Inclusive Attic- Dance History enshrined and decoded- Bharatanrityam and Bharatanatyam


THIS ARTICLE IS AS PUBLISHED IN NARTANAM- A dance magazine (Oct-Dec 2015 Issue. Find the link to the original article below)

Dance History enshrined and decoded- Bharatanrityam and Bharatanatyam

In any living tradition, a continuous study and analysis of movement practice is required. Bharata’s Natya Sastra, the extant work on dramaturgy engages in theorizing the practice of art production. It investigates in detail, every aspect of dramatic production among which dance, movement and mime play a large part. This theorization is a summation of the then existing practice, thereby paving a way for the development of pedagogy. When a research, studies this treatise as critical theory, it needs to embody beyond educational ideology, how it can be meaningfully employed in classroom practice and performance. It is this process that Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam has engaged in, as a performer and rediscovered the theory expounded by Bharata through embodiment.

When performers examine and reconstruct written critical pedagogies, it manifests into movement practice. In interpretation, Dr. Padma has used representational sources, particularly sculptural and epigraphic sources to do a correlated study of theory. Through her reconstructive practice, she has expounded a new system or pedagogy, which she names as Bharata Nrityam. What is to be noted here is that, she does not position the practice of movement and theory based on the Natya Sastra in the exact same context as how Bharata refers. But she takes her reconstructed movement practice and re-theorises it, finding it a recontexualised space, within the existing practice of modern Bharatanatyam. Which is why her form is called Bharata “nrityam”, using the term nritya (representational dance) which finds no mention in Bharata’s Natya Sastra(1) .

The scope of this paper is to analyse the critical theory, movement practice and context of Bharatanrityam, a product of the 20th century. History is an interpretation of past events. In that sense, we have never witnessed the creation or evolution of any tradition or pedagogy of dance at all. But the advantage with Bharatanrityam is that it is contemporaneous to our times. It’s a system that has evolved in our midst in real time. Therefore we have the luxury of analysing its origins, methods and critical theories.

Bharatanrityam is invested in the practice of a movement system based on a treatise written at a particular time, making it a study on a synchronic axis. Dr. Padma’s doctoral thesis looked at the sculptural sources on the walls of temples, correlated them to textual grammer, reconstructing through performance, a technique that is expounded in the Natya Sastra (2) . Her view of this dance technique as a working system belonging to a particular time in history puts her doctoral study on the synchronic axis. However, to study and reconstruct a technique in history requires interaction and mobility, which only takes place in chronological time. With a structuralist perspective (3), her work argues the preeminence of the movement practice and technique given in the Natya Sastra. Karanas or units of dance which are numbered as hundred and eight in the fourth chapter of this text, she proposes, as the constructed common code, marga which determined the evolution of dance movement practice of many Indian forms, desi as we see today. The subsumed karana practice that she traces is in each form of Indian dance, suggesting its presence beneath the surface of appearance of these forms (4). But we must also remember that karanas were themselves a part of a larger structural approach in dramaturgy where they were used as a part in the whole. Which means, that in assessing the presence of karana techniques in dissemination of larger narratives such as myths and stories as well as its beneath the surface presence, the dancer-scholar calls for the attribution of greater significance based on its ability to image, imitate, convey deeper meanings within cultures than even what is suggested in the text as its purpose. Bharata’s suggestion of what Tandava lakshana and its purposes are, are based on phenomenology. Dr. Padma studied this and later in her practice and long spanning performance career, she departures ideologically, adding to existing meanings of this dance technique, which in the Natya Sastra are simply a set of movements, acting and reacting with and upon one another within an experience (of Natya-drama). She takes it beyond the scope of that experience, into multiple contexts.
For this purpose of finding structural meanings in the use and practice of Karanas, she relies upon the historical evolution of dance and its histories through time. She identifies, the beneath the surface meanings of Natya Sastra embedded in various Indian and pan Indian dance forms, also in architectural and cultural edifices (sculptures, inscriptions, paintings, religious symbols), as a consecutive symbolic exchange. Thus, she theorizes the presence of Natya Sastric pedagogy across regions and times, even in forms of dance and theater that in 20th century bear no obvious resemblance to this old system. Bharatanrityam, therefore is a product of this diachronic process which she develops. Bharatanrityam (Dr.Padma’s dance technique) has evolved from a critical theory as a studied pedagogy.

