The Tamil Roots of Bharatha Natyam (Sathir)

 by Renuka Kumarasamy

An art of any form must have roots in a language, a culture and a people. From those roots it must carry their thoughts, their joys and sorrows and tell the story of their civilization. The soul and roots of Bharatha Natyam can be found in the Tamil people, their culture and language. But in recent years, in countless articles and Arangetrams, the origin of Bharatha Natyam has been attributed to Bharatha Muni and his work in Sanskrit called the ‘Natya Sastra.’ Is this assertion based on factual evidence or is it a myth perpetuated with no historical backing?

Bharatha Natyam dancer

When one traces the historical roots of modern Bharatha Natyam, it becomes clear that this assertion is more a myth than a historical fact. Bharatha Natyam is a new name given to this ancient art form. Until sixty years back, this dance form went by the name Sathir. The late Dr.V.P.K.Sundaram has done a remarkable job tracing the roots of Bharatha Natyam across Tamil Literature and History and categorically disproving the myth that Bharatha Natyam originated with Bharatha Muni.

If one looks at the historical time line of Bharatha Natyam, starting from the present, the last couple of centuries could be considered to be the period of the reformists. It is during this period that Bharatha Natyam attained its modern form and stature through the work of ‘The Thanjavoor brothers’(Ponniah, Chinniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu), E.Krishna Iyer, Rukumani Devi Arundale, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Bala Saraswathy and many others. Of these reformers, the Tanjavoor brothers, who in the first half of the 19th century revitalized the dance form, that at that time went by the name Sathir, are considered by many to be the founding fathers of modern Bharatha Natyam. Around the 1930s, it was E.Krishna Iyer who first coined the term ‘Bharatha Natyam’ for the then Sathir dance. He probably renamed this dance in an effort to dispel the social taboo that was associated with this dance during this period. The period prior to the work of these reformers, was probably one of the darkest periods in the history of Sathir (Bharatha Natyam). During this time frame, which corresponds to the British rule in India, both the art (Sathir) and the artists who practiced this art (Deva Dasi dancers) were looked down, both by Society and the ruling British bureaucracy. It was the tireless work of Rukumani Devi Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra, that played a major role in pulling Sathir (Bharatha Natyam) out of its darkness of social taboo, into its current status of respectability.

Modern Bharatha Natyam owes a depth of gratitude to these reformers of the last two hundred years, for reinstating it back to its original status of divinity and respectability.

But any change introduced by them in the technique of the dance has more to do with the style and presentation of the dance and not the basic structure. Dr.V.P.K.Sundaram, not only methodically traces the Tamil root words of the modern components of Bharatha Natyam such as Puspanjali, Alaripu, Jatiswaram, Varnam, Padam and Thillana, but also establishes that the core structure of these components have remained the same over several centuries. He also asserts that the recent idea that the word Bharatha is derived from Bhava (expression), Raga (Melody) and Thala (rhythm), is an explanation superimposed on the new name (Bharatha Natyam), with no factual basis. The terms ‘Sathir Attam’ and ‘Thevar Attam’ (divine dance) were used for this dance form as early as the 6th century. During the 6th century and also during the

Thevaram period following it, Sathir dance was an integral part of the Tamil saivite Temples. Unmarried women called ‘Theva Adiyarkal’ or ‘Theva Dasikal,’ who dedicated their life to the service of God, performed the Sathir dance. These women were

highly spiritual, received ‘Siva Thikshai,’ and were well respected.

When we travel further down the historical time line of Sathir (Bharatha Natyam), we would arrive at the period of Sillapthikaram, (the 2nd century). Dr.V.P.K.Sundaram and many other scholars consider Sillapthikaram, composed by Ilango Adikal, the Chera prince turned monk, to be the treasure house of information on both Tamil classical dance and music. Sillapthikaram gives in-depth details on the style and structure of the various categories of the Tamil Dances. The Arangetram of Mathavi, so elaborately described by Illango Adikal, is probably one of the earliest documented Arangetrams. Ilango Atikal not only details the style and structure of Mathavi’s dance, and the type and musical notes of the accompanying musicians, but even gives meticulous details of the Arangetram Stage, down to its required dimensions. It is through Sillapthikaram that we know that an artist was required to complete at least seven years of rigorous training before she could perform the Arangetram. It is through Sillapathikaram that we know that the style of Mathavi’s dance was based on the rules of dance spelled out in ‘Natya Nannool,’ a Tamil treatise on dance that seems to have existed around that period. Many of the Sangam Literature and Tholkappiam also have details on the various dance forms of the Tamils. These Sangam dance forms were precursors to Sathir and other later dance forms.

When the roots of Sathir, runs strong and deep in the Tamil culture, how did its Tamil origin get overshadowed? First, a new name (Bharatha Natyam ) is given to this ancient dance form, followed by an elegant explanation for this new name (Bhava, Raga, Thala). Eventually, even the origin is attributed to someone (Bharatha Muni ), who happens to have a name very similar to this new name for the dance. Combining all these elements, a beautiful and elegant mythology is fabricated, which when repeated enough number of times, is accepted as fact, by the majority. Before mindlessly repeating this myth, the Tamils need to pause and ponder on the effect of this myth. For, the net effect of this myth, whether perpetuated intentionally or unintentionally, is to distort and deny the Tamil roots of Bharatha Natyam (Sathir).


Posted October 8, 2003