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Suman Badami

The Dilemma: Fidelity to historical truth or novelty

in the Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam

Badami, Suman: "The dilemma: Fidelity to historical truth or novelty in the Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Introduction

The social ecology of culture is in a constant metamorphosis. We tend to interpret the past in the light of the traditions and views of the present. But for getting a better perspective we must try to see the present in the light of the past. History is a record of the dynamism of constant evolution of human activities. It throws light on the present and serves as a guide for the future. Every phase and change compels a fresh adjustment of behaviour and ideas. From the historical data available at present it is impossible to get a total perspective, as there is so much more about the past that we don’t know yet. So there can be no one set of theoretical patterns and concepts that give the historical truth—everything is relative. The concept of culture is the essence of human experience and behaviour change through history. ”Cultural performances provide units of observation of a civilisation’s great tradition” [1]

The dilemma between fidelity to history or novelty is an unavoidable part of cultural dynamism. The issue then is about the areas of relatedness in a culture and the milieu in which it exists. Discussing this issue with particular reference to the specific phenomena of classical south Indian dance means spanning almost two millennia of its evolution and growth. A meaningful discussion is impossible without having a clear picture of the creation and record of this heritage. All periods of history are transitional and the pace of this dance form has changed in its content, philosophy and objective throughout its history.

Any attempt to study the history of the dance form of south India, Bharatanatyam as it is called today, would require:

- A study of its evolution and growth and its logical relationship with society and

- The philosophy of this dance, the nature of the art experience and its ultimate objective.

2. Evolution and growth

2.1. Classical period

Going back to the period between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD we understand that the Dravidians were the early inhabitants of India and the major part of the country was under their influence long before the Aryan immigration. The point where the Dravidian and Aryan culture began influencing each other is very significant as it led to the rise of a new civilisation on which the structure of Indian society was created. The Aryans moved to India in the 2nd century before Christ. Their gods were closely connected to nature personified as various gods. Early religion was marked by ritualism and symbolism. “Man when he first emerges from animal consciousness realises that he is almost entirely dependent upon the forces of nature amidst which he is placed; and accustomed as he is in his own experience to associate all power with voluntary effort, he ascribes these forces to sentient beings working behind them unseen” [2]

The belief in the plurality of god gave way to the conception of a single god-head responsible for creation. Importance was given to sacrifice whose efficacy in securing for man what he wants was never doubted. The ideal did not stop with sacrifices but also included practice of virtues like truth and kindness. During the early part of this period there is some evidence of suspicion, restriction and some harassment of performing arts by the priests and law-givers. They were condemned as vices. The Natyashastra, a comprehensive treatise on dance and drama written around this period, gave drama and dance a divine origin probably to safeguard the arts from such harassment.

While the rural pattern of life during this period was bound by festivals and rituals, the entertainment in urban life was abstract and emphasised the imaginative representation of life - “not direct pleasure from original things but an imaginative entertainment hard to define though closely connected with human feelings and emotion - the social play and emergence of entertainment values all reflect the diverse bonds between growth of urbanisation and theatre” [3]

Drama and dance was not meant to be a documentation of society, only a suggestive image -hence it did not attempt too much realism. Amongst the many forms of dances described in the Natyashastra there is mentioned the Ekaharya lasyanga. The present day Bharatanatyam of Tamilnadu, south India can be traced back to this form. Prime source of information regarding the dance and music of the ancient Tamils is the grammar work “Tolkappiyam”. The literature belonging to this period is called Sangam literature and depicts the society and culture of the period. The Tamil songs between 2 BC and 2 AD of the sangams are the earliest compositions for dance in Tamil. These compositions were a product of a feudal society in which the kings were the ideal norm and the position of the poet/bard/singer was of vital importance. This bardic literature gives a lot of information about performing arts during the period. The dance and drama performances seem to have been for a specific purpose and ritualistic and aimed at controlling the divine force that man is confronted with.

In ancient Tamil culture, people acknowledging nature through deities led to the sprouting of many places of worship and temples. These became focal points for the arts as an outlet for their devotional energy. This period is marked by an influence of Sanskrit culture and the spread of Jainism and Buddhism. There is a lot of ambivalence about the status of dancers. While the classical texts speak highly of them, there is at the same time evidence of their being treated with suspicion.

