(Last Updated on : 24/11/2010)
The home of Bharatnatyam is in the South, in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Mysore vicinity. The history of Bharatnatyam has its roots in the Natya Shastra of Bharata and thus derives its name from its chief exponents in ancient times who were the devadasis
or women in the service of the gods, and so Bharatnatyam or Daasi Attam means 'the dance of the devadasis'.
Relatively recently the term 'Bharata Natyam' has come into general use; initially it was known as Daasi Attam and this change was an attempt to detach the art from the devadasis who had come to be regarded as disgraceful practitioners. The term 'Bharata Natyam' implies dancing according to the principles of Bharata'a term that could, indeed, apply to any of the chief schools of classical dance in India, since all of them were based essentially upon Bharata's work.
The southern parts of India had been the least affected by foreign influences, with the exception of Aryan influences, which were profound. Lord Shiva is ardently worshipped in south India. The famous figure of Shiva as Nataraj (Lord of the Dance) shows the dynamic aspect of this god and embodies all his attributes. In his right hand he holds the damru (small drum), the symbol of creation. The Dravidian inhabitants of the subcontinent were already fond of the arts and dance and was lately discovered by the excavations of pre-Aryan sites and the discovery of dances which were purely Dravidian in origin, such as the tullals
, devil dances of Kerala
, and the dances of the aboriginal hill tribes.
Temple dancing was, however, regarded unnecessary, especially in view of the fact that some devadasis performed services of an immoral nature in addition to their temple duties. Buddhism exerted great influence on dance particularly and eventually it played a role in the history of Bharatnatyam. The Shastraic literature kept the traditional form of dance alive and provided it the basis upon which it could develop and its form gradually took its solid structure. The dances of Bali and Cambodia bear a superficial resemblance to the Bharatnatyam, which was their initial inspiration. In the theatre and dance of Japan there still exist traces, which connect them with the Indian dances.
The reassertion of Brahminism and its real expression in the form of magnificent temples increased the demand of the devadasis. The temples themselves were highly ornate in structures and every surface of the temple was profusely and painstakingly decorated with friezes, bas-reliefs and sculptures. The most famous of these temples dedicated to Shiva is that of Chidambaram in South India and the four gateways of this temple are carved with the 108 karanas or postures of the body in dance, which are described in the Natya Shastra.
The Vaishnavite temples at Belur and Halebid have an important significance for the history of Bharatnatyam. The temples are decorated with sculptures of Vishnu and the many stories and legends are related to him. A royal lady, Queen Santala, is said to have been the greatest of dancers; the sculptures depicting her name are among the most beautiful in south India. Lord Krishna was one of Vishnu's avatars and the history of Bharatnatyam added to its repertoire, a new store of songs and stories based on Krishna's love for Radha.
Later in the kingdom of Vijayanagar, Bharatnatyam flourished. The influence of the Muslims eventually led Bharatnatyam to their courts as well. It is at this time that terms from the Muslim dictionary like 'salamu' and 'tillana' were added to Bharatnatyam. Both of these are adaptations of Persian words. In this way Bharatnatyam started on a new phase of secularization. The Bharatnatyam dancers danced for the king or highly placed patrons and the dance form were included in the celebrations of domestic festivities and taken part in religious functions. Abhinaya or expression was articulately used and a greater use of love songs, which could be interpreted in both human and divine terms, was played in the backdrop.
In the history of Bharatnatyam, south India played a vast role and is thus considered to be the founding ground of this art. The Bharatnatyam was defined anew by the four brothers, namely Chinniyah, Punniah, Vadivelu and Shivanandan of Tanjore. After their influence, Bharatnatyam came to be known as 'Tanjore Nautch' in the region. However Rabindranath Tagore
, Uday Shankar
and Menaka were the great personalities who had already begun to revive the interest in the north Indian dances. While, in the South, E. Krishna Iyer started to re-awaken the interest of his countrymen in the real Bharatnatyam. Eventually many others joined him in this effort. Public interest was aroused and in the early thirties some of those who had nursed Bharatnatyam through its period of dishonor, were able to perform again in public.
In the history of Bharatnatyam, Rukmini Devi has a special position, since she was the first great dancer of South India who was not a devadasi, and belonged to a respectable Brahmin family. After her, many other high caste families allowed their daughters to take up dancing as a profession. Shanta, Kamala, and Kausalya formed the nucleus of the new Bharatnatyam movement. Queen Santala danced in the black marble-pillared halls of the temples at Halebid and Belur nine hundred years ago, and thus became the pillar of inspiration of dancers of the future.
Bharatnatyam made dancing once again respectable, so much so that it is an essential social accomplishment, which everyone flocked to acquire. The history of Bharatnatyam is regarded as a healthy trend since it has aroused a consciousness of the dance, and so this dance form is given a wider field of appreciation both at home and abroad, and in addition given recognition and employment to the old nattu-vanars.
In recent years there are several schools for teaching Bharatnatyam and the mushrooming of 'Academies', 'Schools', 'Colleges', 'Institutes' and 'Societies' run by the Bharatnatyam teachers owe their existence to the history of Bharatnatyam. The exodus of the dance from the temple to the theatre and then to home is in harmony with the spirit of the contemporary times.