Bharatanatyam | The Genesis

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    India has always danced.

    Among her diverse dance forms is the Bharatanatyam, one of our eight classical dances. As all others, it too has its roots in the Natyashastra. An authoritative treatise on dance and music, written by Bharat Muni between the 2nd BCE and 2nd BC, the Natyashastra is known as the fifth Veda, which emerged from Lord Brahma.

    The name Bharatanatyam has been used since the 12th century CE and consists of four sets of syllables, each representing a word. ‘Bha’ for ‘bhava’ or expression, ‘Ra’ from ‘raga’ meaning melody, ‘ta’ as in ‘tala’ or rhythm, and the double syllable ‘natyam’ or dance.

    The origin of Bharatanatyam as a dance form can be traced back to the religious rituals in temples, where the human figure, predominantly the female dancer, became a medium of expression as she performed solo.

    An Artistic Makeover For Hinduism

    The rise of Bharatanatyam as a performing art took place due to the attempt to give Hinduism an inventive makeover. The prevailing excessive ritualistic traditions of Hindu religion and caste sysyem had begun to lose its sway , to the rising popularity of Buddhism and Jainism, around the 6thCentury BC. Desperate to arrest this denigration, the rulers of South India – the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas – realised the need to demystify religion and bring it closer to the common man.

    The answer to their dilemma was Art. And thus began the synthesis of temple-building and art forms, which became an integral aspect of Hindu culture. From the 7th century CE, temple dances along with allied arts like painting, sculpture and puppetry became symbols of Hindu devotion. The Bhakti Movement further nurtured this marriage of the arts and religion.

    As kings built temples, they chose girls to take care of them. The early Dasis led a simple life, cleaning the temple and making garlands. However, as kings grew powerful and temple-building gained momentum, the role of the Dasis changed to mental submission. They were now servants of God or Deva-dasis. It is observed that this tradition created repercussions in the future centuries.

    Becoming A Devadasi

    Later, under the Chola rulers, from the 9th to the 12th centuries CE, they developed a dual role, as Devadasis in temples, and as Rajadasis in the royal courts. Dasis danced and sang the stories of the temple deities to the elaborate rituals of worship in temple processions, festivals and outside the temple precincts. The system soon became institutionalized, with six prescribed ceremonies before Devadasi could participate in temple rituals - Marriage to the temple deity, Dedication, the Ritual First Dance, Gejja Pooja, Arangetram and Selection of a Patron.

    As a part ofher thallikettu or dedication ceremony, a patron was selected, usually from the landed class, with both kings and priests included among the gentry. Although after the sacred marriage thread ceremony, the Dasi was entitled to tax-free land from the temple, court patronage brought no inheritance rights even for a male offspring from the union.

    The children thus born lived with their mothers, aunts, sisters and cousins following the matrilineal system. Girl children could be dedicated to temples or continue to live with the family as non-dedicated performers, while sons could become musicians, teaching and conducting dance for the household.

    The system continued thus until the17th century CE, when during the Maratha reign of Tanjore (now Thanjavur), Dasi Attam, as it was known then, entered a new phase and became known as Sadir Natyam.

    The Marathas, under the Bhosale clan from the mid-1670s to 1856, brought major changes to the cultural map of Tanjore. (Marathas were invited by a minister from the local Nayak kingdom of Tanjore , to help in dispute issues. Steadily, Marathas took over Tanjore in 1676).

    A hybrid and highly innovative court culture evolved, with the Telugu language being administered over a Tamil speaking populace. Their policy of consolidation, rather than expansion, helped the growth of the arts. Dance, music and literature in all languages were encouraged. The Dasi tradition embellished the court, and writings by the Dasi community became popular.

    Serfoji: Court Dances & Music

    When the English-educated Maratha King Saraboji/ Serfoji –II , ascended the throne In 1799 CE, the treaty he signed with the British gave him considerable autonomy. This was a crucial phase, with dance and dance music receiving a new thrust and platform to reach the larger public in the 20th century.

