Bharatnatyam, as we know today is a culmination of a process of evolution of the classical dance form through centuries. Once cultivated and nurtured in the temples and courts of South India it is a dynamic living tradition that is continuously evolving and metamorphosing through the socio cultural influences, political alignments and individual contributions through ages. Patronised by the powerful art loving rulers, Bharatnatyam flourished as a composite art in the temples that were richly endowed and serviced by not only dedicated dancers, nattuvanars or dance gurus, musicians, vocalists, composers, poets but architects, sculptors and painters too. One such group of contributors were the Pillai brothers from Tanjore also known as the Tanjavur Quartet. Their contributions to the dance form are unparalleled.
The four Pillai brothers – Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu – served as court musicians at the kingdom of Maratha king, Serfoji II in the early 19th century. It is here that the famous four recomposed the ekartha prayoga that is the single theme – different but interlinked combinations of Natya and Nritya which was the recognised style of Sadir dance, the precursor to Bharatnatyam, to form the unlinked prithagartha prayoga structure or ‘margam’ used today – beginning with Alarippu and ending with Tillana with Jatisvaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, and Javali, in between, demonstrating multiple themes. Ponnaiah was a composer and vocalist, Chinnaiah was a choreographer, Sivanandam excelled as a mridangist and nattuvanar, and lastly Vadivelu was a composer and violinist. Together they can be credited with starting the first Bharatnatyam Bani (Pandanallur) or gharana as known in the Hindustani classical tradition, a signature style of dancing by creating and training a long line of music and dance masters and teachers, through the Guru–Shishya paramparaa. The Tanjore Quartet organised all the basic Bharatnatyam movements of pure dance into a progressive series called Adavus. They composed new music specifically for Bharatnatyam and introduced a different sequence of items that brought out the various aspects of dance and music. They brought about many artistic changes and innovations to an existing tradition and as creative artistes added beauty to margam or classical programmes.
Chinnaiya, the eldest of the four, was a great teacher of dance, and himself was supposed to have been one of the few males who actually performed the dance dressed as a woman and taught men to perform. Ponnayya’s jatiswarams composed in Kalyani, todi, sankarabaranam, saveri and vasanta ragams still very popular with dancers are par excellence. He was also responsible for the systematization of the Sadir Kacheri. Sivanandam introduced the western Clarinet as an accompaniment in Carnatic music. Vadivelu, the youngest, an accomplished vocalist and composer perfected the use of violin. Navasanthi Kavithuvam, a traditional dance form was pioneered by the quartet.
By reshaping the art of Bharanatyam into concept form for the first time, developing the primary syllabus for teaching dance and classifying the Adavus, setting the present concert pattern for Sadir Katcheri, bringing in female dancers to perform Kathakali which was primarily performed only by male dancers, introducing new musical instruments and creating numerous and diverse music compositions set specifically for dance, the contributions of the Tanjore Quartet in the field of modern day Bharatnatyam is invaluable.