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
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
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
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
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.]