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The Tradition Of Natya: Position And Development Of Natya In Sanskrit Tradition (Part 6: Modern Revival)

Modern Revival

We have seen that in bygone times the performing arts were sponsored and patronized by the gentry, aristocracy, temples, merchant or craftsmen’s guilds and the royalty in India. Along with the changing fortunes of the country, the world of fine arts have also undergone cycles of rise and fall. From the nineteenth century onwards, with the growing sense of nationalism and fervour to obtain freedom from British colonial rule, the assertion of Indian identity also became more intense and many people turned their attention to the indigenous culture and crafts of our country. The dedication of several great artists and musicians enabled many of the classical arts to revive. In the past few centuries, these traditional arts of classical music, dance and Sanskrit studies in the Vedas and Sastras had been preserved from obliteration by traditional artistes and scholars who continued the tradition even through situations of extreme duress not due to any promise of remuneration but out of a profound sense of sacred duty.

As Padmabhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam writes –

” …it was the inseparable religious sentiment which had kept the art of dance alive, in spite of insurmountable hindrances, due to political and religious struggles. If there were attempts to revive the art, it was mainly because it was considered divine and not as a mere entertainment.” (Natyasastra and National Unity: p 29)

In the path to attaining spiritual bliss or Ananda, the practice of dance was also considered to be one of the highest forms of practicing yoga, or union with the Divine. Dance involves all eight stages of yoga – sadhana involving yama (abstention), niyama (regulation), asana (body posture/ exercise), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (shutting out external impressions), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (state of realization when subject and object become one).

After India became a sovereign nation in 1947, several government bodies were set up to nurture the arts, notably Sangeet Natak Akademi, having chapters in every State. The Akademi is instituted by a committee of eminent artists, musicians and dancers who collectively administer the sponsorship of upcoming artistes, performances and prizes in every State and District. Annual awards are conferred on selected artistes who shine in their respective fields.

There are broadly eight forms of dancing that are considered as purely classical in the different regions of India, viz. Bharatanatyam (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), Kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), Mohini Attam and Kathakali (Kerala), Kathak (North India), Manipuri (Manipur), Odissi (Odisha) and Sattriya (Assam). There are many other traditional styles of dramatic performance in different parts of the country that have developed over the centuries with strong regional influence, such as Vilasini Natya (Andhra), Yakshagana (Karnataka and Andhra), Bhagavata Mela (Tamil Nadu and Andhra) and Chau (Bihar, Orissa and Bengal) which have a strong classical base. They are considered as semi-classical forms. In addition, there are innumerable folk traditions of dancing in every region, such as Dandiya, Rās, Garbha, Bhangra, Bihu, Karagam, Kummi, etc. There is great variety in the language of the singing too, ranging from Sanskrit to vernaculars to dialects and even combinations of these. Following is a brief account of the various classical dances.


(Figure 1: Credit: istock: Bharatanatyam)

Bharatanatyam is the dance form of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. References to classical dance date back to the earliest literature available in Tamil and Kannada, from the Sangam and Jaina works. Sculpture and inscriptions in South India are also replete with mention of dance. Bharatanatyam includes all three components of theatre, i.e. nrtta – rhythmic dance movements, nrtya – enacting a theme and natya – dramatic representation. It is a graceful and vibrant dance form that was earlier performed by Devadasis in temples and Rajadasis in royal courts. The choreographers or dance masters known as Nattuvanars directed the performances and taught this art to students from generation to generation.

This dance form was known as Sadir during the colonial times, when performances were held for entertaining the eminent members of the public as well as officers of the British administration. Four brothers, the Nattuvanars – Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, known as the Tanjore Quartet, under the patronage of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur, designed the format of the modern performance known as Margam, which is followed by dancers even today.

In the early part of the twentieth century, pioneering dancers such as Rukmini Devi, Ram Gopal and others popularised this art form so that ladies from respectable families also began learning the divine art. Thanks to the efforts of the leading dance teachers of the time, the classical dance form was freed from the stigma attached to it in the Victorian Puritanical social ethos, and the ancient art of India was revived. In the repertoire of items favoured in dance performances today are Pushpanjali, Kavuttavam, Mallari, Thodayamangalam, Ashtapadietc taken from the temple traditions as well as Padams and Javalis taken from the court traditions. The music is in the classical Karnatic style; the word ‘Karnata’ means, ‘pure’ or ‘chaste classical style’. Tamil compositions sung in temples as part of regular worship rituals, from the Tirumurai or Divyaprabandhams, are also adapted to the stage by dancers, in addition to Kavadichindu, Kuratti, Kummi etc.

