Origin of Bharatnatyam

by Annie Saxena on Feb 09, 2023

Bharatanatyam is a culturally rooted, traditional classical dance form from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India. It is a highly complex movement language that is an amalgamation of physical energy and spiritual ideals.

According to the Hindu tradition the name of 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. Thus, the word refers to a dance form where bhava, raga and tala are expressed.

The birth of this art form as well as the donning of these traditional costumes traces its origin way back to the 17th century, wherein Devadasis, who were temple dancers, practiced Bharatnatyam to worship gods and goddesses. They wore heavy studded and embroidered saris and were depicted as celestial dancers who performed this classical art dance on earth.

They would perform the dance daily at the time of worship, and it came to be patronized by the Rajas and the princes. In the course of time, these Devadasis began performing in the royal courts and thus its religious sanctity was lost.

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. However, 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 Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910 and with this, the age-old tradition of this 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. 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. Their efforts won over much of the orthodox community of Madras. Their reforms of costume, stage setting, musical accompaniment, and thematic content, overcame the objections of conservatives that Bharatanatyam was vulgar. Rukmini Devi went on to found the Kalakshetra institute, to which she attracted many great artists and musicians, with whom she trained generations of dancers.

Over the years, this art form has evolved and transformed in its traditional best, retaining the original essence of the culture. Some of the popular Bharatnatyam performers are Shobhana (Indian National Award-winning actress and well-known promoter of Bharatnatyam), Padmini, Bala Saraswathi, Mrinalini Sarabhai and Padma Subrahmaniam. Bharatnatyam has made dancing once again respectable, so much so that it is now seen as an essential social accomplishment, and has also achieved international recognition as one of India’s treasures.

Our auditorium at Pearey Lal Bhawan welcomes passionate Bharatnatyam and other classical dancers to perform on stage. Let us keep the spirit of this age-old dance form alive!