Ban's View from the Outside

The Bharata Natya Tradition: A personal perspective

by Harbans L. Nakra, Ph.D. No Comments


I have written this brief summary of the Bharata Natya tradition for the benefit of students of the art, originally of the Kala Bharati dance school of Montreal.  My interest in this art and some understanding of its tradition and character, is the result of having closely observed its teaching by my wife, Mamata Niyogi-Nakra, and from numerous discussions with her and with many scholars and teachers who have visited Kala Bharati over the nearly thirty years of its existence.  This understanding has been further enhanced by reading of the well-known texts given in the references.  I am an engineer by profession and my readings in Bharata Natya have been carried out for my personal satisfaction. However Mamata has persuaded me to believe that the material that I present in this article would be useful for students of Bharata Natya, who might thus be encouraged to read further on their own.  The text is a personal perspective and includes some opinions and interpretations for which I take full responsibility.

The Renaissance

The dance style known today as Bharata Natya (or Natyam), used to be called SADIR before 1933 (and also Dassiattam earlier).  It was practised in South India by a dance community made up of

  • Dancers who were devadasis - women who had dedicated themselves to performing dance in the temples as part of the prayer rituals, but who also performed at private functions, such as weddings, sponsored by the rich and the powerful;
  • Dance teachers, composers and conductors, called nattuvanars;
  • Musicians who accompanied the dance and were usually led by the nattuvanar.


Their dedication to the art and to the temple notwithstanding, the devadasis, as they appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century, had acquired a reputation of leading a socially unacceptable life style, often accused of prostitution.  As a result, a movement was started by some leading members of the Madras society to ban the system of devadasis.  This was the anti-nautch movement, whose name suggests that the persons behind it were influenced by English attitudes that were prejudiced by the lifestyles of dancers of North India, whom they called ‘nautch’ girls.  Some of these nautch girls were indeed courtesans who practised a dance form akin to the classical art of Kathak in their personal establishments, called Kothas, where they entertained their patrons.


Although the devadasi system was perceived by some as prostitution, modern researchers (e.g. Amrit Srinivasan, Reference 1 ) have suggested that this reputation was not a fair representation. The original system, which was socially acceptable, allowed for a patron to financially support a devadasi in a temple, through his donations to the temple establishment. In return, she was accepted as his consort in an exclusive relationship, usually with the knowledge of the patron’s family.  Sociologists argue that it is this exclusivity and transparency that gave the relationship legitimacy.  Unfortunately, living, on the fringes of society, as most of them did, obliged to the nattuvanars and the temple priests, they were quite vulnerable and many succumbed to the pressures that ultimately led to prostitution.


It was to fight this moral degradation of many in the devadasi community that a number of social activists joined forces to seek the abolition of the whole system of girls being dedicated to temples. By the late-1920’s the anti-nautch movement had gained momentum, including support from some members of the devadasi community itself. However, some observers became concerned that in banning the devadasi system one also risked losing the art of Sadir dance that they practised.


Leading the counter movement to save the art, was one E. Krishna Iyer who took it upon himself to educate the public on the artistic and cultural value of the dance. A lawyer by profession, he took training in dance and was known to occasionally dress up and perform as a female dancer to make his point.  He argued that even if one acknowledged that some corruption had crept into the devadasi system, one should not reject the art that this community had nurtured for centuries, and for which the society as a whole could be justly proud.


He is said to have frequently quoted the line “ (that) we should not throw out the baby with the bath water”.  He was passionate in his belief and argued that the dance was a national treasure and an important part of the Indian heritage. This latter argument resonated with some politicians, and the preservation of the art became a cause célèbre. It was of course, the time of fervent patriotism and nationalism. The political support for Krishna Iyer, succeeded in setting back the anti-nautch movement. The final battle between Krishna Iyer and the leading voice of the anti-nautch movement, one Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, who incidentally, herself descended from the devadasi community, took the form of a public debate in the newspapers, notably The Mail and The Hindu of Madras, in 1932. Krishna Iyer emerged as the popular victor in the debate and following this success was able to persuade the recently formed Madras Music Academy to give greater support and encouragement to the promotion of the dance, which, in his circle of friends and supporters had already begun to be called Bharata Natyam. The Academy, in its now famous resolution of December 1932, agreed to promote the art of Bharata Natyam and confirmed this change of name from Sadir.  (Further details of the controversy and Krishna Iyer’s role in promoting the evolution of Bharata Natya can be found in Reference 2).  It should be noted that the devadasi abolition bill did finally pass, but only in 1947, by which time the foundation for the survival of the art was well laid.


