Kavuthuvams- a study

In recent years one witnesses on the performing platform the dances belonging to the ancient temple tradition of South India. Navasandhis, Pushpanjalis and Kavuttuvams form an integral part of this group. Though these pieces have been performed for a number of years within the hallowed precincts of temples, it is only recently that they have gained prominence in Bhratanatyam recitals. Of these, the Kavuttuvam presents a fascinating scope for study, both historically and technically. As one delves deeper, the subject becomes even more intriguing.

This article will consolidate some ideas regarding the historical references to kavuthuvam, its position in a Bharathanatyam recitals, the structure, prevalent practices etc..

Kavutuvam- the common thread:

Kavuthuvam is an invocatory item in Bharathanatyam and Kuchipudi recitals. It is a hymn a song of devotion in praise of a deity. It was performed by the devadasis as part of the daily rituals, or on special occasions or during the festivals. Most of the Kavutuvams are dedicated to a particular deity. For eg, the Chidamabara Natesa Kavutuvam by Gangai Muttu Nattuvanar is dedicated to the deity at the Chidamabaram Natarajar temple and similarly Nachiar or Andal Kavutuvam is dedicated to the shrine at Srivilliputthur. Whereas, there is no apparent mention of a particular kshetra or shrine in the Subrahmanya and Ganesha Kavutuhuvams.

 When my students heard it the first time they brightly came up with the idea that rap must have originated from the kavuthuvams. Kavuthuvam have an unique structure – it begins with a rhythmic recitation of sollukattus, followed by lyric recitation in the same santham (rhythmic metre) as the sollus and the later a melodic rendering of the lyrics and ends with a sollukattu. No sancharis or elaboration herev(the choreography sticks to padartham). Sometimes Thattimetti for the lyrics when repeated the second time may be seen.

Musically most Kavuthuvams are composed in Nattai, Gowlai, Arabhi, Varali, Hamsadhwani and Sri Ragam. Gangai Muttu Nattuvanar and the Tanjore Quartet have penned most of the Kavutuvams.

Kavuthuvam- Historical References

“A study of the temple tradition and extant literature sheds light on the fact that the Kavuttuvam of Tamil Nadu has a parallel tradition in the Kavuttuvam of Andhra. The earliest mention of the formal Kavuttuvam in Tamil literature dates back to the work Kulappa Nayakkan Virali Vidu Dhuthu by Supradeepa Kavirayar (about 1725 AD).

            Aadavarai eyyum madhavel kaikkichayum malar evalpol

Thaiyalal pushpanjali cheithal – cheithu pillaiyar

Kavuttuvam kondal ada ilaya nayanar

Kavuttuvam kondu nanninen

The term used here is Kavuttuvam and not any distortion of or derivation from it. The lines suggest that the dancer first struck the basic position of the feet essential for commencing the dance. Whether she chanted the Kavuttuvam in a ritualitis manner and then struck the position of the feet in order to dance or whether she first took the position to dance and then performed the Kavuttuvam is, however, not very clear. ” (2)

Kavuthuvam- Position in the margam

Though Kavutuvams are usually performed in the beginning of a recital today, there are references that show that a Kavutuvam may have been featured towards the end of a recital too. “Serfoji II was the Maratha ruler of Tanjavur from 1798 to 1832. He was a great patron of Bharatanatyam and himself wrote many Nirupanams for dance in the Marathi language but in Karnatic ragas. In his time there were eighteen items in a Bharatanatyam performance and these were


1) Jayastuti

2) Sharanu Sharanu

3) Alaru (This was perhaps Alarippu)

4) Sollu

5) Shabdam

6) Varnam

7) Padam

8) Swarajati

9) Abhinaya Padam

10) Tillana

11) Abhinaya Padam

12) Jakkini Padam

13) Geetham

14) Prabandham

15) Triputa

16) Shloka Varnam

17) Kavuthuvam

18) Mangale


Serfoji patronized four brothers called Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu who came to be known later on as the Tanjore Quartette. They reduced the eighteen items to eight and introduced the Margam which is now in force.” (1).

