Musical Plays in South India



Musical play is also known as Sangita Natakam, Geya Natakam in Sanskrit and Isai Natakam in Tamil and Opera in English.

South Indian Opera is entirely different from the Western Opera. In this paper the word Opera is used to denote the type of musical forms of South India which contains a story, set with songs in Carnatic Music and verses with intermittent Vachanna rendered in a dramatic way, by using conversational style besides indirect passages.


This paper deals with the evolution, theme and the musical forms of the Opera in South India, and how it different from Western Opera. And also introduce South Indian Opera composed by Tyagaraja, Arunachalakavirayar, Gopalakrishna Bharathi and Shahji Maharaj,etc.


The word Opera derive from the Latin word Opus which means “Work”. The word Opera means “Drama per Musica”. And it was first used in England in 1658. In South India prof. Sambhamoorthy, who first used the term Opera to denote the types of musical forms.

Which have a story set with music and introduced the vernacular names Sangitanatakam, Geyanatakam and Isainatakam to these types of South Indian musical forms.


In western the Opera denotes “A dramatic work in which the words, instead of being spoken in verse are fully or partly sung to an instrumental accompaniment almost always assigned to an orchestra”

The Tamil Lexicon Kalaikalanjiyam defines the term Opera as Isainatakam and Geyanatakam.

‘A South Indian Opera is combined both musical and literary form in drama. Music is the vital part of the play’.

There was no necessity to call their works as Sangita Natakam or any other name because the dramas which were existing at that time consisted of music primarily though not with very classical type. Therefore, the natakas were also known as Isainatakam. Whenever the nataka was staged they used to advertise it as ‘Musical Play’


In Tamilnadu, tamil theatre was using the term Isainatakam to denote their dramas because the dramas consisted of mostly songs and verses, which were sung by the actors themselves.


The vedic rituals contains the ginesis of the operatic type of drama with song and dance are also found. The first cognizable root of Indian drama can be traced from the Rig Veda. In Sama veda, Hymns are in the form of  Music.Dialogues with dramatic manner can be seen in the Rig Veda.

Dramas are called Rupakas, which   is classified under Drsya Kavyas. A drama  is an imitation of a particular situation in which the characters, by means of gesture, speech, costume and music form.


This Kavya form paved the way for sangitaka and sangitaka paved the way for the operatic type of composition.

Music and dance were associated with drama from the earliest times. Natakam is the word for drama in India. The earliest references for the Operatic type of plays can be found in Harivamsa, which is the supplement and continuation of the Mahabharatha.

In North india, the Ankiya nat of Assam, Jatra of Bengal, Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh, lalit and Tamasha of Maharashtra, the Bhavai of Gujarat and the Khyal of Rajastan are the traditional provincial theatres which are Operatic in character having music and dance in them predominantly.

In South India Chakiyar koothu, Kathakali, Kudiyattam, Krishnattam of Kerala, Yakshnaganam of Karnataka, Kuchipudi of Andhra, bhagavata mela natakam, and Kuravanji of Tamilnadu are combined music, dance and drama. Kuravanji is the earliest Opera in Tamil Nadu and were performed in temples in olden days.



In Kuravanji music and dance take equal importance in the play. The story of the Kuravanji is common to all Kuravanjis. Only the hero and the heroine names vary from one Kuravanji to another. Hero is presiding deity and heroine is princess.

The hero comes in a procession and heroine and her friends witness the sight. The heroine falls in love. The heroine will reveal her love for the hero through her friend. The gipsy woman will appear and portrays accurately the mind of the heroine and also foretells that the heroine will be united with the person with whom she is in love.

There are more than 100 of Kuravanji in different languages and different religion like Christianity and islam.

Beddhalagem Kuravanji composed by Vedhanayakam sastriyar-Christian

Gnana Kuravanji composed by Peer Mohammed in Islam.

In South India the Operas such as Ramanatakam by Arunachalakavirayar,  Nowka Charitarm and Prahlada bhakthi vijayam by Tyagaraja, Nandanar charitram, Iyar pagai nayanar charitram, Karaikkal ammaiyar charitram by Gopalakrishna bharathiyar are the famous are their dramatic and musical excellence.

In these classical Operas importance is given more for the classical type of music than for the dramatic element.