While Krishna Iyer is generally credited for having forged the renaissance of Bharata Natya, the contribution of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy should not be underestimated, for it was her protestation against the moral degradation of the devadasi community that triggered the whole process.  In post-independence India, Krishna Iyer continued his efforts to popularize Bharata Natya, particularly outside South India.


Dasiattam - Sadir - Bharata Natyam

While promoting Sadir dance as a cultural heritage, the supporters of the art must have discussed its link with the ancient treatise  ‘The Natya Shastra’ by Bharata Muni. It appears that the term Bharata Natyam gradually crept into their conversation and Sadir dance got re-christened Bharata Natyam.  Although no formal declaration or any fanfare marked this re-christening process, Krishna Iyer, and others associated with him, were conscious of thus appropriating the heritage of the Natya Shastra for what was otherwise, a regional manifestation of the ancient tradition.  In doing so they paved the way for the art to assume a national stature later on.  Thus, today’s Bharata Natya is essentially the Sadir dance, with sanction for incorporating additional elements from the Natya Shastra as and when seen fit by dancers and dance teachers.


The origin of the name Sadir is not definitively known.  It has been suggested (Reference 3) that because Sadir in Marathi means ‘to present’, the word was used often in association with the dance and in due course got adopted by the Tamilian dance community as their own to identify the dance itself[1].  Another theory for the origin of the name Sadir has been offered by Padma Subrahmanyam (Reference 4), a leading Bharata Natyam dancer and scholar of Chennai. She has suggested that it comes from the name of the town of Sattar, which was an important seat of power in the Maratha Empire, and from which, possibly, some dancers and dance teachers came to Tanjavur.  Considering that it was the Maratha Kings of Tanjavur that encouraged the development of the art, the explanation seems credible.  This does however imply that Sadir is linked with Maratha kings thus dating it to the 15th century.  Some form of dance, on the other hand, existed before that in the temples as practised by devadasis.  One may assume that this dance was called dasiattam and that it merged with the dance from Sattar and the two together came to constitute the Sadir tradition.  The name dasiattam stayed on even after the name Sadir became popularly accepted.


Natya or Natyam?

When re-naming Sadir, the spelling of the name used by Krishna Iyer was Bharata Natyam.  This was also the one retained by the Madras Music Academy in its resolution of December 1932, and since then, has generally been accepted as the official name of the dance form. There are some however, who argue that Natya is the correct Sanskrit word and that etymologically, that would be the more appropriate term. The early promoters of this name, though conscious of it, tended to ignore the difference[2].


Defining features of Bharata Natya

The first feature that strikes one on seeing a Bharata Natya performance is the dress of the dancer. Currently, for female dancers, two types of dresses are in vogue: the sari dress and the pajama dress. The introduction of the pajama dress in its present form is attributed to Rukmini Arundale, the founder of the well-known dance school Kalakshetra in Adyar, Chennai[3].  In a personal note in Reference 5 she wrote “ The traditional costume seemed to me to be too much a mixture of styles. The material worn was glittering. The choli was half Victorian though the ornaments worn were authentic and beautiful.  I wanted to create something which would be truly Indian and though new, would be even older in style than what I found at the time of my learning the dance.” It was probably inspired by another version of the sari dress in which the end of the sari is taken up through the legs and tucked-in at the waist. This form of the sari can still be seen in south India and also in some parts of Maharashtra, although increasingly rarely.