Mention must be made of the discovery of the classical Karanas in Natyasastra from the ancient dance sculptures of South India and Indonesia by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam. Her pioneering interpretations have revolutionised the study of classical dance and ancient texts, which were little understood a few decades ago. Today there are several editions of the Natyasastra of Bharatamuni being published with a galaxy of scholars and dancers studying it.


(Figure 2: Credit:istock: Kathakali)

Kathakali is the classical dance form of Kerala, well known for its colourful costumes and elaborate make-up. The word kathakali literally means ‘story-dance’; ‘Katha’ is story and ‘kali’ means “play”. This art form as we know it draws from its foundations in Raamanaattam and Krishnanaattam, i.e. theatre forms in which legendary stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata were enacted respectively. The Travancore kings initiated efforts to revive this struggling art form in the middle of the eighteenth century. After the forming of the Kerala Kalamandalam in the early part of the twentieth century, Kathakali and other theatre forms of Kerala such as Kudiyattam began to receive systematic support that has helped revive the art and take it to foreign audiences too. The colours and costume of Kathakali vary depending on the character being portrayed. The music is of the Sopanam style.


(Figure 3: Credit: istock: Mohiniattam)

The name of this graceful dance with circular, swaying movements, means, ‘dance of the enchantress’. This is also an art form that has been revived from the temple dances. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Maharaja Swathi Thirunal of Travancore, a great poet and musician himself, took pains to rejuvenate the art of the temple dancers. Special songs and music were composed to extend the existing range and a noted poet of the time, IrayammanThampi, assisted the Maharaja in this. Upon their invitation, a senior Devadasi from Tanjore, Thanjavuramma and the Nattuvanar, Vadivelu went to Travancore to help in reviving the classical dance movements that had been lost in the dance form. After the Maharaja’s demise in 1847, however, support for Mohiniattam reduced, as his successors were more interested in supporting Kathakali.

In the early part of the twentieth century with the establishing of the Kerala Kalamandalam, Mohiniattam received renewed encouragement. The poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, his associate Mukundaraja, the Nattuvanar Krishna Panicker and the dancer Kalyani Kuttyamma rendered yeoman service to this beautiful art form. Today, its repertoire has magnified its renown, the characteristic white silk costume with gold border being recognised all over the world. Sopanam Sangeetam and Karnatic music are both used with the lyrics being in Malayalam, Sanskrit as well as Manipravalam, which is a combination of the two.


(Figure 4: Credit: istock: Kuchipudi)

Andhra has long been a melting pot of culture befitting its geographical location between the north and south. It has very ancient beginnings of classical music and dance. Despite its glorious period of extremely high standards in the performing arts earlier, there was a decline after the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century, a great visionary known as Siddhendra Yogi, trained a group of Brahmin youths to present devotional dance dramas based on the Bhagavatam in order to promote bhakti among the people. The troupe travelled from village to village, presenting their plays to rural audiences. The actors were all men, some donning the roles of the women characters. They became so popular, that the local ruler endowed lands in the village of Kuchipudi or Kuchelapuram to enable them to sustain themselves, practice their art and organise performances. Thus it was that the band travelled most of the year, presenting shows that entertained and educated, leaving behind the families to tend to the agricultural lands and mind the children. They set up their camps on the outskirts of towns and villages and lived a simple lifestyle. The villages considered hosting them as auspicious and believed that the performances brought them good luck, peace and prosperity. The art form derives its name from this village and is also called Kuchipudi Natyam, Kuchipudi Bhagavatam or Yakshagana.

This art form also draws its origins in the classical dance described in the Natyasastra. The earlier dances of Kuchipudi were legends about Shiva, that were performed by both men and women. Men performed ritual dances in the Shiva temples and women performed kelika dances in the mandapams during festivals and processions when the icons of deities were taken out and feted. Devaganikas or Devadasis played a great role in preserving and propagating this art, which has a vibrant style, reflecting its living traditions of performance. Today’s programmes consist of stories from the Itihasa and Puranas and musical poetry in Telugu and Sanskrit.