Bharatanatyam, on the other hand, which is the post-modern cousin of Sadir, clearly traces its pedagogy from practice. Sadir is the ancient nomenclature for a dance performed exclusively by the court and temple dancers who belonged to now what is called the Devadasi community. Dancing girls or Devadasis stand at the fulcrum of both texts as well as traditions when it comes to dance and its history. Dr. Padma went from the practice and knowing of Bharatanatyam, whose fulcrum should be the tracing of the immediate cultural memory of Sadir. This cultural memory comprises of medieval documentations, texts, writings, sculptures, palm leaf manuscripts, copper plates, paintings, understanding of political contexts and patronage, as well as the ancestral memory of Devadasi women and dance masters the nattuvanars from whom Bharatanatyam was received in corporeal form- as oral transfers. But the post colonial history of Bharatanatyam, unfortunately is based largely on hagiographies of confessed revivalists, reformers and saviours, thereby a decided attempt at subverting historical sources such as texts, writings and oral narratives of hereditary practitioners was made. In her own words, therefore, it was the apparent lack of historic evolution in the history of modern Bharatanatyam that kindled in Dr. Padma the desire to travel “into the mysterious world of karanas” (5).

Bharatanrityam uses for its context, the diachronic evolution of dance history, finding the dance technique a space within the repertoires of Sadir. In order to do so, Dr. Padma embeds within the historical axis of Bharatanatyam itself, the eminent place of Natya Sastra. This canonization was very well received at the time when she had finished reconstruction of the Karanas in 1960-s(6) . In post- colonial India, the nationalist agenda saw the Hindu- Sanskritic roots as great enhancements to our performing arts, helping it find a place in the cultural map in a revivalist mode and taking it farther from its immediate cultural memory vis-à-vis the hereditary performers and their oral traditions. But Dr. Padma’s work is not entirely exclusive only to the Hindu-Sanskritic roots, although it largely professes it. Bharatanrityam, is an inclusive endowment of Tamil dancing traditions such as from Silappadikaram etc, pan Indian dance forms from as far as Java, theatrical traditions as well as solo dance form of Bharatanatyam (7). Bharatanrityam does not appropriate the place of Bharatanatyam, but instead integrates its pedagogy to the existing practice and theory, using repertoire and music. Bharatanatyam’s form, format and Carnatic music that can trace its tangible origins to medieval historical periods, used by Bharatanrityam, clearly makes it step ahead of its scope, from what is delineated in the Natya Sastra.

Perhaps, one can thus see the significance in her naming the technique she reconstructed from the Tandava Lakshana chapter, as Bharatanrityam as opposed to Bharatanrttam. Tandava is equated to the concept of nrtta or pure dance. By “pure” what we mean is the absolute abstraction of movement. Scholars and other sage composers over centuries have negated the possibility of any suggestive meanings within these abstract movements, calling nrtta “bhava vihenam”. But, by naming her reconstructive technique as not Bharatanrtta but Bharata nritya, meaning representational dance movements, Dr. Padma, makes a marked distinction. She makes a happy medium between Bharatanatyam’s representative quality by using its repertoires such as varnam-s, padam-s, tillana-s etc and Bharata’s nrttam’s quality of abstraction whereby she uses the karanas as a substitute to adavus, which are nrtta equivalents of movement abstraction in Bharatanatyam. Further more, the idea of suggesting deeper, beneath the surface meanings and possibilities of karanas, qualify them as nritya.

The evolution of Sadir can be traced to its past performing practices particularly from the Nayak and Maratta periods. Using dramatic elements in the dance forms reminiscent of the Natya Sastric theatrical traditions such as, the use of a curtain for character introduction, the employment of a jester to entertain etc. Bharatanatyam did away with much of these over time, making the art a strictly solo, proscenium performance without too many links to its earlier temple or court contexts. The karana techniques were reconstructed from a correlated study of sutras from the Natya Sastra, its commentary and representational sources. By invoking them within the context of Sadir, in repertoire, Bharatanrityam clearly becomes a part of the larger whole. This is appropriate too, for that is how, karanas (nrtta karanas) play a part in natya according to Bharata.

Further, Dr. Padma looks at the Natya Sastra as a text detailing a common code or marga. Margam means the “path” or a newly created space, a certain vision. To create a path and to commission the same as a common code, one must have, not just the knowledge but also authority and power. The classical art therefore is Vaetiyal (8) , a state or kingdom commissioned and protected operation that is ever changing and is created from processes of deliberate studied approaches. It bears multicultural influences as it is meant for the consumption of people of varied tastes and interests. Indian kingdoms and country at large has had varied interactions with the rest of the world and other cultures for centuries now. A product of such interactions is cosmopolitanism in varying degrees from the times of the Chera, Chola, Pandya Kings in the South. With the arrival of the West Asians, Romans and Persians followed by a more active influx of various travelers and traders in the medieval period. The term “cosmo” means mixed or combined and the root to the term “politan” is “polis” meaning to protect or to govern.