Ramanatakam also known as Ramanataka Kiratanai composed  by Arunachala kavirayar in a dramatic way.

This work composed a musical work on the Ramayana theme. The music for this Opera is seen by his two disciples namely Kothanda rama iyer and Venkatrama iyer. There is no prose or vachanna in this work. The Opera deals with the story of the Ramayana in the form of Darus, Dvipadas and Vrittams. This is the first musical play in Tamil.


Tyagaraja (1767-1847) is the greatest writer of Operas in Karnatic music. Though he had written three Operas  Nowka Charitarm , Prahlada bhakthi vijayam and Sita rama vijayam , only   Nowka Charitarm , Prahlada bhakthi vijayam are available now.

Having written the story of Ramayana in the form of kritis, he had written the other two important avataras of Vishnu in the Prahlada bhakthi vijayam. He has written the incornation of Narasimha and the   Nowka Charitarm of Krishna. The former work pure devotion is treated and in the later sringara is coupled with bhakthi is treated. Tyagaraja’s Operas belong to his later period. So they back story of maturite literature skill and richness musical composition.

The Nowka Charitarm is a one-act Opera. The verses of this Opera are mainly in Telugu apart from few colloquial touches in few parts. This Opera was presented in a combination of verse, prose and song. It has five scenes, which tells about the story of a boat excursion on the River Yamuna.

There is no real base of the story of this Opera. It is just based on the imagination of Tyagaraja to captivate the interest of the people.

The Nowka krida shown in this Opera does not exist in any sacred lore or even in Bhagavatam. Tyagaraja wanted to communicate mankind the supreme teachings that there exists a Supreme and eternal power which is always following the destinies of man and he also focused that being unmindful to that eternal power can place one into trouble. In this Opera Tyagaraja tried to portray the `madhura bhakti` aspect.

The `sringara` (love) emotion is also predominant in this Opera. The main theme of the Opera is to surrender before the Supreme Lord.

A study of Nowka charitiam reveals the influence of pothanna karis bhagavatam this only pure Opera not a dance drama.

The story of Nowka Charitarm is a creation of his own imagration we can so find three incredancey in bhagavatam display of his omnipotence and the gopis play with krishna in banks of the river yamuna.

The story centres like Bhima, arjuna garva bangam, satyabama garva bhangam and draupati mana samrakshanem may possibly be sited as remote sources for the  Nowka Charitarm. The whole story centres round the boat journey nowka. Lord krishnas surrending him completly and how he subdues one’s pride  are beautifully depicted in this Opera.

Tyagaraja has made krishna himself to say the words in this Opera “Nanuvina drenamaina” stessing the point without the help of the hord even a grass cannot move in this world.

He also shess the idea as in the sasthas and puranas etc. that the life is compared to the ocean have sagaram and one cannot raw the life boat without the help of the lord on that ocean for crossing it.

The gopis also say that the lord krishna is not an ordinary person that they could relive it only after a stuggle lord krishna suggest them to worship him with whole heartedly then only he can help them. The gopis also surrender themselves to the hord in the same way.

This is the hypothesis of these Opera and this idea has been developed in a beautiful way These are intermediate verses through  which the story convey.

Lord krishna enters in to the music, gopis began to search for him and saw him buging a jujuphee fruits by giving pearls for it.

On seeing this they followed him in joy began to decorate themselves and somebody suggested that they may have a pleasant boat joumey in the river yamuna.

Though they had a small discussion whether to take krishna who is a boy of seven year old in the boat or not. finally they proceeded with the lord. In the beginning the jaurney started very happily and the pleasant boat journey is described in the vadanejanbe.

Krishana also began to play his role and dance with each and every one of the gop the ignorant gopis began to think to mach of them their duty and where in the feeling that krishna has fall on the viction to the beauty.

The pride or ignorance had made the gopis forget that with him nothing can be done. They slowly began to claim the mountain of bride and on there because of their beauty. As soon as they were at the top of mountain with his powers he caused terrific and a whole in the boat immediately the situation began to be darks a heavy rain was sporing.

The gopis couldnot find any catcheing way to row the boat and only now they realised that they had come for away form the back being badies they began to pray goddess yamuna devi to product the lord as themselves when the boat was about sink they they book krishna in their hand as he was a small boy who could sink in the river.

