Monday, February 13, 2012

Bharatanatyam's Origin


 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(uttch) role of the dance is evoked(ahvan karna) 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 (rivas)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.

Bharatnatyam has developed in the South and gradually was restricted to what is now known as Tamil Nadu. It is evident from chronicles that the Chola and the Pallava kings were great patrons  of the arts. Rajaraja Chola maintained dancers in the temples in his kingdom. The tradition of the Natyashastra is widespread. The origin and tradition of Bharatnatyam is appealing and enlightening. This dance form was nurtured in the temple by the Devadasis (servants of the God). It was taken to the  courts and the Chola and the Pallava kings were believed to be the great patrons of this art. The contributions of the South Indian saint-poets and musicians cannot be ignored. Bhakti princely   or devotional cult was infused into the tradition by these poets. The literary content of Bharatnatyam was provided by them and their musical compositions determined the repertoire  of this dance form. The solo or the sadir nritya is the direct descendant of this tradition. Besides the rich history of Bharatnatyam, another mythological  is also attached to the origin of this dance. It is believed that Goddess Parvati taught  this dance form to Usha, daughter of Banasura, a demon. Usha taught the same to the Gopikas of the city of Dwaraka, birth place of Lord Krishna. This is how the spiritual dance form Bharatnatyam  was introduced to the mankind.

Bharatanatyam is a 20th century reconstruction of Cathir. Cathir, the art of temple dancers, is derived from ancient forms of dance. Bharatanatyam traces its origins to the Natya Shastra, the principal work of dramatic theory encompassing dance and music in classical India. In ancient times it was performed by mandir devadasis. Many ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on the bharatanatyam dance postures known as karanas. Apsaras in many scriptures are depicted as dancing the heavenly version of what is known as bharatanatyam. It is a dance form that is deeply ground in bhakti, or devotion and is considered to be a fire dance. The movements of an authentic bharatanatyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame.

Sculptural and literary evidence indicates that dances of the Bharatanatyam form, that is, based on the Natya Shastra, were used in temple wors
hip 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 precursor of what we call “BHARATANATYAM”  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 compaign to eradicate not only the prostitution that had come to  be associated with devadasis but  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.


The advent  of a new era and the continuous experiment in the performing art form acted as a foundation for the recent development in Bharatnatyam. The dance form went through various assessments to gain the present shape. Bharatnatyam Dance has a rich legend  to share that acted as a sustaining  cause for its prominence. The dance form was codified(sanhitabad) and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers who were called the Tanjore Quartet. Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court during King Sarabojis  introduced Bharatnatyam with its various forms such as the Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Sabdham, Varnam, Tillana. The four brothers revised Bharatnatyam into its present shape by introducing various forms like the Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Sabdham, Varnam, Tillana. The dance form was carried from one generation to another and the direct descendants of these four brothers formed the original group of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharatnatyam in Tanjore.

Against all odds, a few families preserved the knowledge of this dance tradition. It’s 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 lyer  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 &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 educatedBrahmin 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 manynattuvanars 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.

1 comment:

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