race which had been helpful. The Kuluvan is given a prominent role here. This Natakam uses songs to narrate the sequence of the events. The speech of the Kuluvan is full of witty remarks.


These different types of stereotyped street plays were important part of the society. It is through the development of the story that the dramatic element becomes explicit in these street plays. In these street plays it is generally with the help of songs that the story or the particular incident being portrayed is enacted.



The later Cholas and the Pantiyas patronised music and storytelling through songs which became very popular. There were musical variances in the development of these story-poems. The songs were in the form of the Kirtana. These story-poems seemed to be a drama when they were recited by talented musicians. Thus it came to be called Natakakkirtanai. With the accompaniment of musical instruments the songs are sung and the story is developed. According to the contents of the story the songs are composed in different ragas. The skill of the writer in telling the story is important as the stories were already known to the audience. An able singer, called the Pakavatar, was able to achieve this. In these works puns are used. It is believed that the Natakakkirtanai was specially written during the seventeenth century for the purpose of enactment on the stage. The entire story is recited by one man. Dramatic elements can be explicitly discerned in these performances


Musical Plays


The street plays, discussed earlier, were modified in certain ways in order to develop the musical plays. The musical element of the street plays were kept unaltered but it was written in such a manner that it became suited for the stage. These plays began with an invocation praising particular god/gods. The street plays depict a court scene and the glories of the king are announced. The stories are mostly taken from the popular Puranas and Itikathas. According to the contents of these plays they can be divided into seven types – incidents from Itikathas, Puranic stories, popular stories, Religious stories, Historical events, Social events and Philosophic content.



Thus ancient Tamil Drama developed from the various Kuttus. Many of the Cankam poetry have referred to Natakam and often dancing girls were called Nataka-makalir and the performance conducted by them as Natakam. The different dances and dance dramas had dramatic qualities in ancient society. The Cilappatikaram expounds the qualities of drama and uses dramatic qualities to build up the plot. In Manimekalai Kuttu, Patal (music) and Natakam are differentiated but sometimes Natakam is used in the sense of Kuttu. This establishes a link between the two.

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  • Perumal, A.N., Tamil Drama Origin and Development, Madras: International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1981.
  • Sivathamby, K., Drama in Ancient Tamil Society, Madras: New Century Book House Private Ltd, 1981.
  • Raghavan, Srinivasa A., Tamil Drama, Indian Literature, vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 128-131.
  • http://www.jstor.org/stable/23329303 Accessed: 07-12-2015.