Bharatanatyam – Indian Classical Dance


The word “Bharatanatyam” is has its origin from the word “Bharata” and is associated with the Natyasastra.

Despite its undebatable antiquity, it is not very easy to reconstruct the history of Bharatanatyam dance over a period of nearly 2000 years. There are two different types of source material from which one can make an attempt to reconstruct the history of this dance style.

The first are the Tamil sources. Two important Tamil works, namely Shilappadhikaram and the Manimekhalai of the Sangam literature, refer to the art of dancing. The word used is kuttu. Two types are mentioned viz.

  1. Shanti Kuttu, and
  2. Vinoda Kuttu.

Scholars have been of the opinion that Shanti Kuttu represents classical form of dance while the Vinoda Kuttu, as its name suggests, was a type of entertainment. Although the twelfth century commentary on the Shilappadhi­karam written by Adiarkkunallar clarifies many aspects of the Shilappadhikaram and throws important light on the state of dance, it is not easy to deduce that Shanti Kuttu represents only a classical form and Vinoda Kuttu an entertain­ment. They may well represent different milieus in which the dance was performed. In these works, there is also evidence of the nature of the technique, the presentation style and the response of the audience. Other Tamil works support the evidence of Shilappadhikaram and the Manimekhalai.

The second source is that of Sanskrit texts. Sanskrit texts and literature reached Tamil Nadu and the Southern States fairly early. Amongst the many forms and styles of dance described in the Natyasastra, there is the Dakshinaya.

It is true that the solo dance was only one of the many classical forms prevalent in South India; it is also true that the solo dance was at best a part of the Bhagavata Mela Natakams of the region. However, it would not be incorrect to say that the ekaharya lasya of the Natyasastra was a distinct form and the ‘solo’ Bharatanatyam is a direct descendant of this form. Whether the dancer was the devadasi of the temple or the court-dancer of the Maratha kings of Tanjore, her technique followed strictly the patterns which had been used for ages. The only difference between the temple-dancers and the court-dancers seems to have been one of attitude. The literary content of some of the pieces was also different, and the dancers of the courts did come to have passages in which the king rather than god was being adored. But none of these differences was important from the point of view of the development of the essential dance technique.

The Maratha Court of Tanjore provided the milieu for further growth of this art form in the seventeenth, eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Sadir Nritya received a definite shape and design in the hands of these poets, musicians, kings and their distinguished artist’s courtiers. The word `Sadir’ owes its origin to the Marathi word `Sadir’ which means ‘To present’. This form was also known as Dasiyattam. Although there continues to be controversy about the notion whether or not the present shape and form of the contemporary Bharatanatyam was the gift of the four musician dancers and dance master brothers, popularly known as the Tanjore Quartet, it is clear that the contemporary repertoire of Bharatanatyam was certainly evolved sometime around the eighteenth or the early nineteenth century. Chirmayya. Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivariandam, the four brothers, adorned the court of Raja Serfoji between 1798 and 1832. They had received inspiration and training from the composer Muthuswami Dikshitar. They had been in the court of king Tulaja and they were the teachers of many renowned dancers and musicians. King Tulaja had composed the Sangitasaramrit in Sanskrit and a perusal of this text clearly tells us that the technique of Bharatanatyam or more precisely speaking Sadir had been evolved by this time. The Tanjore quartet possibly refined it further and gave a chiseled structure. The tradition of both temple dancing and dance in the court milieu continued until the early part of the twentieth century. In the temples, the Devadasi performed dance as part of the Seva and in the court milieu professional dancers performed before the patron King to an audience. In the latter, there were some influence and musical compositions which travelled from the Courts of Baroda to Tanjore. From recent researches, it is also clear that what began to flourish in the courts of Tanjore Princes was also a gift of the artistes of other regions of India. This rich and vibrant tradition came to a halt through an act of the Madras Presidency which banned temple dancing altogether and looked down upon those who performed the art. While there may have been good sociological reason for banning dance on account of the low status which was given to the Devadasi, the ban proved to be a death knell for the artistes.

The period between1910-1930 may be considered to be a period when this art form received many destructive blows. However, all too soon, there was an equally powerful voice against the social stigma which was attached to the art. Already in 1926, E. Krishna Iyer was carrying on a single handed battle and by 1935, a movement of reconstruction was firmly established. Subramania Bharati had written his patriotic songs and there was an awareness of the rich tradition which was being thrown away in the name of the social reform. In the villages, Bharatanatyam continued as part of the presentation of the Bhagavata Mela tradition in the villages of Nellore, Melattur, Soolmanglam, etc. However, here only it was men who performed the dance. The efforts of E. Krishna Iyer and later of other pioneers, including the Kalyani daughters and of Km. Bharat put together, lit a small torch for a new awareness. On this scene came others from very different background. Rukimini Devi decided to study Bharatanatyam under the grand old master Meenakshi Sundaram Pilai and from Mylapur Gauri Amma. In 1936, she gave her first performance. This was the lighting of a new fire. Finally, there was the emergence of dancers from the families of the traditional repositories. The most important amongst those Devadasis who decided to perform in the public was Balasaraswati. She gave her first public performance outside the traditional milieu in Varanasi in 1935. Two streams came together in the mid 30s: (1) traditional dancers being inheritors of the traditional Devadasis who now began to perform before public audiences outside the temple and the court milieu. (2) Girls and women with an affluent background of high social status belonging to the Brahmanical society, such as Rukimini Devi and Km. Kalanidhi. They trained themselves in the art as an artistic and academic discipline. Both types of artistes performed before large audiences. The Music Academy, an institution devoted to the preservation and conservation of these arts, proved to be the forum for such recitals. The post-Independence period was an era of revival and reconstruction. Institutions begun by Rukmini Devi, recitals performed by Balasaraswati and disciples trained by Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, such as Shanta Rao, all left a deep impact. Some continued the tradition of their peers, others reconstructed and recombined fragments they found into a new whole.