Prof. Sudharani Ragupathy in her VCD on Navasandhi Kavuthuvam talks about Kavuthuvam being performed before a Shapdam or instead of one.

Kavuthuvam: Different Views on its emergence…

The most common view that is present among the dance fraternity is that “Kavuthuvam” is a term that is beleieved to have originated from Kavithvam or kavithuavm referring to its poetic excellence. Bhagyalakshmi (2005) says that it may have been derived from the Kavitvam/salamu repertoire of Kathak.

 In an article authored by Smt. Chitra Visweswaran, with Sri. T.S.Parthasarathy’s support, the emergence of  Kavuthuvam is discussed as follows…

“Discussing the word Kavuttuvam, Prof. P. Sambamoorthy suggests the possibility of its being a distortion of Kavithvam (from kAvya, which has much to do with poetry). But the Kavuttuvams available to us are by no means great works of poetry. Nor can they be traced back ritualistically to kavithva and kavya. In his introduction to Jaya Senapati’s Nritta Ratnavali, Dr. V. Raghavan traces the present day shabdam to Kavithvam, which appears to be a more plausible explanation.

On the other hand, while studying the term Kavuttuvam from the ritualistic point of view, it is possible to associate it with temple rituals. The main deity in any temple is called the moolavar or moola bimbam; the deity taken out in procession is known as the utsavar, utsava bimbam or kautuka bimbam. It is known that Kavuttuvams were performed in the temple processions in the presence of the kautuka bimbam. Could the origin of the name of this dance piece be traced to this ritual? It is significant that the ceremony of tying the kappu around the wrists of young couples during the wedding is called kautuka bandham. It is also interesting to note that Kautukamu in Telugu literally means kapu utsava or the celebration of tying the kapu (see Suryaraya Andhra Nighantu – Sangeeta Sabda Chandrika, a dictionary of musical terms in Telugu). It is thus possible that the Kavuttuvam or Kavutam was performed in the presence of the deity, in the nature of tying a kapu to ward off evil.

My observation on the close bond between Kavuttuvam and Kappu is further strengthened by the study of old pieces such as Bhairavakappu in Takkayaga Parani by the famous Tamil poet, Ottakuttan, who belongs to the 12th century A. D.


 Uraka kankanath tharuvana panamani

Ulakatangalum thuyil ezha veyil ezha

Udai thavirthathan thiruvarai udai mani

Ulavi onrodonru alamara vilakiya

Karathalam tharum thamaruka chathipothi

Kazhal punaindha chemparipura oliyodu

Kalakalan kalan kalanena varum oru

Kariya kanjukan kazhalinaik karudhuvam

Many literary and poetic pieces begin with such kappus. The Bhairavakappu has many characteristics found in Kavuttuvams as available to us today. This clearly leads to a discussion of the essential characteristic features of this dance piece that is today performed in the name of Kavuttuvam.

Perhaps, the most comprehensive definition of Kavuttuvam, is in Natyacahrya Vedantam Parvatheesam’s Kuchipudi Natya Darpana in Sanskrit.

Pataksharena samyuktam devata vishayatmakam

Nanartha chitrasamyuktam kitthantam kautam uchyate

[That which has a combination of syllables pertaining to footwork (sollukattu), that which pertains to the deeds of Gods and thus presents pictures of various types and ends with the rhythmic syllable, kittha, is called a Kavuttuvam]

Whether it is done in the Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi styles, the concept and structure are the same. The most important characteristic feature peculiar only to Kavuttuvams is the close intertwining of sahitya (lyric) and sollukattu (rhythmic syllables), which is non-existent in any other dance number.”(2)