2.2. Medieval period

Two kingdoms rose in Tamilnadu during the 5th century AD - the Pallavas and Pandyas, against the growing influences of Buddhism and Jainism of the previous centuries. The massive efforts to shake off these two resulted in a blending of the Dravidian Tamils with the ritual Indo-Aryan culture. The result was a flexible blend of the two, which is called Hinduism.

The period is marked by a clear consciousness of one’s culture and a vigorous revitalisation of it. Simple ides of devotion or “bhakti” from the north of India transformed into a powerful devotional/bhakti movement in Tamilnadu. This was mainly through the poets who followed the high communicability of the sangam works. The devotion to god was expressed in very intense and sensuous songs. The other popular genre was called the “aatupadai” which glorified the gods and equated kings with gods. The bards/singers/dancers were responsible for the balance between the king's heroic conquests (“puram”) and the king's erotic life (“aham”). The dancer during this time was the bard, the courtesan and the ritualist. This combination led to the enhancement of royal rites and the sensuous offering of art. The hymns of pure devotion gripped the minds of the people between the 6th and the 10th century AD.

The passionate and militant Hindu devotion matured and consolidated under the rule of the Cholas who ruled Tamilnadu between the 8th to 12th centuries AD. The grandeur of the king was expressed in the court and the temple. In the 6th century Tamilnadu was in a state of constant warfare and the dance of girls in the temples - “devadasis“ were probably very energetic and ritualistic. By the 8th century more subdued expressions of worship of a more artistic character were added. This period is well documented in the many temples that arose during the period. Great support was extended to the dancers. This period also witnessed many dance dramas, which were enacted in temple rituals. The service of the dancing girls in the temples was of a hereditary nature. The policy of granting lands to artists attached to the temple led to the very strong association of the performing arts with the temple.

The ascension to power by the Muslim rulers in north India in the 13th century spread terror through the southern states. Eventually they overcame the Muslim suppression and emerged as the Vijayanagar Empire. This, which emerged from the fear of foreign oppression, was a very self-conscious form of Hinduism. This period was marked by a great degree of refinement of arts. It seems that during this period the dancers were held in high esteem by all because she warded off the evil influences to the kings and adorned his court.

Even after the bhakti movement brought together religion and performing arts especially the tradition of dedicating girls to temple service, there is still a lot of ambivalence in the way dancers were viewed. The temple largely controlled the art form. The relation of the temple and arts during this period was powerful and intimate. Bound by the feudalistic tenancy rights of the land grant system of the temples the artists preserved a great deal of continuity transmitting the dance from generation to generation. These artists developed and propagated their traditional inheritance and the dancer was viewed as a medium to a spiritual experience.

2.3. 16th century to 19th century AD

Indian society was traditional till the middle of the 19th century and patterns and behaviour were the same from generation to generation. The structure was hierarchical in nature and individual position was inherited rather than achieved. After the collapse of the Vijayayanagar Empire, a new Hindu dynasty had arisen in south India to defend Hinduism against the foreign British oppression. This was established in Tanjore in Tamilnadu in the 16th century and was annexed by the British in 1856 AD. During the Tanjore period literature sources refer to the dancer as dancer cum singer. Tanjore became the hub of all cultural activity in the south and drew many artists and intelligentsia to it. The Tanjore kings continued the tremendous effort of the Vijayanagar kings in encouraging the arts. During this period too ritual song and dance in the temple existed side by side with dance and music in court.

From a ritual dance during the 6th century under the Pallavas to a little more artistic form during the rule of the Cholas to a more sophisticated dance under the Vijayanagar kings, dance rose to great artistic heights in the Tanjore court. There was a great deal of new compositions, choreographies and a systematisation of the way in which the dance form was to be presented/staged. But towards the end of their rule and during the rule of the British the dance form moved towards a more sensate than spiritual art. The Indian society was mostly stagnant at this point and Indian language was relegated to the second position. There was a discontinuity in the traditional way of Indian life. With the sudden loss of the king/court/temple patronage the dance became a means of livelihood for the dancer. The focus shifted from spiritual to sensate.

The frustration of the working class of Indians against the ruling British found an outlet in the revivalism of all things Indian. A law was passed forbidding the dedication of girls to temple service, and dancing was no longer permitted as part of temple ritual. The end of the 19th century saw a growing cynicism towards devotional performance in modern times. The leaders of the Indian independence movement took up its rehabilitation as part of their mission. The essential part of the rehabilitation was to mark the last phase of the Devadasi culture as a degenerate remnant of a glorious past. So what was perceived to be traditional was sought to be conserved. For a while the hereditary and revivalist dance existed side by side. But the morale and pride of the traditional dancers had taken a beating by this time.