As is typical of all Indian dance styles, the Bharata Natya dancer dances bare feet with strings of bells tied to the ankles. The jewellery worn by the dancer consists of a necklace, a flexible metal belt (usually gold plated), a forehead pendant, dangling earrings and two striking pieces on the head, in shapes of the sun and the moon.  The hair is sometimes done in a bun, but usually braided, with a ring of flowers decorating the start of the braid and other flowers or decorative ribbons entwined around it. The make-up includes (apart from the usual decoration of the face) the painting of the feet and hands with a reddish liquid called alta.  In the earlier days, when the practice of decorating the hands and feet was common even among non-dancers, this was done by the use of henna. The jewellery, the hairstyle and make-up are probably reflective of the common practice among the women of the region in the early part of the twentieth century.


One dance movement commonly associated with Bharata Natya and characteristic of it, is the free moving head, seemingly disjointed from the torso, called addami. Another of its visually striking features is the precise lines and geometrical patterns, starting with what is called the ardhamandali position. This is a half knee-bend position, with the torso straight up, the heels together and the feet pointed outwards. As one or the other leg is stretched out, the positioning of the hands is changed so as to create a variety of rhythmically coordinated geometrical patterns.


The fundamental unit of dance is the adavu, which according to Guru U.S. Krishna Rao (Reference 6), is characterized by four lakshanas.  They are:  Sthanaka (the stance at the beginning and end of the adavu), nritta hastas (hand gestures used in the adavu), hastakshetra (positioning of the hands with reference to the body) and chari (the manner in which the hands and other limbs are moved).  Sequences of adavus make up dance phrases called “korvais and jatis”.


Apart from its above-mentioned visual characteristics, Bharata Natya is also characterized on the aesthetic plane in two aspects. There is the nritta aspect where the body movements and the striking postures are appreciated for their sheer beauty; and then there is the abhinaya aspect where stories are told through hand gestures, and emotions are communicated through facial expressions and the control of the various limbs of the body.


Historically, first there was abhinaya and then nritta was added to the art form. It is said in the Natya Shastra (References  7 & 8) that Bharata Muni received the art of the “angaharas” (nritta) from Tandu, a devotee of Lord Shiva.  When he described it to his disciples, they asked him why they needed to learn this new art when they already had abhinaya. To this Bharata Muni replied, “It has come into use simply because of its beauty”.  This dance later came to be referred to as Tandava dance.


The basic units of the original Tandava dance are the “karanas” which are described in the Natya Shastra. A number of karanas danced in a sequence make up an “angahara”. There are 108 karanas and 32 angaharas listed in the Natya Shastra. However, these elements are not part of the tradition of Sadir. It would appear that their practice was discontinued at some point in history and when interest was revived, a new structure of basic elements was evolved leading to what we have inherited as the Sadir tradition.  In this tradition the basic element of dance is the “adavu” as described above.


The Natya Shastra describes four types of abhinaya: aharya, vachika, angika and sattvika.  The Aharya abhinaya refers to the costume and make-up and may include stage décor and other auxiliary visual effects. Vachika refers to the spoken word, which in dance could include the words of the accompanying song, and such other verbal accompaniment that may be offered by way of explanation.  Angika abhinaya is the expression of ideas, thoughts and feelings through the use of body language, notably hand gestures, facial expressions and the movements of the various limbs of the body – the head, the eyebrows, the lips etc. (minor limbs) and the arms and the legs and torso etc. (major limbs).  The Sattvika abhinaya is the representation of various emotional states through manifestations such as tears, goose bumps, perspiration etc.


As described in the Natya Shastra, nritta is pure dance, to be enjoyed for its visual beauty. It is only when it is combined with some aspect of abhinaya that it assumes a more complete sense of art and this combination is called nritya[4].  When nritya is further combined with a story line it gives rise to the complete dramatical art form called natya.


In some Bharata Natya pieces, there is emphasis on the narrative aspect of abhinaya, showing, more-or-less the literal meaning of the words of the accompanying song.  In order to appreciate this aspect an understanding of the language of the song would obviously be very helpful.  In other pieces the dancer may use a series of dramatic expressions to convey the gist of the song, while the singer may sing a single line repeatedly. Here the audience can get the emotional connection without necessarily understanding the language of the song.  Some brief explanation, in the form of programme notes or on-stage explanation of the featured mime elements, may be all that is needed.