Kavutuvams- The Variety

Two kinds of Kavutuvams are important from the historical point of view:-

  • 1. The Panchamurthi Kavutuvams on Lord Vinayaka, Muruga, Sambanadar, Sandeswarar(Chandikeswara), and Nataraja. This was performed on the Thiruvathirai day in the month of Margazhi,when the idol was taken out in procession.
  • 2. The Navasandhi Kavutuvams propitaiate the ashtadikpalaks(the guardian of the 8 directions) and Bramha at the centre. These were composed by the Tanjore quartette and performed during the Dwajaroha(Flag hoisting) festival at the Thanjavur Periya Kovil or the Brihadeeshwara temple. The Navansandi Kavutuvams are composed on Bramnha, Indra, Agni, Yama, Niruthi,Varuna, Vayu, Kuberaand Isana. The Navasandhi Kavutuvam, is a vast research topic in itself. All the 9 Kavutuvams talk of the attributes of the particular deity(their mount, their consorts, their kriya (loosely translated as responsibilities etc.),
  • This has been researched by prof. Sudharani Raghupathy who is a disciple of Tanjore Kitappa Pillai, a direct descendant of the Tanjore Quartert. This project is now brought out as a Geethanjali VCD titles “Navasandhi Kavuthuvam” brought out by the Super Audio Madras Pvt. Ltd. A video search in the You tube will help you watch a few of these.More about this Cd and Kavuthuvams here
  • I intend to write a note on Navasandhi Kavutuvams shortly.

 Priyadarshini Govind in her DVD on Invocatory Items talks of  a few kavuthuvams on nature like the “Vanambadi Kavutuvams” and Kavuthuvams that mention”Nithyasumangali” or “Rudrakanika”, the devadasi.

 The Kuchipudi repertoire includes Kavutuvams, in which the dancers use their feet to create patterns of birds and animals while dancing to special songs. For example, in a Kavutuvam in praise of the Goddess Durga, the dancer creates the image of a lion, the mount of the goddess. In the Mayura Kavutuvam they create an image of the peacock. The Mellatur Bhagavatha Mela  Sampardaya also features its own Kavutuvam.

Popular Kavuthuvams performed today include

  • 1. Natesha Kavutuvam-
  • 2. Ganapathy Kavutuvam-(In ancient times it is said that training began for the student with this kavutuvam who learnt to perform the steps to the rhythm of the kavutuvam)
  • 3. Subramanhya Kavutuvam-
  • 4. Srivilliputtur Andal/nachiar Kavutuvam-
  • 5. Hari Narayana Kavutuvam-sings  praises of the dasavatar
  • 6.  Tiruvallankadu Kaali Kavuthuvam-
  • Less common ones.
  • 7. Tharugavana Mahalingar Kavutuvam
  • 8.Seergazhi Ganasambandar Kavutuvam
  • 9.Madurapuri chokkar kavutuvam

Definitely kavutuvams with their divine nature please the traditionalists and their crisp rhythmic construction and its brevity impresses the uninitiated audience too. No wonder the Kavutuvam is making its indent into the margam today. It is said that many kavutuvams are still kept and preserved in their respective temples and are yet to be brought to the performance arena. Research and collaboration with the traditional nattuvanars may discover many of these unseen gems.


8 responses to “Kavuthuvams- a study

  1. Hi,

    Will you be willing to share the meaning of the Hari Naryana Kavuthvam? I think it is also called Vishnu Kavuthvam. Smt. Chitra has performed this item and hence thought you might know it..


  2. thanks for the good summary here… there also seems to be a popular muralidhara or krishna kauvutam.. wonder where it fits in the categorization you mention?

  3. Thanx for this good post.
    Dr. Vyjayanthimala bali also wrote a research on the nava sandhi kauthwams in the 1960. Does anyone know, where to get that book?
    Thanx for ur respond.

  4. Lakshmi Ramaswamy’s reply

    “As far as I remember, the book has script and notations for the kavutuvams. I bought it in
    Karnatic book centre, royapettah, Chennai.
    Probably you should check if it is still available there. To my memory, it does not
    have any special research on kavutuvams. The particular text also had notations for
    other items like ‘melaprapti’ and ‘daayam’.”

    Ragothaman’s reply..

    Search the book in a library near you, by putting the zipcode.

