Keywords in South Asian Studies

Bharat natya

Dr Alessandra Lopez y Royo AHRC Research Centre for Cross-cultural Music and Dance Performance (SOAS, Roehampton and UniS)

Key words in South Asian Studies

Bharat natya

by Alessandra Lopez y Royo

‘bharat natya’ is known in a variety of spellings: Bharata Natyam, Bharata Natya, Bharatnatya, bharatanatyam, bharat natyam, Bharat Natya, Bharat Natyam, bharathanatya. All these spellings are correct. But do they all refer to the same thing? Vowel quantity plays a role in determining the meaning of the first half of this compound. Bharat (long ‘a’ or Bhaarat) is the Hindi for ‘India’ whereas bharata (short a) in Sanskrit is, among others, the sage Bharata Muni, author of the Natyasastra or, more simply, an actor. However, differences are not so clearcut. First of all, vowel quantity is not indicated in the English spellings – I have not yet come across a bhaarata naatyam spelling, though of course it is possible. Also, whereas bharat is India in Hindi, India was also known in Sanskrit as bharatavarsa (long ‘a’) or (variant spelling) as bharatavarsa (short ‘a’). So the bharat or bharata or bharat natya retains its elusiveness: what does ‘bharat’ mean on its own? What does it mean in conjunction with natya (natyam)?

Natya (natyam), does not seem to present immediate problems as far as its meaning goes. It is the Sanskrit for ‘drama’. But bharat natya refers to dance, not drama. Thus here we have another ambiguity: though Indian dancing is loosely referred to as dance, Indian

dance forms involve acting, usually denoted by the word abhinaya, which together with nrtta, nritya and of course, natya makes up the Indian dance modes, therefore the word ‘dance’ is ill-suited.

The term bharat natya, in its current usage, seems to have three primary meanings: the first one is that of ‘Indian dance’ – natya here means dance-drama or dance with a dramatic component; the second one is that of dance based on bhava, raga, and tala (and thus applicable to all the classical genres); the third one refers to a Tamil/South Indian dance genre, more commonly known as bharata natyam or, more recently, bharatanatyam, whose very name posits it as the archetypal Indian classical dance. From these primary meanings we get a host of subsidiary ones. In this article Iwill discuss bharat natya (with a small ‘b’ and a small ‘n’) as a term which refers to Indian classical dance, playing on the ambiguities that the word bharat has when the vowel quantity is not specified. I take bharatanatyam (one word, with no split and no capitals, short’ a’) as the dance derived from the Tamil sadir. As dancer and scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala points out: Scholars and dancers joined both words to clarify that Bharatanatyam indicates a very specific dance form, and not any dance form that subscribes to Bharata’s canon.1 It is important to note here that Coorlawala uses the capital ‘B’, whereas other dancers feel that it should be written as one word and, most importantly, with a small ‘b’, in the same way as western classical ballet is. Indeed, the editor of the British South Asian dance magazine pulse (also with a small ‘p’) insists that all the names of the different

Indian classical dance genres should not be in capitals. She regards this as a form of activism, for a universal recognition of these genres as classical dance.2

I will readily admit that bharat natya (or bharat natyam) is not a term commonly used to denote Indian classical dance, as it is more likely to refer to the southern bharatanatyam, in its northern Indian pronunciation. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to treat bharat natya as meaning Indian classical dance because the southern bharatanatyam has been made to conflate with this bharat natya I am describing, allowing an interpretation of it to take place whether for political effect or perhaps in a pointed reference to its nationalistic background, as the Sanskrit term for 'Indian Dance' (Bharat + Natyam) and by extension, the repository of 'Bharatiya' culture and values.3 Thus to suggest that bharat natya means Indian (classical) dance is not wide off the mark.

Indian classical dance, better still, Indian classical dance genres – bharatanatyam, kathak, odissi, mohiniattam, manipuri – are now well established dance genres on the global scene. Another classical genre perhaps better identifiable as theatre rather than dance – though it encompasses it – is kathakali. Kuchipudi is an interesting example of a form in transition: it was earlier regarded as a ‘semi-classical’ theatrical form; it is now performed as a solo dance and by women – thus it has become, in other words,a classical dance genre. Other classical dance genres keep on being added to this list – chhau for example, and more recently, the Assamese sattriya.