(Figure 5: Credit: istock: Kathak)

Kathak derives its name from the story-tellers or Katha-karas, who narrated Puranic stories with gestures and instrumental music. In the middle ages there were two distinct categories of male dancers, professional performers known as natas or natwas and the Brahmin dancers known as kirtaniyas or kathakiyas. The region of the Kathak art form extended from Punjab (in Pakistan now), Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

“Kathak, like many other art forms, has passed through various vicissitudes of social and political life. With the advent of Islam in India, there was an evident withdrawal symptom being exhibited by the locals. In such an atmosphere, kathaks remained confined to their little temple precincts, being patronized only by local Hindu rulers…

…While the dance may not have been a great favourite of the Mughal durbar, music certainly was. Consequently, the dance could not remain dissociated from the growth and development of North Indian music… The dexterity and intricacy of weaving new patterns in a given ascending and descending notes of the swaras was replaced in dance by a most imposing and intricate execution of rhythmic patterns sketched by the feet on a complex metrical cycle.” (Shovana Narayan: KATHAK, page 19)

Since idol worship or even dramatic representation was not encouraged by the rulers, the traditional Brahmin Kathak performers resorted to practice of intricate footwork. The abhinaya gestures usually described seasons, forest verdure, scenic beauty of rivers and mountains, flora and fauna and such like, as Puranic episodes could not be presented. Lasya based on Srngara found much appreciation in court dances and was performed by ladies. The Muslim rule in India also brought in the showcasing of the veil for women, which had not been in use in earlier times.

“In order to save the women folk from being ravaged by the invaders, it was convenient for the local population to adopt this custom of the invaders.”(Shovana Narayan: KATHAK, page 22)

The Jaipur Gharana has more of religious themes, with songs of Swami Haridas, Meerabai and Surdas. The Lucknawi Gharana shows more Persian influence and has more of the entertainment elements. Dhrupads, Hori, Chaiti and Ghazals are musical compositions with exquisite instrumental accompaniment that stir the soul, played in all types of Kathak performances.


(Figure 6: Credit: Pinterest: Manipuri)

The development of music and dance in Manipur has primarily been through religious festivals. Manipuri dance is also known as Sankirtan, as it is meant to celebrate the glory of God. King Bhagyachandra invited teachers and dancers of the region to come together and codify the art in the eighteenth century. Manipuri dance uses soft, graceful, rounded movements full of lasya elements danced by ladies. Vigorous Tandava movements danced to drums form ‘Pung Cholom’ which is performed by the menfolk.

Raslila is very popular in Manipuri, as also compositions of Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas and Govindadas. The music is similar to Hindustani, with its own regional variations. The costumes are colourful with the distinctive fabrics of Manipur and the round skirt with light bamboo frame is characteristic of the style. Sometimes the dancers use a veil over the upper part of the face.


(Figure 7: Credit: Tharjounal: Sattriya)

Sattriya or Sattriya Nrtya, derives its name from ‘Sattra’ which refers to a centre of religious learning or monastery in Assam. It was added to the list of classical dances in the year 2000. The dances present mythological stories from Vaishnava and Shaiva lore. Traditionally it was performed by monks as part of the religious rituals but is now practised by men and women and performed on the stage. The musical compositions are known as Borgeet and are based on classical ragas.


(Figure 8: Credit: Wikipedia: Odissi)

Odissi is the classical dance form of Orissa, admired for its lyrical quality. It has a strong base in the temple dance of the Devadasis known as Mahari dancers and the court dancers known as Nartakis. It has an unbroken tradition and although the art form suffered decline in recent centuries, it has been rejuvenated by expert dancers and musicians who have put the art form back on the track of pristine classical styles.

Odissi dance is accompanied by Odissi style of music, with compositions in Sanskrit as well as Oriya. The dance costume is distinguished by its beautiful woven silk saris with intricate borders of Sambhalpuri and Bomkai weaves and characteristic silver jewellery. The Gitagovinda of Jayadeva, with songs of Radha and Krishna has formed the staple of Odissi temple dance ever since it was composed in Sanskrit by the great poet. Not a day passes without some verses of the Gitagovinda being sung for the Lord in Puri Jagannath temple, as also the Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. Many other devotional compositions are also part of the repertoire.


Prayathnam Volume 1: A Course Book for the Study and Practice of Bharatanatyam (2017, first edition 2011) published by Prayathnam. Chennai.

Prayathnam Volume 2: A Course Book for the Study and Practice of Bharatanatyam (2016) published by Prayathnam. Chennai.

Narayan, Shovana (2004) Dances of India: KATHAK (AlkaRaghuvanshi – Series editor). Wisdom Tree. New Delhi.

Narayanan, Sharda & Mohan, Sujatha.(2022). Gitagovinda of Jayadeva: Study in Sahitya and Natya. DK Printworld. New Delhi.

Reddy, Raja & Radha (2004) Dances of India: KUCHIPUDI (Alka Raghuvanshi – Series editor). Wisdom Tree. New Delhi.

Shivaji, Bharati & Vijayalakshmi (2004) Dances of India: MOHINIATTAM (Alka Raghuvanshi – Series editor). Wisdom Tree. New Delhi.

Subrahmanyam, Padma (1997) Natyasastra and National Unity. Sri Ramavarma Government Sanskrit College. Tripunithura, Kerala.

Tradition Of Natya

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