  5. It is interesting to see various discussions through your columns. My name is Sudha Doraiswamy Chandrasekhar and I am an ardent devotee of Bharata Natyam from Mumbai, India. I am the senior-most active student of Bharata Vidwan Tiruvidaimarudur K
    Panchapakesha Kuppiah Pillai of Sri Rajarajeshwari Bharata Natya Kala Mandir in Bombay, I have been a student of this amazing institution since 1945 . The original
    Founders were Thiru Ayyapettai T. Govindaraj Pillai and his spouse G. Karunambal (only daughter of Thiru Kuppiah Pillai ). Later Kuppiah Thatha’s eldest son Guru T.K. Mahalingam Pillai and his wife Mangalambal migrated to Bombay followed by Thiru K. Kalyanasundaram. I had the good fortune of learning under all these great Masters of the Tanjavur tradition . The seventh generation of young masters with Guru G. Vasanthi Kumar,
    Son of Guru Govindaraj Pillai, Guru M. Vishwanath, son of Guru Mahalingam Pillai, and Guru Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram , son of renowned Guru Kalyanasundaram and his wife Mythili Kalyansundaram, carry on the family tradition meticulously. I moved to Canada in January of 1967 , bringing with me a wealth of this family’s hoary tradition through the many Invocational dances like Kavuthvams, including the Navasandhi Kavuthvam which Kuppiah Thatha taught me and had me present it to the Bombay rasikas in 1962 even before Vyjayanthimala performed her Navasandhi as taught to her by Guru Kittappa Pillai. So the credit for reviving the Kavuthvams from the cobwebs of negligence clearly goes to Guru Kuppiah Pillai. I also learned the Bhairavi Thana Varnam, brilliantly choreographed by Guru Kuppiah Pillai, The Dadhavathara Ashtapadi choreographed by Guru Mahalingam Pillai, several jathiswarams, Swarajathis, Kambodhi, and Ananda Bhairavi Thana Varnam, traditional Pafams byMuthu Tandav at, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Subramnia Bharathi, Jayadeva Ashtapadis, Andal Tiruppavai, Krishna Leela Tarangini songs, and Navarasa Ramayana Padyam, Javalis, introduction for the first Marathi, and Hindi Bhajans in Bharata Natyam, not to mention signature Thillanas in the Tanjavur Bani.
    Armed with all this, I reestablushed my dance Nritya Sudha founded by my parents Jaya and V. Doraiswamy in Bombay in 1958 , in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in 1967. following my marriage to Sanjaranarayan Chandrasekhar.. Three daughters were born to us . Sri Vidya, Anjali, and Anandini . The dancing never stopped. I performed all over USA and Canada during those years keeping my daughters with me and training them in the intricacies of the art. I also taught many students through the years. I moved to Michigan in 1978 and have been here since then. By the Year 2016, after around 7000 performances all over North America in the past 50 years, and after presenting 111 students in their Arangetrams, I am gratefully carrying on the tradition introduced to me by my mother and my Gurus in my 76 th year. We have a modest website at www. hindutemplerhythms.org. If you should want to contact me. Just thought I would open up to your efforts as you seek to contact old timers. My daughter Vidya is Twotimecworkd record holder for solo Bharata Natyam . She performed 48 Hours in aid of The American Cancr Society in 1989 raising and contributing $10,000 towards its research. Again in 1996, she beat her record by performing solo Bharata Natyam for 72- Hours in aid of the American Heart Association , again raising $35,000 to the
    BharatiyaTemple if Troy, Michigan, of which $10,000 was donated to the American Heart Association in memory if her father who had passed in 1992. Bharata Natyam is our lufe force, It is my pathway to the Supreme. I owe it my all. Our arts are second to none in the world. The Bhakthi it invokes in our very being is what will redeem us dancers at the end.
    I thank you for allowing me to ramble on with my introductions. I just had to tell you all about my beloved Guru KuppuH Thatha and the legacy he has left behind.
    Truly yours,
    In service to the Arts
    Sudha Chandrasekhar
    Oak Oark, Michigan 48237

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