    Serfoji commissioned clusters of court dances, called nirupanas (in Marathi) or korvai (in Tamil), meaning a link or chain in a linear narrative presentation. Also present in his court were the four brothers of the famous Tanjore Quartet. They were durbar musicians to King Serfoji - II and later to King Shivaji (son of Serfoji – 11, until 1855).

    Among them was Ponnaiah, a composer and vocalist; Chinnaiah, a choreographer; Sivanandam, a mridangist and nattuvanar; and Vadivelu, a violinist. They were experts in the art of Bharatanatyam and encouraged by the king, learnt the nuances of Carnatic music from a number of renowned exponents. Their stints at the courts of Trivandrum and Mysore had given them a wider exposure and thereby the leading edge for creating an enduring concert form. Using the nirupana as the foundation, they developed the dance and music repertoire for the court in codified basic steps and rhythm patterns or adavus. This became the Margam, the present-day repertoire of Bharatanatyam.

    The order of dance items, devised with exclusive steps and movements, music compositions in Telugu, and specific musical instruments for each item, was testimony to their visionary brilliance.

    This valuable restructuring of the dance into the Melaprapti, Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Sabdam, Swarajati, Chauka varnam, Ragamalika, Padam, Javali and Tillana order, forms the core of Bharatanatyam as we see it today. The focus in these dances remained the female dancer herself.

    Rajadasis: Introducing Nuances to the Dance Form

    Kings popularised the new dance form by encouraging Dasis in temples to present these items to the public. The Rajadasis of the royal courts nurtured the modern art form and performed the more artistically developed, nuanced version of the Dance.

    The court repertoire included various forms of the dance, the Chaduru/Sadir performed in front of an audience, Mejuvani for the host, and Kaccher or concert and Kelika or play.

    Among the dancers were brilliant artistes like the late dancer Balasarswati‘s ancestor, Pappamal in the mid-18th century, and her grandmother Vina Dhanammal (1867-1938), who was one of the most influential musicians of her times.

    Empowering The Dasis

    Considered important to both temple and the court, their economic and financial needs taken care of, the Dasicommunity soon became the fifth caste, a unique category beyond the routine four. They represented the freedom and independence of women, not limited to the roles of wife and mother. Their education was encouraged, especially in the 64 arts, among them being music, dance, architecture, astrology, poetry, logic, sorcery, archery and the ancient texts or Vedas.

    Dasi community made vibrant contributions in temples, courts, and at private events like wedding ceremonies. The tremendous respect they were given, and the encouragement to continually learn, contributed to their empowering independence. Even in their marginalized social position, they were invited to be seated in an assembly of men, an honor not extended even to the wives and women in the family.

    With such complete dedication, their art acquired tremendous depth and expression and the Dasis preserved the purity of dances in the temples and courts.

    Plunging Into Ignominy

    However, this cultural patronage was to end in 1856, when Thanjavur was fully annexed by the British, citing Doctrine of Lapse ( Raja Shivaji of Bhosle clan had no male heir to succeed him )

    This was a turning point in dance history. For now began its denigration, the politico-socio events that followed submerging the heritage of dance and dancers into anonymity and ignominy.

    The changed circumstances and bid for survival forced the Dasis into submission to all who visited. Dasis who had once danced , within the precincts of temples ; at the court in presence of elite audiences, now danced behind closed doors, privately, for anyone who would pay.

    The focus shifted to the physical form of the Dancer; it was no more the framework/structure of Dance. Economic distress, with even their daily food being denied unless they obliged the temple priests, prompted the Dasis to choose and live with their patrons, for daily survival

    The final straw came from the British, who after 1856 denounced them as nautch girls, and the press followed suit. The Hindu newspaper began a systematic campaign in 1893, condemning dance performances presented for dignitaries to the Madras Presidency. The campaign appealed to the Governor and Viceroy to stop attending nautch parties.

    The system had reached breaking point. As dancers and musicians came to the crossroads, forced to choose between economic necessity and societal rules, they made their way to Madras in search of other opportunities; The arena of Dance compromised their musicians to the new world of entertainment - motion pictures and theatre.

    The stage was set for the next transitional phase, from temples to the public.

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