Progressively moving away from reliance on words to the interpretation of music and the expression of emotions, nritya does have the possibility of being an abstract art. This aspect has not been generally exploited in traditional Bharata Natya, but is gradually being increasingly done now.  Thus Bharata Natya can offer a range of aesthetic experiences, all the way from the purely narrative, using codified sign language, through expressional abhinaya that enhances the accompanying song and music, to the purely abstract where the body movement is an expression of mood or feeling without the intermediary of words. This latter can be seen as being somewhat similar to the spiritual journey (in microcosm) that starts with meditation using a mantra (the seed) and ends with the seedless “nirvana”.  However, in this progression from the narrative to the abstract, the transmission of the essence or Rasa, becomes increasingly more difficult, both from the point of view of the dancer and that of the spectator.  One might even say that there is a risk of the dance becoming too abstract where the link between the feelings expressed by the artist and the perception of the spectator is lost.


Group dances

Although there is mention in the Natya Shastra of group dances (pindis), they do not seem to have survived, and Bharata Natya has been mainly practised, until recently, as a solo dance following the Dassiattam/Sadir tradition. In this form a single dancer assumes different roles, switching from one to the other as the story line demands. Some group choreography was introduced by Rukmini Devi, which took the form of having a number of dancers presenting a Natya piece in which each character was played by a different dancer, as is found in theatre plays. The choreography of group dances in the sense of presenting a group of dancers as a single integrated body with multiple hands and multiple feet is only now becoming popular, especially since the impetus given by the group dances of La Troupe Kala Bharati, choreographed by Mamata Niyogi-Nakra, presented in New Delhi in 1989.


The traditional repertoire

To exploit fully the many aspects of Bharata Natya, the erstwhile Sadir had a proud heritage of a comprehensive repertoire developed over centuries.  The great nattuvanars had also worked out a format for the presentation of the dance that allowed a display, not only of the many splendours of the dance but also the expertise of the exponents. This traditional repertoire-format was developed by four brothers in the Tanjavur court of the Maratha king Sarfoji-II, in early 19th century. They were: Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, the so-called Tanjavur Quartet[5]. This format consisted of an Alarippu, a Jatiswara, a Shabda, a Varna, one or two Padas and/or Javelis and a Tillana, added to which was usually an opening salutation such as Pushpanjali (offering of flowers) and an ending prayer or sloka (Reference 10).


Alarippu: This is an invocatory piece where the dancer offers obeisance to the Lord, the teachers and to the audience. It literally means the opening of a flower and is thus said to have been conceived to serve as a gradual opening of the body in preparation for more rigorous dancing to follow. Various body positions are assumed and various limbs, including the eyes, head and arms, are moved. This is done to the accompaniment of drums and the vocal syllables, called sollukattus that define the various strokes of the drums. Traditionally there is no melodic element in the accompaniment although some dancers are beginning to introduce that now.


Jatiswara: The choreography of this piece takes the dancer through a series of sequences of dance elements, the adavus, gradually increasing in complexity and speed.  Each sequence (jati) starts from a fixed position on the stage, which results in the characteristic backward movement of the dancer at the end of each sequence. The dance is executed in rhythmic cycles marked by the mridanga (drum) and the sollukattus uttered by the nattuvanar, and there is also a melodic accompaniment made up of the notes only, without any words, played on the flute or violin, in some chosen raga.


Shabda: In this number, elements of abhinaya are introduced as the dancer interprets the words of the accompanying song through hand gestures and facial expressions. The song is usually sung in Khamboji raga, or, where a number of ragas are used (ragamalika), the first few lines are usually in the characteristic Khamboji.


Varna: In this piece, all of the elements of Bharata Natya are present and the dancer has full scope for both abhinaya and pure dance. A common theme is that of a woman pining for her lover, often interpreted as the longing of the individual soul (atma) for the divine (paramatma). The narrative elements are interspersed with nritta or pure dance sequences, judiciously placed in the composition providing a relief that can be an aesthetic experience in itself.


Padas and Javelis are short dance pieces that give visual expressions to the words of the songs that accompany them, using facial expressions and hand gestures.


Tillana: This nritta piece is the culminating item of the traditional repertoire. It is a joyous item replete with beautiful sculpturesque poses, intricate footwork and quick movements over the whole stage.