Vaetiyal that author Ilango Adigal speaks of in Silappadikaram is the concept of a “court commissioned operation” of dances that appealed to the members of the courtly class usually comprising of people belonging to several diverse cultures but all higher ranking in status or foreigners and travellers who visited kingdoms. The imperial courts were the hub of cosmopolitan trade and political operations. Hence, culture and performing arts were commissioned to cater to this crowd. This explains perhaps the commonalities that Dr.Padma has been able to draw between karanas and some pan-Indian (9) and even Eurasian dance forms. Natya Sastra thus culls a path (Margam) from the existing systems (Desi). An art form that was fairly newly culled from the vision of a teacher, scholar or a group of such scholars etc., just as any new operation, requires documentation for its conformity and continuity. Many treatises were written to inculcate an order of practice and performance for these “classical” art forms of music, dance and drama all through the early and later medieval periods, starting from Bharata till the 20th centuries. One can thus, comprehend how Karanas were given imperial endorsement on the walls of Tanjavur by Rajaraja (10) and other Kings at other temples. This sort of endorsement for “classical” dances in the form of sculptures, inscriptions and frescoes was considered appropriate imperial commissions, immediately admitting the King into an elite class of patrons.

What was indivisible, more rigid against the onslaught of change, and very indigenous to the people (Desis) was under the safe roof of Desi art and highly guarded. This protection in many ways was provided by religious and cultural sanctions. Desi arts were taught through strict oral transfer. Every author, including Bharata did not register these Desi techniques, as they were diverse, rigidly guarded and much in vogue with no threat of immediate or complete dislocation. Some later works such as Mathanga’s Brihaddesi, Jayasenapati’s Nrttaratnavali (11) took upon themselves the task of chronicling those performing arts that were imbibed from these Desi traditions into the “classical” pantheon as part of a cultural operation with a vision (Margam).

Desi, means regional. But “regional” is not an antonym to the word path. Desi signified all aspects of art that was not intentionally culled but rather were products of human evolution in a natural way or path. Common comprehension of the term Desi is, any form of dance that is performed by the local people of a place, to music that is regional, reflecting the inherent cultural practices of the people there. It mostly is a naturally evolved practice, could be ritualistic or entertaining in nature. Keeping this understanding we can say that Bharatanatyam is as Desi as Karagattam, oyilattam etc and so are also other Indian dance forms that today hold the classical tag. What is also obvious is the reason why, Marga (Karanas) ranked higher (found place on temple walls and treatise treatment) among its pre-dating regional counterparts. It was because it was bred in the highest citadel of the society. It was an assemblage from various desi traditions and multicultural influences. It was performed by people who consciously cultivated this art form, codified by important members of elite society, such as sages, ministers, Kings, army chieftains and such others. It also requires an emerging cosmopolitan spectator, Bharata calls as a “sahrdaya”, a man with discerning taste. He says that a sahrdaya must be created. That is he acquires a taste for the state operated art form (12).

Bharatanrityam is thus a pedagogy that is contained within Bharatanatyam whose social, cultural and historical context is very inclusive for the simple reason, that it evolves indigenously, decoding people, political contexts and cultures through its practice and transfer. Bharatanrityam is a scholarly approach to integrate within this inclusive platform, a textual tradition that enshrines what is decoded, making a Marga out of Desis.
Copyrights© Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh 2015SG article in Nartanam

Dr. Padma performing Karanas in Bharatanatyam repertoire transfoorming it to BharatanrityamPadmaSubrahmanyamFingerGesture

