Although there is no evidence of a linear evolution of Bharatanatyam over the last 2,000 years, Tamil and Sanskrit texts confirm its ancient roots. Scholars Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and late Dr. V. Raghavan have traced the dance style to Ekaharya Lasyanga, a solo performance depicting themes of love and relationships, mentioned in the Sanskrit text Natyasastra (2BC-2AD).
Between 2BC-9AD, referred to as the Second Period in the history of dance by Dr. Kapila, the first being the prehistoric period, she observes the centrality of dance in society. ‘Had it not been so widely prevalent and popular, it is inconceivable that a monumental treatise like the Natyasastra could be compiled,’ reasons Dr. Kapila. According to her there is sculptural evidence of the technique of human movement followed by this style from 5 AD, and of the ardhamandali stance with bent knees turned outward, common to classical styles (margi) across India, from 10 AD.
To the traditional sculptural motifs of a tree, woman, yaksha and yakshini, etc, dance was introduced. Reliefs of Bharhut, Sanchi, Amravati, Nagarjunakonda, Ellora, etc. and mural paintings in Bagh Caves, Ajanta, Ellora, Sitanavasal, etc, present yakshas and yakshinis in dance poses alongside dance scenes and orchestras. Sanskrit literature of the classical period, kavyas, natakas, epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, too featured dance.
Sculptures depicting the various karanas at Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur
Little before and during the second period, Dr. Kapila says that Sanskrit influenced the intellectual and artistic life of people across the country. It is interesting how an authoritative commentary on the Natyasastra written in Kashmir by Abhinavagupta (9th-10thC) reached all over India, just as karanas from the Natyasastra were found carved in the 11th c Brihadeeswara temple in the South.
At the First Dance Seminar, 1958, organised by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Dr. Raghavan presented a detailed paper, ‘Bharata Natya’. In it he said that he found productions of Natyasastra treatises at different centres where kings came into prominence, thus showing the countrywide cultivation of this art. Lasya, the art of the Nati, flourished in the two main venues where it was patronised, the temple and the court, and in other public and domestic venues on social and festive occasions.
As dance spread to different parts of the country, regional influences were added and Desi Lasyangas evolved. Dr. Raghavan made a comparative study of the Sadir repertoire and the contemporary Bharatanatyam repertoire, the margam, formalised by the Thanjavur Brothers in the early 19th Century. A pre-Thanjavur Quartet repertoire of a solo Nati or Nartaki from Sangita Muktavali (15 C) featured: Pushpanjali, Mukhacaali, Suddha-Yati nrtta, Raagaanga- Yati-nrtta, Sabdanrtta, Rupa-nrtta, dance and abhinaya to songs in dance-dramas (Rupakas), Dhvaada, Sabdacaali, Sudasabda, Sudagita, various Gita-prabandhas, followed by local dances like Cindu, Daru, Dhrupad, etc.
Dance Karanas seen at Sri Kumbeswara temple in Kumbakonam.
The first three — Pushpanjali, Mukhacaali, Suddha-Yati nrtta, made up the familiar invocatory rituals, Melaprapti, now out of practice; Alarippu may be traced to the first Desi Lasyanga, Caali, mentioned in the Sangita Ratnaakara, and to Pushpanjali, Sabhavandana and Mukhacaali. The next, Jatisvara, was a descendant of Raganga-Yatinrtta, a combination of raga and yati, denoting tala. The third, Sabda or Salamu, originally sung in Khambodi raga in praise of a deity or hero, maybe considered a North-South link, just like the Tillana. The Sabda, mentioned in older texts, was also called Kavitva, which morphed into the Tamilised Kavuttuvam. Following this in the repertoire, is the Varna or Swarajati, padas and Tillana, ending with a Sloka from the Amarusataka, Krsnakarnaamrta, a navarasa sloka, etc. The Tillana may be traced to one of the limbs of Prabandha compositions — Paata, which is fitted with rhythmic syllables of instruments.