2.4. Post independence (1947 onwards)

If the traditional arts of south India were given a Hindu identity during the late classical period and medieval period to counter the influences of Jainism and Buddhism and later the Muslim influences, the post-colonial Indian strove to give it a national identity. They were projected as symbols of Indian culture to the rest of the world. The post-colonial Indian needed to give it this anchor, and dance in south India moved from the temple to the theatre. An art form aimed at pleasing kings and royalty at the court or acting as a medium for devotees at the temple now moved to the concert stage for a completely different audience.

A revival posed many challenges to the dancers in finding approval for the repositioned dance form. After independence there emerged many dedicated and knowledgeable dancers who have played an important role in determining the direction of the content and technique of Bharatanatyam. The erotic element in Bharatanatyam was completely underplayed and pure devotional fervour to god was emphasised. The changes in the dance were made to accommodate the social changes and find new dimensions within the framework of the rules regarding the technique laid down in the ancient texts. While the traditionalists claim to be presenting authentic, classical dance, it continues to evolve and grow.

The term classical is used for present day Bharatanatyam because the technique - the body movements, modes of expression, etc. - are based on the ancient texts starting with the Natyashastra. It is traditional because it is still the dance that was traditionally passed on from generation to generation by the hereditary practitioners of the art.

3. Nature of the art experience

Initially, in India, philosophy and religion were not separate entities - both aimed at reaching the meaning of existence. Philosophy originated under the pressure of a practical need - a remedy for the ills of life - and the metaphysical aspects came as a matter of course. The earliest known Indian art was essentially practical and there was no question of aesthetic contemplation. It consisted essentially in the appreciation of skill. The Natyashastra, said to have been written around the 2nd century AD, is a comprehensive treatise pertaining to all aspects of dramatic presentation. In addition to music and dance it deals with phonology, play writing, play construction, production and many other allied crafts. It claims to have divine origins, having been handed down by the gods themselves to a sage named Bharata. It is said to have been created to create a diversion for people from immoral behaviour.

It is immaterial whether Bharata existed or not or whether the work was a combined effort of many individuals over a period of time. What stands out are two things:

- firstly that it is the first comprehensive work on all aspects of dramatic performances and actually boasts that ”what is found here may be found elsewhere, but what is not here cannot be found anywhere”

- secondly dance and drama were created as a remedy for uncivilised behaviour, a plaything but of a moral and elevating nature. The end is instruction but indirectly. Social representation was a primary object. What is meant here is not individual incidents affecting society, which keep changing with time and are transitory. What is probably meant is that it should reflect the emotions of humanity- a timeless representation of the basic truths of human life. “Right for the people going wrong, enjoyment for those who are pleasure seekers, restraint of the ill behaved or tolerance of the well behaved, putting courage into cowards or the exploits of the brave, knowledge for the unknowing or the wisdom of the wise, enjoyment of the rich or fortitude of the grief stricken, money for those who want to make a living and stability to disturbed minds” - Natyashastra.

In the Natyashastra the emotional experience of art is called “rasa”. The main objective of traditional Indian drama is rasa. On witnessing a dramatic spectacle the spectator experiences an emotion already present in his sub-conscious, which produces joy called rasa. The Natyashastra says there can be no meaningful development of drama without rasa. It represented the unity of entertainment and enlightenment. This concept of rasa is a very important contribution of India to aesthetics. In the Natyashastra it is a simple concept with no philosophical depths.

During this classical period, in the music, dance and drama compositions of south India, the writers dwell on themes of morality and the poets are greatly interested in the human experience of the world. The universe was perceived in three categories - basic things that have always existed, things that are born/created, and the innermost psyche or the essence of an individual. The direct experience of an individual’s life was viewed from two angles - the exotic and the heroic (called “aham” and “puram” respectively). This classification gave rise to two great genres of love and war poetry.

Classical Indian thought was primarily concerned with the result of an action, but the philosophy of the medieval period was different. It not only gives the end but the means for achieving that end. There were two elements common to the various schools of philosophy that sprouted during this period:

- pursuit of spiritual bliss as the final ideal, and

- the ascetic spirit of the discipline recommended for its attainment.