The existence of all these categories and classificatory practices such as ‘classical’, ‘semi-classical’ and ‘folk’ dates to the twentieth century. Indian classical dance is a twentieth century construct and it is, in a sense, open-ended. There is a process which we can identify as ‘classicisation’. One can virtually take any dance form from any Indian region and turn it into classical dance – by following certain principles, culled from the Sanskrit texts on music and drama, which have now become guidelines for classicisation, and by following the blue print of the southern, ex-sadir, bharatanatyam. An interesting story was related to me by an Indian friend who is also an accomplished dancer. Not too long ago she was invited together with another dancer from the Dancers’ Guild – the institution where they both trained in Calcutta - to visit the new state of Jharkhand, which lies between Bihar and West Bengal. They watched a performance of a new classical chhau. The State Government of Jharkand is keen to have its own classical dance and it has rediscovered a form of chhau, distinct from the all others (Mayurbhanj, Purulia and Seraikella), which is now being polished and replenished with dance compositions inspired by the Radha /Krishna theme. Normally, these chhau dances have very little to do with such Hindu themes, rather, they are linked with the non-Hindu tribal culture of the region.

The classicisation is thus to do with a process of Sanskritisation and Hinduisation, a process of which even the dance form kathak, usually described as a harmonious blend of Muslim and Hindu elements, has been part of4. It has been suggested that the ‘classical’ styles should be called ‘neo-classical’– one should note here that in India one talks of ‘styles’ rather than ‘genres’, to emphasise the fact that they all share an ancestry traceable

to the tradition of the Sanskrit texts, as to say that these dances are mere stylistic variations of each other. The term neo-classical has occasionally been used by Indian dance scholar Kapila Vatsyayan and dance critic Sunil Kothari, but it has not gained wide currency because it does not go well with the construct of Indian dance as ‘3000 years old’, now a well established myth about the dance.

Creating ‘classical dance’ was part of the movement to reinscribe Indian dance forms in modern artistic practice and give them a status, equivalent to that of classical ballet in the West. This recodification and reclassification involved an act of cultural translation. The term ‘classical’ was a conscious borrowing from western art discourses to refer to the canon that was being put together from an investigation of the sastras, the Sanskrit manuals on dramaturgy and from the prayoga sampradaya, the teachings of the masters.

Prior to this classical dance there were highly formalised traditions of dance, described and prescribed in the Sanskrit texts and referred to as margi. Margi is not a term found in the Natyasastra itself, it is what later commentators called the tradition. There were also other formalised traditions, but more localised, known as desi. Between sastra (available for both margi and desi) and prayoga, between canonical literature and praxis, there was an ongoing process of negotiation, as Bose has argued.5 By the early twentieth century the relationship between sastra and prayoga had lost its momentum and the practice of ‘high-class’ (margi/desi) dance, in the hands of hereditary specialist practitioners known as devadasis, was waning. Bose has highlighted a complexity of causes for this decline, such as the disappearance of courts and temples as

sources of patronage, colonial rule, new educational paradigms and so on.6 Through the engagement with modernity, the project of recreation of dance as art began, marking the birth of classical dance. This is, admittedly, a simplified account of a complex history.

The devadasis, for example, were only a group of practitioners of high class dance, not an exclusive one, as sometimes understood. Dance was part of theatre and was thus also performed by male actors – kudiyattam, kathakali, bhagavata mela are cases in point. This theatrical dance was as highly formalised as the dance of the devadasis and rajadasis ‘court dancers’, known as sadir in the south - in Orissa it was practised by maharis and gotipua boys and known as naca, literally meaning ‘dance’.

Thus the adoption of the term ‘classical’ in the Indian context was a political act. It was not about importing ideals of harmony, alignment, symmetry and proportion, the hallmark of Graeco–Roman art which remain the basis of western notions of classicism. The adoption of the term in India resulted in an indigenisation of the idea of classicism, motivated by the desire to give recognisable national and international status to the dance that was being reconstituted. Rukmini Devi Arundale , founder of the Kalakshetra school in Madras (Chennai) can be credited with the vision which led to the creation of a modern Indian ‘classical’ dance aesthetics. Kalakshetra had a strong impact not just on bharatanatyam but also on all other forms of ‘classical’ dance, through the training it imparted and through its stage productions, which served as models.7