Laying at this siteation lord krishna made them to realive there fault and to obey his words. As soon as they surrender them whole heartedly krishna stopped the starm, rain etc and the situation became very pleasant as in beginning.

Generally the life is now compared to a boat which is nowka during the life journey and would occur in once life but the stanch faith in the lord could help us to overcome them. That is to cross the samsara sahara bhakthi could be used as boat. In this Opera tyagaraja has used the word nowka to signify the life through this the story of gopies. one can get hardships only due to ignorance so it is compared with the pride of gopies.

This is symbolism introduced in this work by Tyagaraja. As the whole story centres round the  Nowka Charitarm is very apt to this work though it is a very short Opera with only one act.


This is a popular Opera composed by Gopala Krishna Bharathiyar who was a contemporary of Tyagaraja.

Nandanar Thirunalai Povar Nayanar was a Nayanar saint born in South India who became a great devotee of Lord Shiva.

Nandanar was born in a village called Adhanur in a poor family. He was born at the cruel time where untouchability was being practised, as he belonged to Paraiyar[1][2] community, He worked  under a Brahmin landlord . He had the love of the Brahmin who believed that Nandanar had a midas touch and that he is very loyal and sincere in his duty.

But nothing was explicitly shown by the landlord towards the poor Nandan who served him devotedly.

Though Nandanar’s deity was Karuppanasami, the protector lord of villages, he was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He visits the Thirupangur Shiva Temple where the Nandi (bull) hides the Lord from His vision. Untouchability and caste-curse being very dominant at that time, the poor Nandanar could not enter the temple to have darshan. But without losing hope, Nandanar prays and the Nandi moves aside, letting Him have the darshan of the Lord. He sings the glory of the Great God (Mahadeva) and returns, only to lose his job since the Brahmin was told that Nandan went to the temple ignoring the work that was pending.

While on His way back, He hears that the Lord who dwells also in Chidambaram must be seen at least once in a lifetime. Thus, the desire to visit Chidambaram grew in Nandanar to a great extent that he started pestering the Brahmin to grant him permission to visit Chidambaram at least once. Nandanar is named Thiru Naalai Povar . since he tells everyone that he will be going to Chidambaram tomorrow (naalai).

The Brahmin refuses to grant him permission and also ridicules Him of His desire to see the Lord of Chidambaram in spite of being born in a so called low-caste. But upon Nandanar’s constant requests, he agrees but in one condition. It is that Nandanar can visit Chidambaram after all the 240 acres (0.97 km2) of land is cultivated and harvested.

Nandanar knew that it is a task next to impossibility. He cried to Lord Shiva in despair and Lord Shiva orders his Ganas to do all the work in a single night. The Brahmin gets astonished with the devotion of Nandanar, falls down in His feet and requests him to pardon him for his ignorance. Nandanar happily sets forth to Chidambaram and there too, he faces the same problem of being a low-caste born.

He sits there in the entrance of the city, filled with anguish to see the Lord.Lord Shiva appears in the dream of the 3000 saints of Thillai  and instructs them to receive Nandanar with due respect.


The South Indian Operas use both musical forms amnd literary forms. The Opera composer must be proficient in both poetic and literary skill as well as musical ability.

Musical forms  like Daru, Dvipada,  in telugu Operas and in Tamil thodayam,  folk forms like chindu and its varities, kummi, lavani, and the north Indian forms like savayi, thandakam, and kadga are used in these Operas.


Daru has emerged from  Dhruva songs which were used in the ancient Sanskrit dramas.  Darus are composed on love themes or on historical or puranical themes. Sometimes, it is also composed in praise of a patron. In darus , there is profusion of Sahitya. Daru resembles the kirtana like pallavi, anupallavi and charana. Sometimes anupallavi is not there. The presence of many charanas and the charanas being sung in the same music. The music in daru is simple. No elaborate sancharas and difficult sangatis. Sometimes jatis occur in this daru.There are different types of darus used in these Operas. The Darus are sung mostly in Madyamakala. There are different types of Darus such as  Pattra Pravesa Daru, Varnana Daru, Swagata Daru, Samvada daru, Pralaba Daru, Tillana Daru, Kummi Daru, Kolatta Daru, Kappayi Daru and Oradi Daru.