The Bharata Natya musicians

The music ensemble that usually accompanies a Bharata Natya performer is made up of:

  • a nattuvanar who conducts the performance using hand held cymbals to keep the rhythm for the dancer and by uttering the sollukattus that lead the dancer through some of the nritta sequences[6];
  • a mridangist (drummer) who traditionally sets the pace for the music under the close control of the nattuvanar;
  • a singer;
  • accompanying flautist, violinist and tambura (the last, increasingly electronic).


Traditionally, as the dance was performed in the temple and as the dancer moved from place to place in the temple compound, the musicians also moved about with the dancer. This practice continued even when the dance was performed in a fixed performance space. The change to the practice of having the musicians sit on the side of the stage is generally attributed to Rukmini Devi of Kalakshetra, although Nattuvanar Vazhavoor Ramaiah Pillai has suggested that it was he who started the practice of conducting the dance from the sitting position.



The altar on the stage

The renaissance of Bharata Natya in the second quarter of the 20th century, brought the dance out of the temples and on to the public stage. However, reading the Natya Shastra one is informed that the dance in the times of the Natya Shastra was not performed in a temple but in a specially built performance area, which was given the character of a temple.  The Natya Shastra gives details of how a performance space (rangamandala) was to be constructed including an area set aside for the “installation of the gods”.   Before starting the use of the stage, elaborate poojas were prescribed.  The construction details show a concern for good acoustics of the spectator area, as also for its size: the area should not be too large for risk of losing a good view of facial expressions and abhinaya.


In later times when the performance moved into a temple complex, there was obviously no need for a separate space for the gods. Then again when the performance moved out of the temples on to public stages the tradition of consecrating the stage was revived, albeit in a much less elaborate way. An altar with a single god (usually Lord Shiva) was placed in a corner of the stage and a pooja performed before the performance.  Nowadays there is no consecration-pooja performed and the altar with a Shiva statue is merely placed as part of stage décor.  Many dancers are not using the altar and this is seen as a sign that the performance of Bharata Natya is moving away from its perception of being a religious activity.


Arangetram / Ranga Pravesh

The terms Arangetram (Tamil) and Ranga Pravesh (Sanskrit), both mean “entry on stage”.  They are used to describe a ceremony that marks the completion of training of a dancer.  The dancer performs the complete repertoire (Alarippu to Tillana) and seeks the blessings of the gods, the teachers and the public. It is still considered a quasi-religious ceremony by most schools and the stage is consecrated.


The different styles

Of the descendants of the Tanjavur Quartet, the most notable has been Meenakshi-Sundaram Pillai from the village of Pandanallur in Tamilnadu. The dance style that he nurtured has come to be known as the Pandanallur style and is characterized by sharply geometric patterns, with great emphasis on purity of lines (anga-shudhi).  Meenakshi-Sundaram did his major work in the early part of the 20th century leaving his legacy to (nattuvanar) Kitappa Pillai, a member of his family, and to his favourite disciple (nattuvanar) Chokalingam Pillai. Among his many dancer students, those who went on to establish great names for themselves in the world of Bharata Natya, were Rukmini Devi who founded the Kalakshetra school, Mrinalini Sarabhai, founder of Darpana Academy for Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, London based Ram Gopal and the couple U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi, founders of the Maha Maya school in Bangalore and guides and mentors to Mamata Niyogi-Nakra, founder of Kala Bharati in Montreal.


While recognizing the great contribution of the Tanjavur Quartet in giving the presentation of Sadir dance a structured format, it is important to remember that there were other nattuvanars working outside the royal court. The most important of these were the nattuvanars of Vazhavoor[7] village, also in Tanjavur district. The Vazhavoor legacy has been kept alive to the modern day and its most respected nattuvanar of the twentieth century was Ramaiah Pillai[8]. In contrast to the Pandanallur style, this style favours sinuous body movements and softer contours, including the tri-bhanga (three-break) body position. It is also known for its fast nattuvangam.