The remaking of Indian ‘classical dance’ has been part of a wider project aimed at the remaking and reshaping of Indian culture, which coincided with the establishing of the post –Independence Indian nation and new ideas of Indianness.8 It has been a negotiation between the local and the supra-local, the local and the national. This is instantiated by the specific engagement with the Natyasastra as a pan-Indian text and the reclamation of the concept of margi, increasingly identified with the southern bharatanatyam. In turning a genre such as bharatanatyam into a template for Indian classical dance, in invoking a modern pan-Indian margi, there is a conscious attempt to reduce the differences between genres and to keep those differences in check. In reclaiming the Natyasastra as a panIndian dance sastra, the diversity of each genre’s abhinaya, for example, is in danger of being sacrificed, with abhinaya increasingly being described as being ‘common’ to all styles, in that it is governed by the rules of the Natyasastra.

This is a re-articulation of the overall project of classicisation. The purpose, for example, of a documentary such as Bharatiya Natyasastra broadcast by the Indian national network Doordarshan in 1992, and directed by V. Balakrishnan, brother of the celebrated dancer Padma Subrahmanyam, who wrote the script, was to provide a common reference point. The documentary acknowledged the different styles of classical dance but in discussing the modalities of abhinaya as following the Natyasastra and presenting these as general rules for all Indian classical dance genres a crucial point was made: that abhinaya is one and all stylistic differences seem to disappear when we are dealing with the technique of bhava manipulation. The blueprint for this abhinaya was bharatanatyam itself, as all the examples given in the documentary to illustrate the technique of abhinaya

were drawn from bharatanatyam, albeit in the specific version of it which characterises Padma Subrahmanyam’s idiosyncratic style, named by her bharata nrityam.

The abhinaya of bharatanatyam is in fact different from that of kathak or odissi or kuchipudi – all these dance genres have a strong regional identity, which is reflected in their structure and repertoire and language of the poetry they use, the way metaphors are linked together in the exposition of abhinaya, the style of exposition, evidencing, in other words, specific local aesthetics. There is, in this ongoing process of negotiation, a replay in contemporary terms of the sastra/prayoga and margi /desi relationship. On one hand, we have regional classicism; on the other we have a pan-Indian classicism which intersects with local concerns, creating a tension. This tension between national and regional, supralocal and local is embedded in the articulation of the process of classicisation. It is a tension which continues to resurface from time to time and is inscribed in what dancer and scholar Ananya Chatterjee refers to as “the power plays of… the overarching categories of culture and tradition”9.

In conclusion, it is clear that bharat natya, even when used with reference to the ex-sadir dance form, has the meaning of pan-Indian theatre dance, as a close translation of the two terms of this compound would suggest. It would stand to reason to drop its usage altogether, leaving only bharatanatyam (one word, no caps) to stand, unambiguously, for the ex-sadir genre, accepting the name on historical grounds, but removing from it any association with pan-Indianness through the use of the small b and by joining the two words bharata and natyam. But, as shown by the exchange of e-mails in the growing

number of lists on the web of bharatanatyam aficionados, at present this is only wishful thinking – the whole array of spellings such as bharat natyam, bharatha natyam etc. will continue to be used, with an equally bewildering array of etymologies and meanings, always returning, like a musical sam, to the idea of pan-Indianness. What’s in a name or, more to the point, what’s in a spelling?


Uttara Asha Coorlawala e-mail to, 30 November 2003. Chitra Sundaram, Editorial, pulse, Autumn 2003, p.1. Chitra Sundaram e-mail to, 26 November 2003.




Pallabi Chakraborty ‘Kathak in Calcutta: A story of Tradition and Change” . Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference. Society of Dance History Scholars, Temple University , Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. pp 15-20

Mandakranta Bose Speaking of dance: the Indian critique, New Delhi, 2001, p. 101. Bose, Speaking of dance, pp. 1-7. Avanthi Meduri,. ,‘Introduction; a critical overview’ in A. Meduri Ed. Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-



1986). A visionary architect of Indian culture and the performing arts. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, pp3-30.

Alessandra Lopez y Royo, ‘Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircar’s work: re-defining the terms

of Indian contemporary dance discourses’, South Asia Research, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2003, p.157.

Ananya Chatterjee, ‘Contestations: constructing a historical narrative for odissi’ in Alexandra Carter, ed.,

Rethinking dance history, London, 2004, p.154.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful