Some historical snippets of Bharatanatyam – Part 6

Nrtyadevi, Goddess of Dance
Mid- 15th century
Nepal, probably Bhaktapur, Newar culture
Wood with polychrome decoration
43 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 9 inches (110.5 x 31.8 x 22.9 cm) Image courtesy:

In continuation of our historical snippets series of Bharatanatyam this post talks about the paper titled “The Natyasastra in the Tamil Soil” written by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, published in The Journal of Music Academy of Madras (JMA) in 1980. As with the previous post, the book by Prof. Raghuraman from Jain college titled “Tamizhar Nadana Varalaaru” is a valuable resource for readers.

Disclaimer: I have attached the link to the pdf of the lecture as part of this post. I am not really quite sure of the copyright, since the website has no mention of it anywhere. So, I will remove the document if anyone points to any copyright infringement.

For new readers, here are the links to the previous posts (part1, part2, part3, part4, part5) and to a related post about “Dance in Early Tamil Literature” in 2008.

There are two things which this post lightly touches upon. The first being how much of Natyashastraic traditions have been imbibed in the southern India. In the same lines, how much influence of the then existing system in the south has been taken into consideration. The reason I have highlighted the word is because the two points can itself be a post individually and describing each and every detail is beyond the scope of this particular post. Let us tread on these lightly one by one!

In his book, Prof. Raghuraman mentions the following that discusses/mentions the dance in South india.

  • Agathiyam – this book is lost
  • Ianthiram – this book is also lost
  • Tolkappiyam (dating of this has been hugely controversial 8000 BC to 8th century AD) [Ref 1 and 2] and Note 1
  • Panchamarabu (dated to third sangam period, 3rd century BC to 4th century AD) [Ref 3]
  • Koothanool (dated to third sangam period, 3rd century BC to 4th century AD)
  • Silappadikaaram (6th century AD)
  • Manimegalai (6th century AD?)
  • Sivagasinthamani (late 9th and early 10th century AD) [Ref 4]
  • Bharatasenapathiyam (16th century)
  • other texts such as Kalladam, Kalambagam, Ula, Pillai Tamil, Thoodu, Kuravanji, Parani, etc.

Some more details about each of them are found in the earlier post as well.

In the JMA article, Padma Subrahmanyam describes that Sangam literature mentions words such as

  1. “Kuttu” meaning dance, synonymous with “Natakam”
  2. “Kuttar” meaning actor or dancer, synonymous with “Nata”
  3. “Porunar” meaning poet
  4. “Aadumagan or Aadukalamagan” meaning male dancer
  5. “Virali”, “Aadumagal or Aadukalamagal” meaning female dancer
  6. “Aadu kalam” meaning the stage for dance, synonymous with “Arangam”

The Rigveda mentions the word “Nrtu” for dancer, while describing Indra [Ref 5], it seems plausible that words such as Nrtta, Nritya, and Natyam are derived from the sanskrit word “Nr”, to dance. The assumption/agreement is that “Nat” is in the Prakrit form or vernacular form of Sanskrit. Hence, “Nata” and “Nataka” are derived from “Nr”. It is at this point, the book “Tamizhar Nadana Varalaaru” differs with the idea that the origin of the word “Natyam” is from Sanskrit.

According to him, the word “Nat” mentioned in Rigveda is best defined as to surround oneself “சூழ்ந்து கொள்ளுதல் “. The word “Nat” has not been used in the form of Natyam, Natakam or Natanam. He further says that PSR Appa Rao also has mentioned that “Nat” is not originated from an Aryan word, meaning Sanskrit. Also, Tolkappiyam has used the word “Nataka Vazhakku” “நாடக வழக்கு” even before the Nat came to be used in Natya shastra, assuming that Tolkappiyam predates Natya shastra.

By now, I think you would also agree that things are not clear as it should have been (Sigh!). I guess the differences in view gives room for everyone to think and ponder about some terminology in dance that have been taken for granted. The above discussion also borders to some extent of Aryan invasion theory, which I think is beyond to scope of this post.

Around the time of Silapadikkaram, it seems a sort of codification arose for dance, since the chapter Arangetru Kadhai, describes dance practice that can be traced back to Natya shastra.  This leads to the conclusion made by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam that “it marks the starting point of percolation of Natya shastra in Tamil culture”. For example:

  1. Pindi = group dances, are described in Pindibandhas
  2. Pinayal = chaining, described as Srinkhalika
  3. Ezhir Kai (grace hand) = describing the hastas a.k.a. mudras
  4. Tozhir Kai (Work hand or hands denoting specific meaning) = describing Abhinaya Hastas.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam ascertains that in order to relate the dance practices mentioned in old tamil texts, one has to turn to Natya shastra only. However, given the evidence of other tamil texts that describe dance practices (Pancha marabu and Koothanool that predates Silapadikkaram) there is high possibility that it need not be so.  Ilango uses the word “Naatiya nannool”, when describing the dance of Madhavi. That she strictly followed the rules according to “Naatiya nannool” lead the king to award her the title “Talaikkol”. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam says “Is it not logical to conclude that the naatiyanannool is Bharata’s natyashastra for, if it was some work in Tamil, it would have been called Koottanool and not naattiyanannool?” It is logically assumed that Naatiya nannool and Natya shastra are one and the same. It is not explicitly mentioned that Bharata was the author of Naatiya nannool.

One interesting sentence in the article is “While prescribing the styles for various peoples of Bharatvarsha, Bharata takes into consideration the regional tastes and recommends Kaisiki for South India. He calls it the Dakshinatya Pravrtti or Souther sub-style”.

In a recent interview with Dr. Nagaswamy about his recent book titled “Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit” he comments on the impact of Sanskrit on Tamil culture. On Silapadikaram, he says:

Silappadikaram is only a Nadaga Kavya, not an epic as it is made out to be. It is purely creative poetry for the purpose of dance. “I’m using it to mirror society,” says the author Ilango Adigal. Silappadikaram consists of three cantos. Each end-poem describes what is contained in the canto. And that is based on the particular virutti. This is the Sanskrit influence for it is present in Natya Sastra.

The Vedic mode of worship was followed in the time of Silappadikaram. Natya Sastra was the basis of aesthetics of music, dance and literature. In turn, Tamil Kavyas were translated into Sanskrit – it was a two-way or reciprocal relationship

More of the interview here:

Some questions to ponder:

  1. It is true that Natya shastra was known to people in the South, but did it accept the regional forms into its structure or did the regional forms adapted the rules from NS at a latter point of time?
  2. The Dakshinatya Pravritti recommended to Southern parts, is that the one followed by Madhavi and others in Silapadikkaram?
  3. The region called as South as Bharata, is that the South India as we know now?


  1. Tolkappiyam, although presumed to be written by a single author(?) the later additions and interpolations make it difficult to date it.


  1. The date of Tolkapiyam: A Retrospect by B.G.L. Swamy Annals of Oriental Research (Madras), Silver Jubilee Volume: 292-317.
  2. Tamil Love Poetry and Poetics by Takanobu Takahashi, 1995.
  4. A Dictionary of Indian Literature: Beginnings-1850 By Sujit Mukherjee, 1999
  5. History of Indian Theatre by Manohar Laxman Varadpande, 1987
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