Monday, November 16, 2009

The transformation to Bharathanatyam

Bharathanatyam is a fascinating dance form, whether the presentation is by a single performer or in the form of a dance drama by a group. It has beauty and grace and spiritual value. It is a symbol of India and is admired all over the world.

But, say, about 80 years back, there was no Bharathanatyam as such. In its place was a traditional art form called Sadir which was presented exclusively by Devadasis. ‘The art of the temple harlots’, it was called. It was also referred to as Thanjavur Natyam and Dasiaattam. No Brahmin would have any part of it.

But it was destined that two aristocratic South Indian Brahmins would save the dance form, streamline it and make it into a pride of India.

Sadir performances were mainly confined to temples and private salons. The dancers wore baggy pyjamas and a sari over it, and traditional ornaments. The songs had erotic elements in them. The accompaniments were confined to clarinet and bagpipes. The musicians moved on the stage along with the performer. There was crudeness about the presentation but the basics of the dance were intrinsically beautiful.

During the period Serfoji ruled Tanjavur (1798-1832), the Tanjavur Quartet, four brothers named Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanadam did commendable work to systematize the sadir. Nevertheless, it remained an exclusive domain of the Devadasis.

By the early part of the 20c CE, sadir came under serious threat. A strong demand arose among the public for abolishing the Devadasi system. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman legislator of the Madras Presidency even introduced a Bill in the Assembly to implement this.

The abolition of the Devadasi system finally came about only in 1947. Fortunately, there was one man who saw the writing on the wall and decided to save the sadir which had commendable qualities – E. Krishna Iyer (1897-1968), a lawyer and freedom fighter.

He learned sadir, and formed the Madras Music Academy. He also coined a new name for the dance form – Bharathanatyam. I understand it is an acronym covering bhava (expression), raga (music) and thala (rhythm). Krishna Iyer included a performance of sadir in the 1933 Annual Conference programme of the Academy.

Among the audience was Rukmini Arundale (1904-1986), respectfully referred to as Rukmini Devi. Her father, Neelakanta Sastri, an upper class Brahmin from Trichy was an engineer. He was attracted by the Theosophical movement, and, after retirement, moved to Adyar near the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. It was there that young Rukmini met the Theosophist Dr. George Arundale. They were married in 1920 when she was 16 and he was 40.

Rukmini Devi was captivated by the dance form that she witnessed at the Academy. She referred to it as ‘beautiful and profound art’. Along with Krishna Iyer, she set on an endeavor of renaissance. The first thing she did was to learn sadir. Her teachers were Mylapore Gowri Amma, a prominent Devadasi of that time, and Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a famous master.

That was only one part of it. The biggest challenge was to infuse subtle changes that would make the dance form more acceptable and attractive. Rukmini Devi introduced devotional aspects in place of erotica in the songs. The musicians were made to sit on the side of the stage. Regular musical instruments were brought in. With the help of some Theosophists, new costumes were designed and appropriate lighting effects and stage settings were introduced.

And, in 1935, Rukmini Devi herself presented the new version of sadir, Bharathanatyam, at the Theosophical Society grounds in Madras (Chennai), before a distinguished audience that included eminent Indians and foreigners. The conservatives were aghast that a Brahmin lady should present the Devadasi ‘aattam’ and that too in public.

But Rukmini Devi’s performance was aesthetic, spiritual, and enchanting. The renowned gathering was highly impressed. A year later, Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra, an institution devoted to classical dance, music and fine arts.

And thus began the victorious march of Bharathanatyam.

[Photos: Top - Rukmini Devi. Bottom: Rukmini Devi with her husband in Finland in 1936.

From Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.]

Related post:

Dances for the gods.


kallu said...

Interesting post and lovely pics. I didnt know that even the name bharathanatyam was coined so recently.

perumalythoma said...

Thanks, Mr. Tharakan.
Knew the devadasi origin bit.
But never knew that the name, is recent.

Also, thought that the Bharatha came from Bharatha-muni.
Or, is the name of the author conjugated as you have suggested?


This is so nice - though I knew most of the facts I had no idea that the name Bharata was an acronym!

The facts have been presented so cohesively and clearly, I really enjoyed reading it.

Kamini said...

A lovely post on a topic very dear to my heart.

Unknown said...

Thank you Kallu. I was also surprised to learn that the name is so recent.

Unknown said...

Perumalythoma, since the name 'Bharathanatyam' appears to be of quite recent origin, the chances of any link to Bharatha Muni are remote in my opinion.

Unknown said...

Raji, I was also surprised to learn that Bharatha is an acronym. Thanks for the compliment.

Unknown said...

Kamini, I am happy you liked the post.

pippala leaf said...

Excellent post on the history of Bharathanatyam.

I never knew it was originated in recent times. Most of the writings I came across on this art form ascribe it's origins in the Natya Sastra. Even the Wikipedia also described it as "one of the oldest of the classical dance forms in India, it is also known as the fifth Veda".

Thank you for this article.

Nona said...

A very informative post! I was always under the impression that "Bharatha" part had to do with the name of the country! Never realized it was an acronym.

Unknown said...

Thank you Madhu Nair.

I think it is the Natya Shastra by Bharatha Muni that is called Fifth Veda. It is possible that sadir had its origin from Natya Shastra. I don't know.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the comment Nona. I too was surprised to learn that 'Bharatha' is an acronym.

Anand Antony said...

Very informative post. I always thought that 'Bharata' related to Bharata muni - it made sense but now I know it is defintely not true! Mr. Tharakan, I would like to urge you to seriously think about publishing selected posts of you in book form. Your blog has never ceased to amaze me. Who would have thought that Bharata is an acronym? Who would have imagined that the tiny dragon flies in Kerala migrate all the way to Afria? Though your blog is oriented towards India many topics like these have a global appeal.