S N Balasubrahmanyam
The article Bridging the barrier (Oct 23, BM), claims Bharatanatyam is native to the state of Tamil Nadu. This claim is absolutely incorrect. Tamil Nadu preserved the pristine form of the ‘naatyam’ as described in Bharata’s Naatya Shastra. Look at any of the sculptural representations of naatya postures in temples anywhere in India and you will be convinced that the form was spread all over India. The other extant forms are regional variations created by local cultural changes e.g. the court form of Kathak from the Mughal era, the folk element in Kuchipudi, etc. Unremarkably, the Sanskrit technical terms (for the mudras, for the taalas, etc.), introduced by Bharata, are in use to this day in all dance forms recognised as “classical” today.
While you are right in claiming that the sculptures in temples all across the country possess a similar form of dance being depicted, you are wrong to assume it to all be Bharatanatyam.
The Bharatanatyam that we speak of today is only a more glorified version of Cathir (Sadir), the ancient temple dance form that was exclusively practiced in Dravidian (South Indian style) temples. Each area in India, since the ancient times, evolved their own forms of temple arts and Sadir is what was practiced and danced in Tamil temples, and may have even been practiced in areas that had more Tamil inclinations across the south — Chittoor, in AP, for example.
There is proof that these arts existed, thanks to the very sculptures you refer to and the fact that they have been recorded in epics like the Silapadikkaram and texts like the Tolkappiyam.
The dance was also known as Dasiaattam, at one point of time, as it was practiced by Devadasis in temples all across the south. More recent references to the dance were in the court chronicles of Thanjavoor, where even up until the Marathi King Saraboji’s time (1798–1824), the dance was still practiced, however in a new avatar, as Devadasis who performed for the king, came to be known as Rajanartakis.
The town of Thanjavoor has always held a high regard to dancers, because of the famous quartet of Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, who made a rich contribution to music and dance forms and also completed the process of re-editing the Sadir performance’s present shape with its various forms like the Alaarippu, Jathi-Svaram, Varanam, Sadanam, Padam and Tillana.
The descendants of these four brothers formed the original stock of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Sadir in Thanjavoor. Their descendants are the schools of Thanjavoor, Vazhuvoor and Pandanallur, that separated over time, with minute differences in style and choreography.
Now the Natya Shastra and its elements of dance have been used since time immemorial and you are right in assuming that ‘maybe’ this Natyam existed all across the country at one point of time. There are possibilities that it did, and that the fall of the Hindu kingdoms in the South marked the eventual decline of Natyam, as the Muslim invasion in the North completely could have wiped out Natyam in the north — but these are mere assumptions, with no proof in them, whatsoever.
Bharatanatyam evolved into its present form thanks to the efforts of E Krishna Iyer and dancers like Rukumini Devi Arundale.
Here is some information about the whole process of elevating Sadir into Bharatanatyam:
“Pioneers like Madam HP Blavatsky and Colonel HS Olcott, the founders of the Theosophical movement, had undertaken an extensive tour of South India and propagated the revival of devadasi institutions and the associated art of Sadir. They gained support from some sections of the native elite by their public denouncement of western Christian morality and materialism. In 1882, the Theosophical Society of India had set up its headquarters in Adyar, Chennai with the set goal of working towards the restoration of India's ancient glory in art, science, and philosophy.
The support later given to a revival of Sadir as Bharatanatyam by the Theosophical Society was largely due to the efforts of Rukumini Devi Arundale, an eminent theosophist, and E. Krishna Iyer.
The Theosophical Society Adyar provided the necessary funds and organization to back Arundale as the champion for India’s renaissance in the arts, especially Bharatanatyam. The revivalists tried to present the idealistic view of the institution of Devadasi. According to their view, it was the model of the ancient temple dancer as pure, sacred, and chaste women, as they were originally.
They stressed that the dance of Devadasi was a form of ‘natya yoga’ to enhance an individual's spiritual plane. The revivalists wanted to preserve the traditional form of Sadir dance by purifying it. As a consequence of purification, some modifications were introduced into the content of the dance, which was strongly criticized by dancer Balasaraswati and other prominent representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. The revivalists mostly belonged to Brahmin dominated Theosophical circles. Many Brahmin girls started to learn the dance from Devadasis.
In contrast to the abolitionist portrayal of Devadasis as prostitutes, the revivalists sketched them as nuns in order to defend and legitimize the institution. Still others claim that a devadasi was neither a prostitute nor a nun: ‘She was a professional artist, who did not suppress or deny her feminine skills, an obliquely if not purposely aligned with the tenets of Japanese Geisha culture. Devadasi women kept classical dance forms, like Bharatanatyam and Odissi, alive for centuries.’ ”
Now coming back you were wrong in assuming the temple sculptures across the country were the same. The sculptures in the Krishna-Godavari belt of present day Andhra Pradesh always depicted Kuchipudi, named after a town in the area that centres the dance, to this very date. The dance was always practiced by men, owing the the strong sense of Vaishnavism, that was the dominant religion in that area, where it was considered unchaste for a woman to dance. The dance funnily enough, was taught and propagated by Brahmins to be precise. So the roots are very different, even though Sadir and Kuchipudi might seem similar when looked at.
The sculptures seen in Orissa are of Odissi. Odissi was lost in between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and had to be re-learnt through sculptures. Thankfully the extensive sculptures across the state allowed for a full re-learning of the dance. Odissi and Bharatanatyam share nothing in common other than their roots in the Natya Shastra.
So, when there is proof that other parts of the country have their own forms of dance, all yes, based on the Natya Shastra, but extremely different otherwise, why is it wrong or incorrect to place Bharatanatyam in Tamilnadu, when what we dance today as the form, was after all a more chaste and ‘purified’ version of Sadir and Dasiaattam, almost completely exclusive to the state?
And if your worries come from the fact that there exists a Mysore School of Bharatanatyam, then even that can be explained to have come out of TN, as you will find chronicled here, http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/art99.html .
Hoping this detailed explanation will help you understand why the dance form of Bharatanatyam has and will always be considered a dance form with its roots in TN, for if we all follow your theory of where the roots of dances are to be placed, then the Natya Shastra of Bharata Muni, that is based on the Gandharva Veda [sometimes called Natya Veda] (an appendix to the Sama Veda), and was probably written somewhere in the Punjab area, between 200 BC and 200 AD, would signify that Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi were dances from Punjab (?).
Similarly Kutiyattam, the purest of the Natya Shastra traditions, to have lived on, untouched, and is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre, should also be placed there, even though its form and style are so vividly different from what one would assume the Natya Shastra to be?
The Natya Shastra was a guide, and artists took from it what they could, while they perfected their own individual arts. Present day Bharatanatyam is what ancient Tamils took from the Natya Shastra. They called it Sadir, but the world calls it Bharatanatyam, much thanks to people like Rukumini Devi Arundale, who again rejoiced in how it could mean Bharata Natyam as in the dance of Bharata Muni and also mean BhaRaTaNatyam meaning, the dance that is characterised by Bhaava (Expressions), Raaga (Music) and Taala (Rhythm).
Pic: Charles Ma, 'Shikharam' © Madhu Shwetha, 2009