Many, many years ago, in a world filled with bitterness, greed, jealousy and ugliness, the people of the earth yearned for something beautiful and enchanting, a thing of grace and wonder that would cut through the gloom and chaos and light up their world. In despair, they approached Brahma the Supreme Creator and begged him to create something that all the people could enjoy with all their senses, and that would take their minds off the wretchedness and misery of their lives.
Brahma went into a deep and lengthy meditation. Swirling through his mind were slokas and mantras from the Rig Veda, chants and sruthis from the Sama Veda, stagecraft, histrionics and dramaturgy from the Yajur Veda and emotions and sentiments from the Atharva Veda. All of these came together in a brilliant amalgam, and thus was born the Natya Veda, the holy scripture of dance, music and drama.
Drawing inspiration directly from this Natya Veda of Brahma, two thousand years ago, Sage Bharata wrote the Natya Shastra, a veritable encyclopedia that covers every aspect of stagecraft, dance, music, costumes and poetry, all haloed with the sheen of the divine and spiritual. Fact and fable, history and mythology, these are the warp and weft of the Indian way of life, and woven into this glorious tapestry is a glittering jewel: Bharata Natyam.
The rules of Bharata Natyam are laid out in staggering and mind-boggling detail in the Natya Shastra. Almost every imaginable movement of the eyebrows, the eyelids and the pupils, is described; the nose, the cheeks, the chin, the lips, the neck, the knees, the arms, the legs – no part of the body is too small or too big to escape description, categorization and classification. Add in permutations and combinations of any or all of the above, and one gets a sense of the vastness and thoroughness of this treatise. Blending all the ingredients of drama, music and literature, Bharata Natyam – and all classical Indian dance – has three components: Nritta, or pure dance, Natya, the dramatic element, and Nritya, the histrionic element, also known as abhinaya. All these together are the brick and mortar, the steel and concrete, of Bharata Natyam. And here is where the greatness of Bharata Natyam is revealed: it has taken this brick and mortar, this steel and concrete, and fashioned something of extraordinary beauty, a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul - a divine medium for narrating the story of life itself.
Born two thousand years ago, Bharata Natyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, has had a fascinating evolution. Imagine it as a vast river, now sweeping sparklingly through a broad plain, now struggling through an arid desert, now running, dark and barely visible through a gloomy forest, but always flowing, always alive, gathering twigs and stones, carrying life and death, endlessly replenishing itself with bracingly fresh water from tributaries and rainfall, as it moves relentlessly and unstoppably on towards a horizon and a future which nobody, and everybody, can see.
The name Bharata Natyam is a relatively recent one. Behind this name lies a saga of revivalist and reform movements, accusations of moral weakness, affectations of propriety and decorum, caste battles, nationalistic pride, and colonial repression. All this could have undone a weaker structure, but it was a trial by fire of sorts for Bharata Natyam, and it has emerged, stronger than ever, according to some, compromised and adulterated according to others, but alive it is, surging strongly towards that invisible horizon.
Until the early years of the twentieth century, what is known as Bharata Natyam today was called Sadir, Dasi Attam, or Thanjavur Natyam. It was performed in a milieu that is vastly different from today’s world. The earliest exponents of this dance were temple and court dancers. These dancers were called devadasis, and they formed part of a 2,000 year old temple dancing tradition. The world of Sadir and the devadasi was one of imperial kings and their social hierarchy, the opulence and sophistication of their courts and temples, a world where the dancer enjoyed the highest status and admiration and often wielded enormous power and influence. The grandeur of the king was expressed in his courts and his temples, and what better way to showcase his enlightenment and learning, his refinement and taste, than by having the best and greatest number of dancers, the most venerated dance teachers and musicians? Sadir, and many of the devadasis, prospered and thrived in this environment.
The devadasis belonged to a community which “married” its girls to the temple deity. Temple ceremonies tied them for life to the temple. By and large, the “office” of the devadasi was a hereditary one, although there were some women who, attracted by the economic independence, the high status and the authority generated by this position, chose this path for themselves. The best of the devadasis enjoyed the patronage of the wealthy and influential members of society; this in turn benefited the temple.
Nothing lasts forever. The world of the devadasi, with its kings and wealthy patrons, and insinuations of the nature of the relationship between them, collided head-on with the British colonialists and their ideas of morality and seemliness, and in the end, it was the devadasi world that lay in the dust. The British, strongly and actively backed by many Indians, dismissed the devadasi system as seedy and backward. The official death knell was struck in 1947 with the Madras Devadasi Act, which abolished all temple dedications and effectively killed this tradition.