Pattra Pravesa Daru,, occurs in all musical plays and introduces the  characters Darus also figure in Operas when the characters are introduced. There are four pattra pravesa darus are occur in Azhagar Kuravanji

Ex. Mohana  maa mayil madhu vanthal- Hameer Kalyani-Adhi

Malai kuravanji vanthale-Begada -adhi

Swagata daru, is a  song in the form of soliloquy,that is character talking to himself of herself.  “Alla kallola mayenamma”  in  sowrashtra raga,which figures in  Nowka Charitarm is a good example for this type of Daru. In this song, Gopi’s sung among themselves.

Varnana Daru , that is description. The song describes the beauty of the river Yamuna with the words,

“Choodare selulaara” in Pantuvarali raga.  This song is also viewed as Kolatta Daru.


This is a couplet with three ganas. This is known as Dvipadai or  Iradi kanni in Tamil poetry.

Ex.Angulia mitta karam- Yadhukula Kambhoji-Adhi- azhagar Kuravanji

Kummi Kanni

Mangalam ser solai-Anandha bhairavi

Annathai vendra-huseni


Thodayam  is just like pushpanjali.Kavirayar composed the famous Thodayam in mohana raga.

Ex ‘en palli kondeeraiya


It is a Tamil song of folk type. It is used in Tamil Operas. Kuravanjis use the form chindu in their work. There are three types of chindu namely nondi chindu, kavadi chindu and vazhinadai chindu.

Nandha ni siva bahkthan-Nondi Chindu- nandanar charitram

Chekka sivanthanirathal-Azhagar Kuravanji

Vanarangal kani koduthu in Kuttrala Kuravanji and Avinkanndrai madi misai  -Anandha Bhairavi in Azhagar KuravanjiAnandha kalippu  is a  variety of  Nondi chindu.

Besides these musical forms, telugu  literary forms also used in telugu Operas. Seesapadyam,kandapadyam,sardhulam,champakamala,utpalamala, and utsaha. These are all sung like a vrittam. Sometimes it had a tala.

Seesapadyam comprises of four bog lines or padass containing two parts in each line which is followed by any of the two gita namely Ataveladi and Thettagiti.

Ex. Panneru kandamul panathulandarumena-Raga Anandha Bhairavi

Marathi musical forms kadga, thandagam, lavani and savayi are used in Nandanar chritram.

Ex. Meesai narichu poche- thandagam,.

Thukkada :It is a small song either like kritis or like four line phrases.

Ellorum varungal-Bilahari Raga

Boat song:  This is sung in when rowing the boat.

Ex:E nomu nochitimo- punnaga varali raga in Nowka Charitram.

Kirtana: Kirtana belongs to sacred music. Kirtana may also be in praise of Great devotees. The music as well as the rhythm of a kirtana are simple in character. The music is used herein only as a vehicle to sing the glories of God.  It evokes mainly bhakti rasa. Kirtanas deal with the devotional aspects or relates to a puranic themes. Tyagaraja used kirtana form in his Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam Opera.

Ex.Sri Ganapathini-Sowrashtram raga

Enneramum unthan in Deva Gandhari raga in the opera Nandanar Charitram.

Ragamalika kirtana ex:Ayye metha kadinam-nandanar Charitram.

Tamil literary forms like venba , kalippa, vanjippa, iru sol alankaram, kanni are used in the traditional Tamil Operas.


South Indian Operas mainly evoke bhakthi rasa. These Opera are very popular in Tamilnadu. Songs from these are performed in concerts and also used for Harikatha kalakshebam. (Musical discourse)  Arunachala kavirayar is the earliest Opera writer in South India and his immortal work paved the way for the outcome of innumerable Operas. Raagas used in Musical play are Kambhoji, Bhairavi, Punnagavarali, Nadanamakriya, surati, Anandha bhairavi, begada, Devagandari and Hindustani ragas like Behag, Hamir Kalyani, Yamuna Kalyani,  Hinduastani Kapi.

The Opera can be regarded as separate manifestation of the art of music and drama, each claming sovereign status. It belongs to the branch of applied music and it is an international art form.


Dr. Jayavidhya Narasimhan






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