Some historical snippets of BN – Part 10 – Bharata Natya

Chatura Tandava - Bantey Srei and bronze sculpture. Note the same pose in both sculptures, also Karaikal Ammaiyar and the drum beating Gana in the Bantey Srei sculpture (Image courtesy: Wiki)

Chatura Tandava – Bantey Srei and bronze sculpture. Note the pose in both sculptures, also Karaikal Ammaiyar and the drum beating Gana in the Bantey Srei sculpture. Click on picture to see full size. (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

Finally, feels good to be back on track with the Historical snippets series. Oh, yeah there is more than 9 parts to it!

Most books/paper on Bharatanatyam and relating to BN’s history, cite a common reference and that particular reference or citation is the topic of this post.

When Sangeet Natak Academi planned to organize a seminar on Dance 1958, a key member of the committee gave the opening presentation/talk where not only the importance of Bharatanatyam was emphasized, but it also helped to make a connection. The connection to the past. How BN is an antiquated art form dating back from the Indus Valley civilization, how it follows the scriptures, etc., etc.

The author is none other than Padma Bhushan Dr. V. Raghavan [1]. He was a very famous Sanskrit (Samskrta) scholar, musicologist, dance aficionado and has left behind about 120 books and 1200 articles, so much so that he is emulated by other scholars [2]. The paper/article tiled “Bharata Natya” is published in the Journal of Music Academy of Madras in 1974. 

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, although the website had no mention of it anywhere. So, I will remove the document if anyone points to any copyright infringement.

If one wonders what this document did for BN and after 1958, I think the following lines of Avanthi Meduri aptly summarizes the impact [3].

Raghavan was only interested in aesthetic question. He did not engage in social issues [in 1958] and preferred instead to read an academic and scholarly paper on classical Bharatanatyam that covered a vast field and took his listeners to the distant past of India’s history and traced the development of the art of dance as evolved and practiced in India for over 5000 years.

It was quite a pioneering paper in many ways,

  1. If you read the document, one will see how elegantly he connects the dots of the dance history, its spread, and how it survives in the current form.
  2. This was the first “English language historiography” [3].
  3. This pioneered a new ethno-historical dance studies, where combined Sanskrit studies from the anthropological perspective [3].

It is not suprising that Rukmini Devi Arundale was taken in by the V. Raghavan’s scholarship that her vision was drawn from the historiography of V. Raghavan [3].

The talk by Prof. V. Raghavan is amazingly 30 pages long in this version! In the original version that was published by Sangeet Natak Academi is 48 pages long. Understandably there is a ton of information for us to sift through. Let’s try to understand the salient parts of this paper, bit-by-bit.

Name of the dance form

Starting with the etymology of the name given to this dance form, i.e., Bharatanatyam, which he started calling in his writings he explains that is not a new name as such.

The name at once established the form in a historical continuity, which went up to Mohenjodaro and the Rgveda. An understanding of the art in such a space-time frame has its own value for appreciation, criticism and improvement of the art.


For about three pages or so, he gives detailed description on Lasya. Now, don’t confuse with the general definition of Lasya that we are taught in a class, i.e., the softer side of BN. Here, Lasya is is seen as the originator of BN in its current form. The source is from Bharata’s Natyasastra, which

itself the first full treatment of what is the oldest classical form of the type we are dealing with now, viz., Lasya…just as drama was enjoyed as a separate art-form, this dance by a Nati or Narthaki was also witnessed as a separate art-form. It is in that connection that Bharata describes Lasya in detail.

The word lasya is used, in later chapters [of Natyasastra] as a synonym occasionally for tandava

Bharata talks about Lasya in three places/contexts. The first is in Chapter 3 (?), while discussing group performances, second in Chapter 20 when talking about stage performance with drama [4], and the third in Chapter 31 when discussing Tala [5]. The second contect of lasya was recommended to be be danced by a single dancer. Listed in order are:

  • Geyapada – pure music with suska aksaras. This term suska aksaras were the ancient counterpart of jatis and sollukattus.
  • Stithapathya – love song in sitting
  • Asina – sitting and showing facial expressions
  • Puspagandhika – continues on the Asina’s love theme and explores further
  • Pracchedaka – depiction of overpowering influence of external factors
  • Trimudhaka – Like Puspagandhika, conveys masculine feelings (?)
  • Saindhavaka – In vipralabdha nayika bheda, arousing pity
  • Dvimudhaka – happier state of feeling shown
  • Uttamottamaka – more joyous mood
  • Vicitrapada – reintroduces separation mood
  • Uktaprayukta – in a dialogue, but no person arrives
  • Bhavita/Bhavika – in a imaginative vision or reacting to a dream

