The next time you enjoy a Bharatanatyam performance, and are enchanted by the elegant movements and expressions, make sure you thank Lord Brahma. “Why him?” you say. Good thing you asked! Listen to this story:
You see, after the four Vedas were written, Gods and Goddesses realised that the four Vedas were too difficult for the common man to comprehend. It was so highly philosophical, so serious, so austere and oh, so difficult to master. Man had a tough life then, constantly studying. The need for something easier on the mind was strongly felt, and so the Gods came to help. They went to Lord Brahma and appealed to him to create another Veda – one that could be understood by anybody. And Brahma, in all his wisdom, took the words from the Rigveda, the gestures from the Yajurveda, the music from the Samaveda, and the emotions from the Atharvaveda and combined them to form —- the Natyaveda! Lord Brahma gave this newly formed Veda to Sage Bharata, who used this knowledge to write the Natyashaastra, a comprehensive treatise on the science and technique of drama. It is from this venerable text that Bharatanatyam was formed.
While you’re in a mood to give thanks, why not give one to the Devadasi community, and the Chola and Pallava rulers who supported them? These are the people who developed and promoted the classical arts in South India for centuries. Devadasis were girls who were married to a God rather than an ordinary mortal. They were expected to spend their whole lives in the service of the temple and God. These girls grew into highly accomplished women, who knew how to sing, dance, play instruments, and speak Sanskrit—skills they used when they worshipped the Lord.
Bharatanatyam was their art form, and it thrived along with the community—and suffered along with it as well. As the British acquired more and more Indian territory in the 19th century, the rulers who had supported the Devadasis disappeared. These women did not fit in with the Victorian attitudes that came with British rule. A good Victorian woman was expected to stay at home and devote herself to her husband and family. The Devadasis were shocking—- they performed in public and — horror of horrors — took part in politics! They were labelled as little better than loose women, and they were shunned from ‘polite’ society. The community dwindled as it lost its income and its reputation, and the art of Bharatanatyam nearly died out.
“Wait a minute!” you say. “It is obvious that Bharatanatyam did not go the way of the dodo bird. Does this mean there is another person I should be thanking, too?”
You shouldn’t be thanking just one person; you should be thanking the many people who, at the beginning of the 20th century, realised that an important art form was about to die out. The four brothers who made up the Tanjore Quartet helped preserve the art by organising the basic dance movements into a series of lessons. E. Krishna Iyer promoted Bharatanatyam through his performances. He was a lawyer by training and a dancer by passion, and he firmly believed in preserving the art form. In order to remove the stigma associated with Bharatanatyam dancers, he would dance in the costume of a female dancer! In 1928, he founded the Madras Music Academy in order to promote all the classical arts, and this august institution continues the work till today.
Then there is Rukmini Devi Arundale, who breathed fresh life into Bharatanatyam by improvising upon the existing Padanallur style. This turned into the Kalakshetra style, which in turn became the core curriculum of Kalakshetra, the institution, which she founded in 1936. Slowly, the art form revived and grew. The excellent reputation of Kalakshetra and popularity of Bharatanatyam today is a testament to all these people’s efforts.
The practice of Bharatanatyam today is not the same as it was in the days of the Pallava kingdom. Dancers now tell stories about social issues like addiction and AIDS alongside stories of gods and ancient kings. They are no longer compelled to master Bharatanatyam as Devadasis were, so students today are taught the importance of dedication and discipline as they learn the dance. But the essential aspects of the art form remain the same. Bharatanatyam today, just as it was in the past, gives worship as it tells stories. It is balanced between precise geometric forms and dramatic emotional content. There are now Bharatanatyam dancers performing in every continent, and almost every household in South India has a girl child learning the art form. From almost extinction to complete rejuvenation, Bharathnatyam has danced across the aeons, and lives again.