History of Bharatanatyam
The term Bharatanatyam today identifies a particular style of dance. Historically, Bharatanatyam is a system of dance, described in the Natya Shastra, capable of manifesting various forms. Four related but distinct forms conforming to the system of Bharatanatyam are:
- Sadir Natyam – a solo dance form performed for centuries by devadasis in temples and eventually in the royal courts of South India, especially in Tamil Nadu
- Bhagavata Melam – a group form of dance drama from Tamil Nadu, with all roles performed by men, and themes based on mythology
- Kuravanji – a group dance by women, interpreting literary or poetic compositions typically on the theme of fulfillment of the love of a girl for her beloved
- Kuchipudi – a group form of dance drama from Andhra Pradesh, with all roles performed by men, and themes based on mythology
While a number of India’s dance forms, like Manipuri, Mohini Attam, Yakshagana, and Kathakali, can be considered variations of the system of Bharatanatyam, they are not as firmly rooted in it as the four listed above.
Origins, Evolution, and Decline
What we know as Bharatanatyam today springs from Sadir Natyam, also known by names like Dasi Attam, Chinna Melam, or simply, Sadir. The term Sadir began with the Maratha rulers of South India in the 17th century, who called the dance Sadir Nautch. This corresponds to the presentation of the dance in the courts. A more exalted role of the dance is evoked by the name Dasi Attam, the dance of the devadasis as a part of temple worship. A devadasi, whose name means servant (dasi) of divinity (deva), was an artist dedicated to the services of a temple. The dance of the devadasi was integral to the ritual worship. Devadasi families specialized in the arts of music and dance, and with the nattuvanars (dance masters), they maintained these traditions from generation to generation, supported by royal patronage.
Sculptural and literary evidence indicates that dances of the Bharatanatyam form, that is, based on the Natya Shastra, were used in temple worship throughout India. This original classical dance tradition deteriorated in the North due to repeated foreign invasions, and mixed dance forms replaced it. Fortunately, the dance tradition survived in South India, where it continued to be patronized by kings and maintained by the devadasi system.
This is not to say that the tradition of Bharatanatyam was static from the time of the Natya Shastra through the last century. It did evolve and there were regional variations in elements of the dance. An important milestone in this evolution was the development of the current format of the Bharatanatyam recital. This happened in the late 18th century, at the hands of four brothers known as the Thanjavur quartet. They were the four sons of the nattuvanar Subbarayan: Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam. They also refined the music of Bharatanatyam, influenced no doubt by their musical mentor, the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar. These developments shaped Sadir into the precursor of what we call Bharatnatyam today.
Under British rule, propaganda prevailed against Indian art, misrepresenting it as crude, immoral, and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization. This influence was pervasive enough to dissuade the patronage of royal courts for ritual temple dances, and to alienate educated Indians from their traditions. The devadasi system declined. Most were forced to seek the patronage of ordinary wealthy people, becoming mere dasis, and in some cases prostitutes. This in turn diminished the reputation of the devadasis as a community. Even the terms by which the dance was known – Sadir, Nautch, Dasi Attam, and so on – took on derogatory connotations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social reformers under Western influence took advantage of these circumstances, launching an Anti-Nautch campaign to eradicate not only the prostitution that had come to be associated with devadasis, but the art itself, condemning it as a social evil. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the classical dance of South India was almost wiped out, even in Tamil Nadu.
Against all odds, a few families preserved the knowledge of this dance tradition. Its revival involved individuals from disparate backgrounds: Indian freedom fighters, Westerners interested in Indian arts, people outside the devadasi class who learnt Bharatanatyam, and devadasis themselves. Everyone working with classical Indian dance today owes a debt of gratitude to these individuals, without whose efforts Bharatanatyam may have been lost.
E. Krishna Iyer was a freedom fighter and lawyer who also had learnt Bharatanatyam. He would perform it in female costume to remove the stigma associated with the dance, and campaigned to raise public interest in the art. He also played a role in founding the Music Academy in Madras (now Chennai), and used its platform to present Bharatanatyam performances by devadasis. The public controversy caused by the first such event made the second one a great success, and the art gained respect due to its acceptance on the Music Academy stage.
Bharatanatyam now attracted young artists from respectable Brahmin families. Initially met with shock, their participation ultimately helped to shift public opinion in favor of reviving the art. Two such women were Kalanidhi Narayanan of Mylapore and Rukmini Devi of Adyar.