The whole progression of 12 themes have a continuity and the entire performance has a emotional intensity in a gradient. It kind of resembles an emotional roller coaster ride! The same progression is described in Chapter 31, where details of the music that is involved with each segment is described. For example,

In the last item Uktapratyukta, after the heated exchanges the dance should end on a Prasada or a mood of peace and reconciliation between the lovers.

Thus, not only it is all about Lasya, also the themes can be compared to the Margam format we have today, where Alarippu can be compared with Geyapada, Dvimudhaka with Thillana, Uktaprayukta with Padams, etc.

Spread of dance in the country

After the extensive descriptions on Lasya, the next section he talks about how the dance spread across the country. In doing so, he not only talks about various dance forms in India, but also gives out a survey of them. For example, Kathak performed by male and female dancers, solo dance in Assam, dance forms in Kerala, etc. In his own words,

The foregoing survey would show that on the side of solo dance, as different from forms of dance-drama, the Bharata-Natya is the national dance-art par excellence.

Desi forms

With the spread of the dance the interaction of regional and local flavours enhanced and enriched the classical form. And this is described in another 5 pages on Desi and terms that describe desi movements, called desi lasyangas. Some of the sources that he mentions are Sangitaratnakara by Sarangadeva, Brahadesi by Matanga, Nrttaratnavali by Jayappa. It will be interesting for readers to know that Jayappa was a military commander in 12th century and was an accomplished dancer too. Talk about juggling two professions at the same time and excelling in both. 🙂

This is an exhaustive list (total of 46) of the desi lasyangas that are mentioned in the Sangitaratnakara and Nrttaratnavali. Some of them are interesting such as Angahara (bending like a bow), Tala (making difficult jatis appear easy), and Vitala (making simple jatis are made complex and complicated). The full list of  these Lasyangas are given at the end of this post. I think the reason to introduce these is to emphasis the point that current BN uses most of these desi lasyangas, thus enriching its form.

Margam format

This is probably the most interesting for all BN dancers. Here the evidence of a Margam format existing much before the 18th century is explained. The sources that V. Raghavan cites are Lasyapuspanjali by Veda, Sangitadarpana by Damodara (17th century) [6], and Sangitamuktavali by Devendra (14th century) [7]. These texts describe what the solo dances comprised of, before the standardization done by Tanjore Quartette.

Sangitadarpana by Damodara mentions the following order in a solo dance:

  • Mukhacali – prelude
  • Yatinritta – predecessor of Jatiswaram
  • Sabdacali – predecessor of Shabdam
  • Udupa
  • Dhruva
  • Sudasabda
  • Kvada
  • Gita
  • Gundu
  • Desi-kattari
  • Vaipota
  • Sabda-nrtta

In the Sangitamuktavali by Devendra mentions the following order:

  • Puspanjali – prelude of the performance
  • Mukhacali – prelude of the performance
  • Suddha-Yati nrtta – with Mukhacali may have been condensed to Mela-prapatti, at the end of which Alarippu was possibly performed.
  • Raganga-Yati-nrtta  – predecessor of Jatiswaram
  • Sabdanrtta – predecessor of Shabdam
  • Rupa-nrtta – dance and abhinaya – a possible predecessor to Varnam?
  • Dhvada
  • Sabdacali – another shabdam?
  • Sudasabda – “pure words”, possibly padam?
  • Sudagita
  • Gita-prabandhas
  • Cindu, Daru, Dhrupad

We did see a part of this paper quoted while discussing Shabdam. This gives him a good segue to talk about the current Margam format. A vanishing act happening in the Margam these days is the piece that follows Thillana, the slokham. Talking of which he says

the artiste can show pure abhinaya and her understanding of the psychology and rehtoric of love and the art of emotional interpretation

Male dancers!

In Sangitadarpana by Damodara mentions specifically that the following items of a dance was done by male dancers! If you remember our earlier post on “Inscriptional evidence of male dancers“, I guess this a crucial literature evidence that shows the continuity of male dancers. The dances are Jhakkani, Bahurupa, Perani, and Gondali. Unfortunately, V. Raghavan does not dwell deep as to what those dances could be.