One can view the devadasi system through many mirrors, and each one will reflect back a different reality: the empowered female; the prostitute; the temple property/commodity; the goose who laid the golden egg for the temple and its community; the helpless woman under the control of her male patrons, teachers and priests. Whatever one believes, the reality is that this system is now dead. And the doors have been thrown open to a whole new paradigm, from the closed, hereditary “unrespectable” devadasi one to one that has become eagerly sought by the educated, upper caste, ultra-respectable elite, performed on stages and auditoria where often a statue of Nataraja is the sole nod to the temple tradition of yore.
The repertoire of the devadasis was varied and wide-ranging, and a lot of it survives to this day. They performed ritual songs and dances, mainly in Sanskrit and Telugu, like stotrams (poems in praise of a particular deity) and pushpanjalis (offering of flowers, seeking the deity’s blessings). They had a vast repertory of artistic compositions, mostly in Tamil and Telugu, and these included the alarippu, varnam and padam. Often the themes of the padams and varnams were performed in an erotically explicit manner, which might have contributed to Sadir’s somewhat unsavory reputation among the people of “good” families. Devotional songs and dances in Tamil and Telugu were also popular, like the laali (lullaby) and taalattu (cradle song). Kuravanjis, dance dramas depicting a variety of stories and legends, were enormously popular, and were sometimes performed over the course of several days.
The modern Bharata Natyam margam, (which means path), or performance format, has its roots in the great Thanjavur Quartet, four brothers who lived and worked during the early years of the 19th century in the courts of the Maratha King Serfoji of Thanjavur, the Mysore King Rajendra Odayar, and the Travancore King Swati Tirunal. These great brothers, Chinniah, Ponnaiah, Shivananandam and Vadivelu, will be forever remembered for their immense contributions to Bharata Natyam. Their incomparable compositions are exquisitely suited to the rhythmic patterns, emotions, moods, themes and tempos of Bharata Natyam, where the music and the dance each bring out the best of each other, a perfect marriage made in heaven, an impeccable union of the Bhava, Raga, and Tala elements of Bharata Natyam. The pieces that they composed are still revered as the gemstones of the Bharata Natyam repertoire – centuries later, they still glitter and sparkle, and evoke the feelings of ecstasy and serenity that come with the sublime harmony of dance and music.
The complete Bharata Natyam margam, as prescribed by the Quartet, includes the following:
Alarippu: This is an invocatory piece, with the dancer performing a series of rhythmic exercises to a particular talam, seeking the blessings of God, the guru, and the audience.
Jatiswaram: A purely rhythmic piece consisting of jathis, danced to a repeated melody of swarams (melodic notes). There are jatiswarams in a variety of ragams, each invoking a different mood and set of rhythmic patterns.
Shabdam: A short and sweet piece, the warm-up to the main piece of the recital, the varnam, where there are short rhythmic parts, as well as a few lines to which the dancer performs abhinaya, or emotional expressions. This is the first piece where the entire range of a dancer’s skills is shown, albeit in small doses.
Varnam: this is the most rigorous piece in the Bharatha Natyam repertoire, and the ultimate test of a dancer’s ability. A Varnam weaves demanding rhythmic segments (theermanams) with story sequences, all of which require unerring precision, compelling facial expressions, and tremendous stamina. The Varnam can last from half an hour to almost a full hour, and a good dancer will make this time seem like a few magical minutes. The story line of a Varnam can range from the plight of a devotee longing for a sight of her beloved Lord, to the ever-popular frolics and pranks of the naughty child Krishna, to a description of the majesty, power and beauty of a particular deity.
There is normally an intermission after the Varnam, following which is the slower-paced, emotion-laden segment of the recital, where the dancer unfolds the fine textures and nuances of abhinaya, (emotions and feelings), revealed through stories of heartbreak and love, of scolding mothers and pouting daughters, of unfaithful friends and fickle lovers, all sung in hauntingly melodious, lyrically poetic, padams and javalis. Some of these padams and javalis are brazenly erotic and sensuous, but handled skillfully by a good dancer, they are never vulgar, but a beautiful embodiment of life, in all its multi-faceted glory.