Also during this time, Western luminaries like the ballerina Anna Pavlova were taking interest in the artistic heritage of India, while the spiritual heritage of India was being promoted by Westerners in the Theosophical movement.
When E. Krishna Iyer invited Rukmini Devi to the Music Academy performance, beginning her work with Bharatanatyam, she had already produced plays on Indian subjects and studied Western ballet. She had trained in ballet under a pupil of Anna Pavlova’s, but Pavlova advised Rukmini Devi to learn Indian classical dance instead. Raised in a Theosophist family, Rukmini Devi was married to Dr. George Arundale, a president of the Theosphical Society, and knew Dr. Annie Besant. Both Dr. Arundale and Dr. Besant worked for India’s freedom and the restoration of its spiritual stature. Rukmini Devi’s unique background equipped her to reform the existing Bharatanatyam to emphasize its spirituality.
An association of devadasis joined the effort to revive Bharatanatyam. Its ranks included an eventual teacher of Rukmini Devi’s, as well as the family of the legendary dancer Balasaraswati. They advocated preserving the tradition, and also keeping it in the hands of the devadasi community. Their argument was that the art would die if separated from the caste, while advocates for Bharatanatyam from the educated Brahmin community argued that the art had to be transferred to respectable hands to be saved. Ultimately, both communities carried on with the dance. It was, after all, the devadasis and nattuvanars that trained the new dancers from upper class society.
Rukmini Devi’s debut performance in 1935 was a milestone. Her efforts won over much of the orthodox community of Madras. Her reforms of costume, stage setting, repertoire, musical accompaniment, and thematic content, overcame the objections of conservatives that Bharatanatyam was vulgar. She went on to found the Kalakshetra institute, to which she attracted many great artists and musicians, with whom she trained generations of dancers.
Balasaraswati promoted the traditional art of the devadasis, maintaining that reforms were unnecessary and detracted from the art. Staying true to her devadasi lineage, she achieved great renown for her excellence.
The renewed awareness of Bharatanatyam in Indian society allowed many nattuvanars to resume their training activities, and many artists to enter the field of classical dance. A diversity of styles like Pandanallur, Vazhuvur, and Thanjavur, named for the villages from which the nattuvanars came, became recognized. Rukmini Devi’s desire to restore the full spiritual potential of the dance motivated reforms that led to what was known as the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam.
Bharatanatyam soon became the most widespread and popular of the Indian classical dance forms. It wasn’t long before it achieved international recognition as one of India’s treasures.
Compared to the millennia for which this art form has existed, the period from its revival in the 1930s through the present day has been one of explosive change. It is likely that more has changed during the past fifty years than during any other time in the history of Bharatanatyam. The modern world is a new environment for this ancient art form. For centuries, the survival of Bharatanatyam depended on a system of dedicated dancers, lifelong trainers, and royal patrons, to all of whom the dance was an integral part of social and religious life. There is no equivalent in modern society, so how is Bharatanatyam being kept alive today?
In the vital decades after its revival, Bharatanatyam achieved such esteem that by the late 20th century, the demand for learning Bharatanatyam exceeded the infrastructure to support the art and maintain its standards. Today, it is the demand for learning it, rather than a growth in its audience or sponsorship, that fuels the spread of Bharatanatyam.
Dancers, rather than the nattuvanars, have become the custodians of the art form. The generation of nattuvanars that trained dancers during the revival period was the last generation of exclusive nattuvanars. Due to sheer numbers of aspiring dancers, nattuvanars no longer are the only trainers of dancers. In institutions like Kalakshetra, experienced dancers trained as teachers educate the next generation. But even more students now learn privately from individual dancers. The role of the nattuvanars during performances is taken by dancers or musicians with special training.
The number of dancers, or aspiring dancers, also exceeds the availability of specialized musicians or of patronage. Dancers often must take financial responsibility for performances, while musicians, performance halls, and others charge fixed fees regardless of the income generated by the performance. Many are forced to use recorded music to keep costs down. Dancers today usually can’t make a living by performing. With a few exceptions, Bharatanatyam is today a secondary career, or a profession for those with family support. Few dancers can devote their entire lives to training and developing as dancers. To earn money, dancers start teaching early in their careers. These circumstances have created a downward spiral of declining standards and diminishing audiences.