Temple analogy

I found the following sentence very interesting beacuse it introduces the temple analogy of BN’s margam format that we have come across in numerous places. The most famous was given by T. Balasarawati in 1975.

Thus, the parts of the Varna rise tier upon tier, like a richly moulded Gopura


It is here that V. Raghavan discusses the 18th century texts from the Tanjavur Maratha empire, specifically Sangitasaramrita by King Thulja/Tulaja/तुळजा (1738–1787). The adavu names described are both in Sanskrit and Tamil-Telugu names, again bringing the emphasis on the Sanskrit roots to BN grammar. Listed below is a comparison of the Sanskrit names with Tamil-Telugu names and in italics is the list I saw in the Lakshmi Viswanathan’s article “Bharatanatyam:The Tanjavur Heritage” in Kalakshetra Quarterly [8]

Sanskrit name Tamil-Telugu name
Samapada Kuttana Tattadavu/ Thattadavu
Khanatpada Kuttana Kuttadavu/ Kuttu adavu
Parsva Kuttana Nattitattadavu/ Nati adavu
Padaparsva Kuttana Dhi-ti-tai adavu/ Dhi Dhi Thai adavu
Utplutyotthana Kudiccu-ezhumbaradu/ Kudichu Elumbaradu
Santadya-parsni-kuttana Tatti-mettadavu/ Thatti mettu
Mrdusparsana Anukkara adavu/ Anuku adavu
Karsana Simira adavu/ Simir adavu
Karsana-pada Kadasakkal/ Kadasakal
Svastika Tatti-k-kattaradu/ Thati Kattaradhu
Saranagati Parikkara adavu/ Parikra Adavu
Suddhanga Sittangu
Akuncitapadika Endi-k-kattaradu/ Enbi Kattaradu
Ekapadika Visikkal/ Veechikal
Nipatya-prasaritapada Vishundu Visi/ Vizhindu veechi
Cakra Cakkaraccuttu/ Chakkara chuthu
Motita Mandi-yadavu/ Mandi adavu

Interestingly, Lakshmi viswanathan’s article [8], mentions two more adavus, namely “Dhigi dhigi adavu” andKudichu mettu”. In anycase, he recommends one and a half year to master all the adavus. I think he must have assumed that one would go adavus daily for 4-5 hours (at least) over a period of one and half years! 🙂

How much of an araimandi (demi-plie) is needed?

Araimandi, the signature position in BN gets ample space in this article, where he describes the sculptural poses seen in temples. It seems it had names like Kharvata and Tunga-namra. In texts such as “Nrttaratnavali” by the militant commander Jayappa says

twelve inches for this lowering [called Kharvata]

Does it imply that one goes down by a foot to get into araimandi?

Another source is mentioned, Tamil text by Aramvalattanar, the name of which is not mentioned. It says

if you measure the distance from the nose to the navel and measure the inside distance between the two knees bent in Mandala, the two should be equal.


Surely he devotes a lot for abhinaya as well, which he calls “the soul” and emphasizes the eye “which alone can speak out the feeling”. Thus, any amount of hasta abhinaya without proper eye movements will not bring out the bhava. He says the effect that subtle expressions make is nothing short of “Camatkara” or the Wow factor!


Referring to the question as to whether current BN has Karanas, he points out that in Adavus the Karanas are seen, such as Svastika, Mandala-svastika, in Tat tai tam Prstha-Svastika appears, Dandarecita and Gandasuci also appear in others.

What he suggested in 1958 for standardization of dance teaching?

If one reads the final pages of the article without remembering the year this was published, one would think he was talking about current events. No kidding! I am quoting his words below

Now Bharata Natya schools exist all over the country and this Central Akademi [SNA] receives applications for grants. Has any competent person gone around and verified the qualifications, standard, etc., in respect of these teachers and institutions?…[we] should draw up a syllabus and organise a Teacher’s College for Nattuvanars. In the teaching process too, active correction process is not done

In the course of reading this article, I could not help notice some of the criticisms he puts in context while explaining the Sanskrit roots and history of BN. Some of them are outrightly hilarious and others make you think. These sentences (jabs, if you want to call it like that) actually humanizes the article and simultaneously makes the reader think about the trends in BN in 40’s and 50’s.