The final piece in a traditional Bharata Natyam margam is the Thillana, a fast-paced, joyous piece that is mainly rhythmic, with a small expressive section. It jolts the audience back into toe-tapping mode, with its variety of melodic and rhythmic patterns.
Today, many Bharata Natyam recitals carry some version of this margam, usually a much-shortened, telescoped-into-one-hour one. Most often jettisoned are the jatiswaram and shabdam; and where a dancer might have performed three, or even four, padams twenty or thirty years ago, today he or she might whittle these down to one or two. Attention and time spans are shrinking. Ever greater numbers of dancers need to be accommodated. Theme and concept based dances are gaining in visibility, if not necessarily in popularity.
The story of Bharata Natyam after the fall of the devadasi system is one of unremitting, untiring effort and devotion by a group of pioneers, including Rukmini Devi Arundale, E. Krishna Iyer, Balasaraswati and V. Raghavan, who did everything they could – and succeeded brilliantly in what they set out to achieve – to ensure that this ancient tradition would not wilt and wither away.
Of these, Rukmini Devi Arundale has left behind perhaps the most concrete legacy of all. She came from a Brahmin family - not any Brahmin family, but a highly respected one. Dancing was the last thing she was expected to do. Her interest in dancing was kindled by a ballet performance she saw, by the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. She was so enchanted that she wanted to learn ballet, but was gently steered towards the dance of her own heritage by Pavlova, who encouraged her to learn and revive the rich dance forms of India. To make a very long story short, Rukmini Devi Arundale did precisely that. Confronting many obstacles, she sought out and learned from the best dance teachers. To remove its association with the devadasi of yore, she renamed the dance Bharata Natyam. In 1936, she started an institution for the teaching of dance and music, which she named Kalakshetra, or Temple of Art (Kala means art, and Kshetra means temple, or holy place). She employed the top musicians and dancers of her time, and adhered strictly to tradition, while using that same tradition as a springboard to choreograph many stunning pieces and dances for Bharata Natyam. Here evolved the Kalakshetra style of dancing, with its emphasis on Angika, or the body form. Clean lines and crisp rhythms are stressed, as opposed to the looser, more sinuous forms of other Bharata Natyam styles.
Other schools and styles of dancing have flourished as well, as the old teachers, with generations of learning and knowledge flowing through their veins, were sought after. Well-known and tremendously respected today are the styles of Pandanallur, Vazhuvoor and Tanjore, each one with its special and unique attributes.
Once Bharata Natyam became “respectable”, the floodgates opened, and the scene today is heartwarming, or one that evokes despair, depending on how one views the situation. Never before has this art form been more popular, more vibrant. Yes, there is plenty of mediocrity and worse, but also, shining brightly all around the world, are many dancers with tremendous talent, intelligence, imagination, knowledge, dedication and determination.
The borders of the Bharata Natyam universe are expanding, and the world within is one which is testing all boundaries, where tradition and innovation, age-old issues and modern ones, the abstract and the concrete, the sensual, the ascetic, the carnal and the spiritual, are all jostling for attention, all parading themselves on stages around the world to audiences that are bemused, outraged, thrilled, excited, or despairing, but never indifferent. There are people experimenting with using the language of Bharata Natyam to explore new themes like dowry deaths, women’s issues, poverty, AIDS, the environment, and war; there are those who throw themes and narrative to the winds and rejoice in the framework of Bharata Natyam to highlight the excitement and visual stimulation of abstract dance; there are some who have chafed at the rigid outlines of Bharata Natyam, and have incorporated elements of modern and other dance styles to enable them to best express their ideas and ideals. Some dancers have eschewed the whole devotional element; others vigorously oppose this viewpoint and are uncompromising in their belief that Bharata Natyam is a spiritual experience, not just another means to express modern life and its dilemmas. There has been experimentation in music; there has been venturing into a variety of different musical genres. Ancient texts and scripts have been revived; brand new words and music have been written to express something new, something unique, something original and utterly personal. And of course, there are many who cherish what has been handed to them, this gem which has lived for over two thousand years, and they pledge to safeguard it and preserve its pristine form.
All of this means one thing: Bharata Natyam is alive and well. No, this is an understatement. It is vibrantly healthy, thriving, dynamic, at the crossroads at one of the most exciting stages of its long and gripping life story. It is a majestic, powerful river in full flow. What a journey it has had. And what a journey lies ahead of it!
(c) Kamini Dandapani