Bharatanatyam – Its Origin and History

Dance is one form of expression that brings people together, it allows them to be more creative, and is a fantastic way to escape the stress and cares of everyday life.

That’s the reason I love to dance as I feel completely released from the preoccupation and stress of the day to day life.
Even Dance makes me feel full of energy, connected with my body: strong, free and alive.

And simultaneously, I also love to write blogs related to different dance forms. So, today I am writing about the History of our oldest Indian Dance form, “Bharatanatyam”.

Bharata Natyam is one of the most established moves types of the dance forms in India. It was sustained in the sanctuaries and courts of southern India since antiquated occasions. Later it was systematized and recorded as performing craftsmanship in the 19th century by four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet musical compositions for dance form the bulk of the Bharata Natyam repertoire even today.

The dance form was derived by joining two words, ‘Bharata’ and Natyam’ where ‘Natyam in Sanskrit means dance and ‘Bharata’ is a mnemonic comprising ‘bha’, ‘ra’ and ‘ta’ which respectively means ‘bhava’ that is emotion and feelings; ‘raga’ that is melody; and ‘tala’ that is rhythm. The theoretical base of this form traces back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts.

The term Bharatanatyam today identifies a particular style of dance, though historically, Bharatanatyam is a system of dance, described in the Natya Shastra, capable of manifesting various forms like:

Sadir Natyam – it is 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 the 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 some 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.

Origin of Bharatanatyam

i. 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.

ii. Dasi Attam is 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, integral to the ritual worship.

iii. 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.

iv. This original classical dance tradition deteriorated in the North due to repeated foreign invasions, and mixed dance forms replaced it.

v. The tradition of Bharatanatyam evolved in the late 18th century, by the four brothers known as the Thanjavur quartet, sons of the nattuvanar Subbarayan: Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam. They also refined the music of Bharatanatyam, under the influence of their musical mentor, the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar. These developments shaped Sadir into the precursor of what we call Bharatnatyam today.

A) Decline of Bharatanatyam

i. Under British rule, propaganda prevailed against Indian art, misrepresenting it as crude, immoral, and inferior to the concepts of Western civilization. The devadasi system declined. Most were forced to seek the patronage of ordinary wealthy people, becoming mere dasis, and in some cases prostitutes. And this, in turn, diminished the reputation of the devadasis as a community.

ii. The Anti-Nautch campaign was launched to eradicate not only the prostitution 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.

B) Revival of Bharatanatyam

i. A few families preserved this art form against all odds. Today, we owe a debt of gratitude to all those who worked towards the revival of Bharatnatyam.

ii. E. Krishna Iyer was an Indian freedom fighter and lawyer, trained in Bharatnatyam, and founder of Music Academy in Madras (now Chennai). He would perform in female costumes to remove the stigma associated with this dance. Devadasis found a new performance platform under the Music academy banner.

iii. Young artists from respectable Brahmin families, Kalanidhi Narayanan of Mylapore and Rukmini Devi of Adyar, worked towards promoting this dance. Western luminaries like the ballerina Anna Pavlova were taking interest in the artistic heritage of India. Rukmini Devi’s unique background from a Theosophist family and her training in Ballet equipped her to reform the existing Bharatanatyam to emphasize its spirituality.

iv. Rukmini Devi’s debut performance in 1935 was a milestone in changing the outlook much of the orthodox community of Madras. Her reforms of costume, stage setting, repertoire, music, 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.

v. 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.

vi. 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 leading to the Kalakshetra style of Bharatanatyam, recognized today as one of the Indian treasures.

This is the history of Bharatanatyam, an art form with considerable depth and scope which one can devote a lifetime to become an expert in.

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