For example, use of too much smiling while dancing, singing a raga in the Alarippu. With Varnam, he mentions that he has seen two varnam done in one recital and each going for one and a half hour!

Some of the most interesting ones are:

 When the alarippu finishes and the dancers go back, she should do so without jerk, appearing to be jumpy or stamping the steps; only few dancers now get the proper grace iin doing this.

Now there is a taste for mixing and thrusting into all items, the adavus and sequences of other items, resulting in the destruction and distinctness of each.

A new art has grown divorced from music resembling the play-back of the screen.

Some think that the showing of Abhinaya hastas should be closely bound with the Tala adn would give more marks when the artist goes on whipping out her hands with the obsession of the Tala.

Many educated dancers…do not get the understanding of it [art form] go beyond the level of the parrot-like repetition of what has been taught in set fashion…have not paused to think and grasp the how and why of the Hasta they show.

I am not exaggerating when I say that a girl actually posed the iconographic Devi more than once when the song was ll the time referring to a male character!

Without understanding this truth that it [Karanas] is a moment in a flowing movement, if one flings a Karana in, one is only doing violence to the art.

Among adavu movements a few include some inelegant ones, such as kickings o the foot on sides as in football and the accentuated circular action of the elbows.

What constituted football adavus is anybody’s guess. 🙂

In conclusion, I would say that some of the classical Tamil texts that deal with dance are not mentioned in the paper at all. Not sure if their importance was identified before 1958 or after that. In any case, the reprint that appears in JMA 1974’s issue could have carried the additions and it doesn’t. In the context of 1958 it understandable to include only Sanskrit texts, since in the 40’s and 50’s (in the midst of the nationalistic mood) there was a strong need to connect the BN as a national dance and one way to make a connection to the description in Sanskrit texts to the current form.

We will see more historical snippets in future posts! Do send in your comments and feedback.

Further notes:

Desi-Lasyangas as described by Sarangadeva and Jayappa

  • Cali – simultaneous soft movement of limbs
  • Calivada – As Cali in faster tempo
  • Ladhi – lateral movement of hands and waist
  • Suka – movement of ears
  • Urogana – movement of head
  • Dhasaka – movement of arms and breast
  • Angahara – bending like a bow
  • Oyara – movement of special grace
  • Vihasi – soft smile
  • Manah – absorption in the dance music
  • Dala/Dhala – sense of shining quality
  • Lali – lateral movement of face
  • Trikani – movement of head
  • Ullasa – limbs
  • Sukalasa – when voice and instruments become one
  • Bhava – overpowering of emotion causing a break in dance
  • Tharahara – movement of breasts
  • Kittu – breasts, hips and arms
  • Desi-karam – different parts of country
  • Nijapana – eye and head move as one
  • Dillayi – sweet abandon of limbs
  • Lavani/Thevani/Tavani – bend body in difficult movements
  • Gitavadyata – vocal excellence
  • Abhinaya – showing of hastas
  • Laya – moving easily from one laya to another
  • Komalika – softness of limbs
  • Aniki – flawless perfection of tala and laya
  • Manodharma – imaginative creative
  • Anga – use of proper lasya
  • Ananga – introducing anothe form
  • Vivartana – coordination with instruments
  • Jhanka – tantalizing movment
  • Mukharasa – harmony of facial expressions
  • Theva – eyes showing bhava
  • Tala – making difficult jatis appear easy
  • Vitala – opposite of Tala
  • Rasavrtti – filled with rasa and bhava
  • Masrnaka – associating eye to hand
  • Anumana – when music changes the moment of thinking as what to do next
  • Pramana – accord of vocal, instrument and dance
  • Langhita – moving between pieces without any effort
  • Amsagati – elaborate showing of beauty
  • Susandhi – ability to proceed without gap
  • Pada pata – beating of foot
  • Gati stha – presence of lakshana in full
  • Candana – careful way of ending the dance




3. “Temple state as historical allegory in Bharatanatyam” Avanthi Meduri. Performing Pasts: reinventing the arts in modern South India. 2008

4. See Chapter 20 of Manmohan Ghosh book pages 377-379

5. See Chapter 31 of Manmohan Ghosh book pages 97-102



8. Lakshmi Viswanathan “Bharatanatyam: The Thanjavur Heritage” Kalakshetra Quarterly, Vol 9, No:3, Pg 20-22.

2 responses to “Some historical snippets of BN – Part 10 – Bharata Natya

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