Dr. Raghavan’s research found that the Sthaana-Caari-Mandala-Karana-Angahaara chain mentioned in older texts could be equated to today’s Adavu-Korvai-Tirmaana sequence. He found Kuttana-Adavu classifications in Sangita Saaramrta by King Tulaja (1763-1787), in which the Sanskrit names and the Telugu-Tamil equivalent are mentioned. Some adavus are known, such as Samapada Kuttana as Tattadavu, Santaadya-paarsni-Kuttana as Tatti-mettadavu, etc., but not all.
Lesser known is the antiquity of Tamil literature which can confirm Dasinatyam or Sadir’s roots. Silappadhikaram (5th-6thC) is considered a treasure, with one canto ‘Arangetruk-kaadhai’ dedicated to dance; Dr. Raghavan, Dr. Kapila and Lakshmi Viswanathan have analysed this in detail. Tamil research scholar Professor Dr. S. Raghuraman argues that although Silappadhikaram is an important reference, it is not the first reference to dance in Tamil literature. According to him, grammar texts that included details related to dance predated the Natyasastra. Ahaththiyam, a text on grammar for literature, music and dance, for which manuscripts are not available, predated the available Tholkappiam (5 BC). Tholkappiam is a book on Tamil grammar that presents koothu (dance) as a special-occasion community activity and analyses emotions in Aham (love) literature with concepts of abhinaya theory such as ashta rasa, eight basic emotions, as also natyadharmi and lokadharmi, stylised and realistic presentation. In other texts such as Panchamarabu (approx 9 C), words like Natyam, denoting dance with music and poetry, nrittam, 108 karanams, sounds used in Koothu, ‘Ta, Ti, Tho, Ki, Ikk’ (followed today in dance and percussion), the basic stances, pada bhedas (foot movements), hand gestures (kais), nine basic emotions (navarasas), and the movements for the emotions, the dance arena (aranga illakkanam) and the stick used to keep time measure (pirambu illakkanam), are mentioned. Professor Raghuraman has further referenced Koothanool, Bharatasenapatiyam, Tamil epics and other ancient texts, in this regard.
“After the tenth century, Bharatanatyam seems to have developed chiefly in the South around what is now known as Tamil Nadu,” says Dr. Kapila. She believes that despite solo dance being a part of the Bhagavata Mela Natakams, it can be assumed to have had an independent existence as a derivative of Natyasatra’s Ekaharya Lasyanga; the argument being that as a classical art form, whether presented in temples or courts, it had the same technique.
If there are questions about the authenticity of the Bharatanatyam technique, King Tulaja’s book confirms the evolution of adavus. They were likely refined by the Thanjavur Brothers less than fifty years later.
There was however a break in continuity in the art form in the 19th century. Dr. Kapila rues that the invaluable oral family tradition of the masters, known as Sampradayas, across different styles of classical Indian dance, were not recognised by the British system of education and those who were schooled during the 19 C were isolated from the art traditions of the country. Then came the ban on temple dancing in the Madras Presidency in 1910. She says, ‘Temple dancing was forbidden but the devotees of the art continued to practise it in the seclusion of their homes. Apparently, the art had died by the 20th century and what could be seen of it was only a diluted, almost degenerate form of what was known as Nautch in the North and Sadir in the South… ‘
The pillars inside Koothambalam in Kerala depict the 108 Karanas or basic dance postures containing in Natya Shasthra. (
From the 1920s, revivalist E. Krishna Iyer, Kalyani Daughters, Kum. Bharati and others brought awareness to the tradition. With patriotism as a backdrop, the social stigma connected to the art form reduced. Devadasis, the traditional repositories, came out to present their art, and chief among them was the legendary T. Balasaraswathi. Young dance masters from temple towns of the South came to Madras and trained girls from non-devadasi communities, ushering a new cultural order.
What of the dance style itself? Lakshmi Viswanathan sums up the re-named Bharatanatyam, “It was not the ritual dance of the temple. Rather it was a smart re-invention of the court dance of the nineteenth century, structured by the nattuvanars who had come to live in Madras.”