There were several other important treatises on music, dance and drama too, some of which are available today. There were a large number of commentaries on the Natyashastra itself during the medieval period, but most of them are lost except for a very lucid commentary called the “Abhinava Bharati” by a philosopher/scholar called Abhinavagupta around the 9th century AD. While the Natyashastra does not elaborate much on the ultimate art experience (rasa), Abhinavagupta has given a systematic analysis and explanation for the ultimate “high” that an art experience can give. An attempt is made to describe the precise nature of the mental activity involved in the enjoyment of rasa or sentiment, in the following way:

(a) he admits that an aesthetic experience begins with the direct perception of pleasant objects of sight and sound.

(b) the aesthete then views the situation on stage through the eyes of the character and identifies with the entire situation. That is why the hero is someone who acts in strict accordance with his moral principles in a situation that may tempt an ordinary person from the right path.

(c) the emotional level is thus aroused and at a high pitch it de-individualises and raises the individual to the level of the universal - an emotional response that is universal - and this is the kathartic level. At this level the aesthetic object is free from temporal and spatial conditions and figures in the consciousness of the aesthete as something universal. It is not a recollection or remembered knowledge. It is a visualisation. The objects are neither pure creations of the mind nor reproductions of historic facts but a mixture of both.

The concept of rasa is spiritual and aesthetic and the function of art is to lift the barriers that cover the true nature of bliss. The sentiments or rasa are disinterested, generic and universal while the emotion is personal and individual. The impact of the emotional experience presented by a work of art and the awareness it brings are of a different kind. Abhinavagupta holds that the aesthetic experience at its highest level is the experience of the self itself. The emotion is in the subconscious and it is on the basis of this varying element that it is divided into various types like love, bravery etc. The function of dance is only to awaken this subconscious element.

Discussing the nature of the art experience in the dance of south India means understanding its role in the environs of the great devotional fervour that had gripped the minds of the people between 6 AD and 16 AD. The dance was meant to be one of the means of spiritual upliftment and the dancer was viewed as a means to achieve this. There is a continuation of dealing with the divine through dramatic performance with a lot more devotional fervour. Traditionally whether the average Hindu was aware of the esoteric meaning of his relation of self and universe, he was aware that the temple performance was intended to impart a deeper meaning. The dancers and their dance within the sacred, religious codes of the temple flourished alongside the secular dance in the courts of the kings. It reached great artistic heights in the 16th and 17th century in its content and composition.

Towards the end of the 18th century with the end of the traditional patronage of temple/court it slowly shifted its focus. While some dancers' main concern was artistry others realised that their rich patrons were more interested in the dancer than the dance, and art for them became an artifice. The dancers who did not have wealthy patrons joined the force of secular dancing prostitutes.

With a total revamping and repositioning of the dance by the Indian leaders during the independence, Indian dance resurfaced as a cultural symbol representing the age-old traditions of India and now the focus was on pure devotion, underplaying its sensuous side. The venue moved from temple to theatre, the dance itself from hereditary practitioners to non-hereditary dancers. It is a sought-after accomplishment for an Indian girl and anyone can learn. From amongst the post independent non-hereditary dancers there have emerged many extremely dedicated and knowledgeable dancers whose commitment to the classical core in the ancient texts has been very sincere.


Today Bharatanatyam is a medium - an attitude of the minds of the artist and the spectator –towards the real nature of things, which may be termed supernatural, but this proceeds from clear reasoning inspired by knowledge. Today it is neither ritual nor entertainment but an aesthetic search bound by rules. Bharatanatyam could perhaps be called temple art not just because it was a part of the temple, but because its purpose is spiritual identity.

Many of the leading dancers of the 70s and 80s have delved deep into the theory of the dance form and have included this training as part of dance education. Many workshops, camps and lectures are conducted to help the questioning dancer to know the art form in its entirety. The 80s and 90s have witnessed a virtual boom in terms of dancers and dance schools. Many research works in the last century have established the fact that the technique of contemporary Bharatanatyam continues to be governed by the principles laid down in the classical texts.

Choreographies today have complex rhythmic sequences, and new techniques are being created within accepted parameters. As a living tradition it continues to evolve. The ultimate aim is to arouse the common bond of emotions through effective communication of the art. It is entertainment - but entertainment of a very high form. It is a symbol of Indian culture and tradition and is a much sought after social accomplishment.

In its modern secular setting then, Bharatanatyam seems to be caught in an existential dilemma more in terms of content than technique. The continuation with the esoteric content that served a different purpose in a different context seems to be the main point of argument. Attempts at creativity are not easy. Most dancers are aware that innovation would make them open to criticism that they had deserted tradition to create something inferior.