Many other styles and illustrious teachers make up the legacy of Bharata Natya.  The list would be too long to be included in this brief summary of the tradition.  The reader is referred to Reference 3 for a more complete list of different teachers and styles. However, one significant point worth mentioning here is that in the past, the nattuvanars were the guardians of the tradition. They inherited from their teachers, dance compositions that made up the family legacy.  They were trained musicians and dance composers and added their own creations to the inherited repertoire, which they taught to their disciples.  Teaching was thus done at two levels: to the dancer-disciples to perform and to the nattuvanar-disciples to continue the family legacy and tradition. The nattuvanar-disciples were often not dancers but had a good training in music. They usually gave instructions to the dancers while sitting down and the emphasis was more on verbal communication than demonstration. Consequently the development of the art itself was somewhat skewed in favour of abhinaya that used facial expressions and hand gestures rather than angika abhinaya requiring the movement of the whole body.  In the modern era, the dancers themselves have taken up teaching and this imbalance is now getting corrected.



Ancient treatises – Natya Shastra and Abhinaya Darpanam

The Natya Shastra

Historical background

The Natya Shastra is accepted today as the source of the tradition of Indian classical dance in general, and of Bharata Natya in particular. Its authorship is attributed to one sage or muni called Bharata and its date of origin is often suggested as being around the beginning of the first millennium of the current Christian calendar. However, a number of questions have been raised that challenge these assumptions. For example, was Bharata Muni a unique person? Was the Natya Shastra composed all at one time? The following interpretation is based on the author’s reading of References 7, 8, 9 and 11.


It would appear that in ancient times, perhaps as far back as 500 B.C., there were troupes of actors and dancers, known as natas, who went around enacting stories using various means of theatre and dance. Those who held the knowledge of the stories and the technique for presenting them, and who trained the natas, were called natyacharyas who came from a brahmin class of people called bharatas or (also) bhatts. Considering that in those days, everything related to knowledge fell in the exclusive domain of brahmins, it is likely that when it came to reciting the stories, the brahmins handled it themselves, while, their presentation through dance and theatre was done by the natas who, it might be presumed, were of a lower caste.


It would be natural that there would be a school for the training of bharatas where knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next. Thus when there is mention of the passage of knowledge to Bharata and his 100 sons, it is likely to mean that there was a school of 100 students, all bharatas in training, led by a chief bharata referred to as Bharata Muni. It further follows that there was a succession of Bharata Munis as each grew old and passed on. To this scenario, if one adds the fact that knowledge was transmitted by oral means, it follows that any changes or elements of new knowledge were simply added on and no record was kept of the previous version. While it is known that great care was taken to maintain the integrity of the texts, in so far as the religious texts were concerned, for example, the Rig Veda was even learnt backwards by some, it is doubtful that the same level of rigour was applied to the Natya Shastra, notwithstanding its stature as the fifth Veda.  Thus an oral text such as the Natya Shastra, at any given time in history, was the sum of all knowledge collected and edited over the past and not the work of an individual, or even a group, of a particular time. The notion of authorship, as understood today, is then meaningless in the context of the Natya Shastra.


Re-constructing the text

It is likely that at some point in history, probably around the beginning of the first millennium (A.D.), the process of recording knowledge began, and as more and more of the text was written, the need to memorize it became less important. It is also possible that many of the bharatas started writing, acknowledging always that that was what they had learnt from their Bharata Muni. Thus a number of texts must have been produced and it would not have been surprising if even these early texts differed from each other. Unfortunately, no such early texts have ever been found. What have been discovered are texts written much later, some say in the 7th century (A.D.).  The process of discovery of these texts began in 1865 when the American scholar F. Hall discovered chapters XVII-XX and XXXIV.  Gradually over the next ninety years, the task of compiling the complete text of the Natya Shastra was completed through the efforts of many European and Indian scholars. During this process the scholars discovered two recensions of the text, one slightly longer than the other, both with many elements that did not make proper sense to the scholars.  Consequently, in their effort to have a complete text, some critical editing had to be done that involved, at times, educated guesses, sometimes using the texts from both recensions to arrive at some comprehensible version. The whole process was very frustrating for the scholars, bringing them almost to the point of giving up. Many scholars settled for publication of only parts of the text.  But finally a complete, critically edited, text was produced by Dr. M.M. Ghosh in two parts: Part I in 1951 and Part II in 1956. The English translation of Part I was first published along with the text in 1951 and a revised edition of the translation of Part I was published in 1967. The translation of Part II was published in 1961.