Without nattuvanars, and with more and more dancers becoming teachers, the unbroken lineage of instruction that maintained the integrity of the dance form has been lost. In the hands of many dancers rather than a few trainers, Bhartanatyam is now subject to more numerous innovations. Without a recognized authority, like that of the nattuvanars, to adopt or reject changes to maintain standards, and without educated audiences to provide meaningful feedback, the art form of Bharatanatyam is open to unrestrained variations.
Innovation and variation themselves are not bad. The problem is when inappropriate innovations are claimed to be consistent with, or part of, an existing tradition. Artists have diverse motivations, and their performances provide different experiences. To capitalize on the reputation of Bharatanatyam for classicism and artistry, instead of letting their innovations stand on their own merits, most artists claim to be standard bearers of the same classical dance tradition. This confuses audiences, and discredits the art itself.
Another recent phenomenon is the learning of Bharatanatyam as a rite of passage for young Indian women, especially outside India. After their arangetram, they abandon the dance. Once the initiation of a dancer’s performing career, the arangetram has become a closing ceremony of sorts. The income from arangetrams induces many teachers to rush unqualified dancers to the stage. The result is a steady supply of novice performers that don’t develop into experts capable of doing justice to the art.
Today’s Bharatanatyam exists in great quantity, but with a wide variation in quality. There is the exquisite, seen rarely; there is the ridiculous, seen all too often. Bharatanatyam’s problems today are not because of oppression, as with the devadasis a century ago, but due to mindless popularity and commercialization. The consequent loss of standards means the art is often presented poorly or inappropriately, but audiences often don’t know a good performance from a bad one. If the crown jewel of India’s classical dances gets a reputation as a sloppy and amateurish medium, the indifference it will elicit will threaten its survival more than any of the challenges it has endured in the past.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The sentiments expressed earlier about the present state of Bharatanatyam are echoed by K. Chandrasekharan writing in The Illustrated Weekly of India.
“…the fillip given to such ancient traditional forms as the Sadir, Bhagavata Mela, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, and Yakshagana by the revival movements in the country, has not been wholly to their advantage. Often, indeed we find corrupt tendencies and outlandish tastes … insinuating themselves … ostensibly in order to make the art fashionable.”
The surprise is that this article was written way back in 1961!
In a 1963 article published in “Classical and Folk Dances of India”, Dr. Mulk Raj Anand describes the beauty of an accomplished Bharatanatyam performance, but laments, “The tragedy, however, lies in the fact that we have, at the moment, not even a hundred highly accomplished dancers of Bharata Natyam among our four hundred million people.” This article was re-published in Dr. Sunil Kothari’s book, “Bharata Natyam” in 2000, and updated to state that now it’s two hundred highly accomplished dancers in eight-nine hundred million people. On a percentage basis, the situation hasn’t improved at all. There are certainly more dancers today, but why not better ones?
The hope for the future is, ironically, the example of the past. The revival of Bharatanatyam in the last century was marked by reform along with tradition, demonstrated in the complementary efforts of Rukmini Devi and Balasaraswati, which breathed new life into both versions of the art. The key was the inner intensity of these great artists, which this dance form is uniquely capable of expressing. Again, K. Chandrasekharan on Rukmini Devi:
“It becomes a momentous occasion, therefore, when someone emerges showing the restraint and spirituality of approach required to retain the essential quality of an art that took its birth with a sage.”
The dance awaits the next great artist who can apply it, unchanged or transformed, to express something of beauty and captivate new audiences. Our efforts should be directed to sustain an environment in which such developments are possible.
Anand, Mulk Raj, “In Praise of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.
Rukmini Devi, “The Spiritual Background of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.
Iyer, E. Krishna, “A Brief Historical Survey of Bharata Natyam.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.
Khokar, Mohan, “NATYA Bhagavata Mela and Kuchipudi.” Classical and Folk Dances of India. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1963.
Kothari, Sunil, Bharata Natyam. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000.
Rukmini Devi Arundale Birth Centenary Volume. Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation, 2004
Kothari, Sunil, Photo Biography of Rukmini Devi. Chennai: The Kalakshetra Foundation
Chandrasekharan, K., “The Kalakshetra’s “Ramayana”.” The Illustrated Weekly of India 20 Aug. 1961: 36-38.