Change should not be viewed as something against a pre-set system that is superior by virtue of its antiquity but as a natural process of growth. The artist is challenged to reveal the beauty of all experiences old and new. Bharatanatyam must remain in a way to give a sense of the traditions historical strengths. “Art is not a gorgeous sculpture immovably brooding over a lonely eternity of vanished years - it belongs to the procession of life, making constant adjustments with surprises, exploring unknown shrines of reality along its path of pilgrimage to a future which is as different from the past as a tree from the seed - but tradition in art cannot be discarded as it is necessary for its proper cultivation - proper growth of art by imposing a proper discipline on it” [4]

What we are witnessing today is an understanding of our traditions and values in the context of the 21st century. But care has to be taken to see that any change does not violate the character of our tradition. Bharatanatyam can speak in a contemporary language keeping its classical dignity intact if the effort is with complete artistic integrity. In India art and philosophy have always gone together - religion was intended to channel surplus emotion towards the union of the individual with the cosmic, and art was one of the recognizable means of achieving it. If the classical period was concerned with the result of an action, the medieval period prescribed the means of achieving it. The Bhakti poets developed a philosophy according to which music and spiritual endeavour were not separable and this was the period when the arts, which were secular in the early classical period, became firmly rooted in religion. Dance and music were seen as mediums to achieve a universalized transcendental experience. Till the end of the 18th century devotion was the dominant emotion.

But religion does not embrace man’s life in its entirety today and he is willing to accept only what he learns through his personal experience rather than base his beliefs on a religious faith or philosophical postulates. Today birth as a criterion for role allocation has been replaced by the achievement system. The authoritarian religious norms, which for ages governed Indian life, are now being replaced by democratic and equalitarian ideas. The contemporary crisis in the philosophy of art seems to be on one hand a determination to eliminate any metaphysical aspects by some, while on the other hand there are others who are determined to find fresh terrain for the metaphysical thinking. The traditionalists view the dancer as an agent to convey higher thoughts - a link -, while others feel that the dance form can stand as a language and needs to be de-mystified and rid of nostalgic sentiments.

The work of art is uniquely personal but is of a universal character. Universality is an essential feature of a work of art. Beauty is reality as experienced by the artist. ”Dancing is the natural, therefore universal expression of the human species whereby it finds its unity with the cosmos and its creator…the body is transfigured as a symbol of the spirit and this art of dance enables man to become aware of his core and circle around it…dancing to the words the artist portrays not only the outer individual meaning but implications and the inner meaning as well. This binding of the outer individual mind releases the universal divine mind encased in its innermost recesses.” [5]

To take the Bharatanatyam dancer as a medium for a highly spiritual experience may be idealistic but there is nothing wrong in falling short of the ideal – it should not stop at a mundane level. The nature of art experience is of tremendous variety and every performance of a dance done many times before is the creation of that individual who is performing at that point of time and is a genuine externalization of the artist’s emotions. To conclude I reproduce below these lines from “The yoga of art “by James Cousins.

“The upper end of the artists’ Jacob’s ladder of aesthetical revelation may be hidden in clouds, but its foot must allow the angels whose one wing is truth and the other beauty, and whose feet are swift in goodness, to step communicably to earth. To the spectator the ladder of art appears to rise from the solid ground towards the stars; that is to say true art, great art, must of necessity present a tangible, visible, audible outer semblance to the perception of the spectator; but it has failed in the highest purpose of art if it has not signaled mysteriously beyond itself from spirit to spirit”.


[1] Singer, Milton: When a great tradition modernises.

[2] Hiriyanna, M.: Indian philosophy.

[3] Pande, Anupa: Natyashastra Tradition and ancient Indian society.

[4] Sharma, K. K.: Rabindranath Tagore's aesthetics.

[5] Balasaraswarhi, T.: Sruti, November 1988.

The author

Ms. Suman Badami is a classical Bharatanatyam dancer. She has numerous stage and television performances to her credit. She is a disciple of Sri S K Kameswaran who has been teaching and training students in Bharatanatyam to high standards for the past 30 years. She was awarded a state government scholarship for performing at various centres in India. She is a recipient of a Fellowship for research in Bharatanatyam awarded by the Department of Culture, Govt. of India in 1999. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D in aesthetics and dance from the Mumbai University, India.

Ms. Suman Badami


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