Dating the text

One of the methods used in dating any ancient text is to study its linguistic make up and to compare that with other texts whose dates are already known. The mention in the text, of facts or other works and personalities whose dates of existence are otherwise known, is another way of arriving at the date of the text.  Dr. Ghosh, in the introduction to his critical edition of the Natya Shastra, mentions that such an analysis reveals to him that some parts of the text could have been written as far back as 500 B.C., some as late as 100 B.C., and still others about 100 A.D. All this is consistent with the theory that the text evolved over a period of time and because of the oral tradition only the latest version remained.


Dr. Ghosh and other scholars have also pointed out that some parts of the original texts are so corrupted that they make no practical sense.  The descriptions of the Karanas, for example, are not always precise and different interpretations could be given. Furthermore, because the texts had to be memorized, they were made as brief as possible, sometimes to the point of being cryptic, where even a small error in memory could make a big difference. Clarity was thus sacrificed at the altar of brevity. This might explain why the practice of Karanas did not survive. Instead, practitioners developed their own elemental movements, such as the adavus and it is these that have come down to the present time.


The Abhinaya Darpanam

The Abhinaya Darpanam is another of the ancient texts that is considered a basis for the current practice of Bharata Natya. Its authorship is attributed to Nandikeshvara and it is believed to have been written after the Natya Shastra. The exact date of this particular text cannot be stated with any certainty but perhaps it is only important to know that the art of Abhinaya was known to have been practised even before 600 B.C. (see reference 6, Introduction).  There are many subjects that are common to both the treatises, but with differences in details.


Two well-known English translations of the Abhinaya Darpanam are by A.K. Coomaraswamy (1917) and by M. M. Ghosh (1944) who has also translated the Natya Shastra, as mentioned above.



The contents of the Natya Shastra

The Natya Shastra is a vast body of work covering all aspects of drama, theatre, dance, music and poetry. To get an idea of its scope, a copy of the table of contents is given below, taken from the version edited and translated by M.M. Ghosh with some reference to the translation of Prof. Adya Rangachar. In both these works the introductory chapters are very informative and interesting.




Chapter                  Title                                Comments

I                 Origin of Drama                                 Mythical origins

II               Description of the Playhouse              Describes different types of play houses

and some details of their construction

III              Pooja to the Gods of the stage      Consecration

IV              Description of the Class-dance                  Also called Tandava dance

Angaharas, Karanas and other

elements of  nritta

V               Preliminaries of a Play

VI              Sentiments                              Rasa

VII`           Emotional and other states      Bhava

VIII           Gestures of minor limbs                     Eyes, eyebrows, nose, lower lip and chin

IX              Gestures of hands

X               Gestures of other limbs           Head, breast, sides, waist and feet

XI              Chari movements                    Earthly charis and aerial charis

XII            Mandala movements               Combination of charis

XIII           Different gaits                         Gaits suitable for different characters

XIV           Zones and local usages                                               Allocation of space on the stage. Also

includes regional styles of plays.

XV            Verbal Representation and prosody      Importance of words / vachika abhinaya                    XVI           Metrical patterns                                 Poetry

XVII          Direction of a play                  Projection in acting

XVIII        Rules on the use of languages

XIX           Modes of address and intonation

XX            Ten kinds of plays

XXI           Limbs of segments                  The plot

XXII          Styles                                      Vrittis (modes of the plays)

XXIII        Costumes and make-up          Aharya abhinaya

XXIV        Harmonious representation      Samanya abhinaya (harmonious use

of the four kinds of abhinaya)

XXV         Dealing with courtesans                      Outward characteristics of men and women

XXVI        Varied representations            Chitrabhinaya (miscellaneous representation)

XXVII       Success in dramatic productions

XXVIII     On the instrumental music

XXIX        On stringed instruments

XXX         On hollow instruments

XXXI        On the time measure

XXXII       The dhruva songs

XXXIII     On covered instruments

XXXIV     Types of characters

XXXV       Distribution of roles

XXXVI     Descent of drama on earth


 The contents of Abhinaya Darpanam

In this treatise also, the introductory chapters by the translator are interesting and informative. In this translation (M.M. Ghosh) all the verses have been put under one chapter.  The sub-headings are given below:


The preliminaries

Four kinds of abhinaya

Hand gestures


Classification of hand gestures

Single hand

Combined hands

Hands for deities

Hands for the avataras

Miscellaneous hands

Hands in nritta

Hands for planets

Feet and legs in Dance

Standing postures with hand gestures

Simple standing postures

Different kinds of leaps

Various ways of moving round

Different gaits

Different kinds of stepping



The subject of the Bharata Natya tradition is obviously vast. This has been intended as a brief introduction for students of the art.