1.The term and concept of Nritya commonly understood as representational dance movements, is not mentioned in the Natya Sastra. Bharata confines himself to the concepts of Nrtta (abstract dance movements) and Abhinaya (expressional communication). It was only in the later centuries, closer to the 11-12th century CE that the two fold components of Nrtta and Abhinaya become a three fold Nrtta, Nritya and Abhinaya.
2.Dr. Padma’s doctoral thesis was on the topic “Karanas in Indian Dance and Sculptures”. It awarded in the year 1978 by the Annamalai University. Her focus for this work was on Nrtta, Abhinaya, Rasa and Bhava aspects of the Natya Sastra.
3.Taking a sort of Simon Blackburn perspective, her articles and books observes the underlying structures beneath every system of performing art post 14th century as problematic, as they don’t have intelligible interactions to the source text, Natya Sastra. She over looks the fact that every period in history may possess certain underlying conditions of structure that constitute its interrelation is a less intelligible way to earlier works but nevertheless there it is in an unbroken transfer. For example in the Nayak period (16th-17th century CE) a repertoire called mukhacali pushpanjali was performed to Siva, Visnu, Brahma and Bharata, mentioning Bharata as a preceptor guru of the art form. This is evidence enough to prove that not only were the dancers and masters in the know of Bharata and his work but also venerated it. Of course, the way karanas were linked, interpreted and used in this period was largely based on how this work was assimilated in the existing pedagogy. This also proves the fact that Desi dances evolve and remain in practice through oral transfer but a culled pedagogy, no matter how well documented as an extensive treatise doesn’t remain in practice as in theory but only as unintelligible markers. This puspanjali was researched and reconstructed by the author of this article as part of her doctoral work titled “Research and Reconstruction of Dance Repertoire of the Nayak Period”.
4.In her 13-episode telefilm “Bharatiya Natyasastra” there are episodes where she has collaborated with artistes of Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam, Manipuri, Kathak and even Chau to demonstrate the similarity in some movement practices and even terminologies associated with these movements.
5.See chapter “hurdles crossed” of the work “Karanas- common dance codes of India and Indonesia”, pp-i-xv
6. Dr. Padma has been influenced by writings of the likes of Henrich Zimmer, A.K. Coomaraswamy. 1963, she introduces Karanas on stage for the first time as part of one of her dance dramas. In 1964, she writes her first research article delineating karanas as dance movements, titled “Indian Dance”.
7. She has used the study of the Tamil work Silappadikaram, treatises such as Sangita Ratnakara, Bharatarvana, Sangita Saramruta along with Abhinava Bharati, as her primary sources. She has also identified similarities between the karana panels created for Satara temple, Maharashtra under her guidance and the karana panels at Prambanan, Central Java.
8. ‘Vendan’ means King and ‘Iyal’ references to the form of art. The forms of dance that received court patronage and which were considered “fit” to be watched in the presence of the King, nobles and the courtly class came under this gamut.
9. “It is amazing that these codes (karanas) were common to the entire Hindu world, which were not different from those of her cousins namely Buddhists and Jains…I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility towards posterity to kindle an interest in rediscovering our Jambu dvipa i.e. Eurasia” See chapter “Preface and Acknowledgements” of the work “Karanas- common dance codes of India and Indonesia”,
10.Brihadeeswara temple Karanas sculptures commissioned by Rajaraja Chola at Tanjavur. Sarngapani Temple Karana panels at Kumbhakonam, Nataraja Temple Karana panels, Chidambaram, Arunachaleswara Temple Karana panels at Tiruvannamalai, Vriddhagiriswarar temple Karana slabs at Vriddhachalam.
11. Nrttaratnavali enumerates among other dances, forms like Kundali and Ghurjari. Kundali has a tribal origin in the Karnataka, Maharashtra region in the song and dance of a huntress named Billi, according to a legend narrated by King Somesvara. These clearly are examples of how dances have been assimilated into the classical pantheon from the existing Desi traditions.
12.Read article by the author titled “Notions of “Classical” in Bharatanatyam; a cultural operation of the classes- arguments of cosmopolitan Margi and indigenous Desi, repertoires of the Nayak period; Kalakshetra Journal, Issue 2. ISBN 978-81-921627-4-4

Selected Bibliography

Bharatamuni. The Natya Sastra. Bombay: Sathyabhamabai Panduranga, 1943.
Blackburn, Simon. Essays in Quasi-Realism-A defense of Quasi-Realism as applied to ethics. 1993.
Ganesh, Swarnamalya. “Notions of “Classical” in Bharatanatyam, a cultural operation of the classes-arguments of cosmopolitan Margi and indigenous Desi, repertoires of the Nayak period.” Kalakshetra Journal (Kalakshetra Foundation) 1, no. 2 (2014).
Subrahmanyam, Padma. Bharata’s Art, Then and Now. Bombay: Bhulabhai Memorial Institute , 1979.
—. Karanas Common Dance Codes of India and Indonesia. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Chennai: Nrithyodaya, 2003.
V.Raghavan. Abhinavagupta and his works. Varanasi: Choukambha Orientalia, 1981.


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