  1. Birth Centenary of E. Krishna Iyer – SRUTI Foundation’s Celebrations in Delhi & Chennai.  Special Report, SRUTI Magazine November 1997.
  2. “The Transfiguration of Traditional Dance”, Dr. Arudra, SRUTI Magazine, Chennai, issues 27/28, December 1986/January 1987, pp. 17-36.
  3. Bharata Natyam, Ed. Dr. Sunil Kothari, Marg Publication, 1997.
  4. Bharata’s Art – Then & Now, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam - The Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, Bombay, 1978.
  5. Rukmini Devi, Kalakshetra Quarterly, Vol. III, no.3 (1980), Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts, Adyar, Madras.
  6. A Dictionary of Bharata Natya, Guru U.S. Krishna Rao, Orient Longman, Madras, 1980.
  7. The Natyashastra ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVII, revised second edition, published by Manisha Granthalaya, Calcutta, 1967; VOL. II, Chapters XXVIII – XXXVI, Calcutta 1959.
  8. The Natyashastra, translated by Professor Adya Rangachar, Munshiram, Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1996.
  9. Abhinaya Darpanam by Nandikesvara, edited and translated by M. M. Ghosh, Manisha Granthalaya, Calcutta, third edition, 1975.
  10. Dr. Arudra on the traditional repertoire, SRUTI Magazine, issues 73-74, 77-80, 83-86.
  11. Bharata, The Natyashastra, Dr. Kapila Vatsayan, Sahitya Akademi Biography Series, New Delhi, 1996.

[1] This kind of trans-linguistic mutation of words is not unusual. Another example is the word ‘katcheri’ which in Hindi (or Urdu) means court.  Because of the association of music presentations with the courts, the word katcheri (also spelt kutcheri) itself became synonymous with music concert.


[2] One of those who showed a preference for the term Natya was the learned Sanskrit scholar Dr. V. Raghavan. A paper he published in the magazine “Sound and Shadow”, Madras, Vol.II, Issue 6, 1933, had the title “Bharatanatya Classical Dance”.  Dr.Raghavan was one of the early promoters of Bharata Natya and, later, as secretary of the Madras Music Academy, persuaded the legendary Bala Saraswati to teach the art there (see Reference 2). Another well-known promoter of the art, Rukmini Devi, also preferred the term Natya (see Reference 5).


[3] Rukmini Arundale was a pioneer in the promotion of Bharata Natya. It was E. Krishna Iyer who persuaded her to learn Bharata Natya, as he thought the practice of the art by a woman of a respected family, would encourage others to do so. Her first teacher was none other than the legendary Pandanallur Meenakshi-Sundaram Pillai.


[4] The term nritya does not appear in the Natya Shastra but is found in another ancient treatise called “Abhinaya Darpanam” (Reference 9).

[5] A description of the family lineage from these brothers to the modern day nattuvanars, and from the family nattuvanars to the modern teachers, is given in (Reference 3).  This book also has many other interesting articles, but its most striking feature is the visual summary of the state of the art at the end of the twentieth century.

[6] The conduct of the dance by the nattuvanar is called nattuvangam.

[7] The combination of letters “zh” represents a sound in Tamil that lies somewhere between an l (when pronounced more like yell) and a rolled r.

[8] Among the better-known students of Vazhavoor Ramaiah Pillai, have been (Baby) Kamala Laxman, E.V. Saroja and Komala Varadan. Two other well-known dancers who received their initial training from him are Padma Subrahmanyam and Chitra Visheshwaran.  He was also the teacher of (the late) nattuvanar S.K. Rajaratnam.