Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bharatanatyam- from Temple to Theatre

Malavika Sarukkai
Rama Vaidyanathan

Urmila Sathyanarayanan
Alarmel Valli
SIFAS dancers in Krishna Bharatham

Bharatanatyam is one of the most cherished and popular of classical Indian dance-forms.  It is popular not only in India but also outside it. It is often considered the epitome of Indian cultural expression. Today it occupies the same niche in the East, as ballet occupies in the West. It is a highly revered art form, performed on concert stage. The dance is said to be based on the Natya Shastra, a treatise believed to have been written by sage Bharata between 500BC and 500 AD. Its grammar and aesthetics are today traced by many to this treatise and to later works like Abhinaya Darpana.

Themes are sacred and secular; myriad stories and situations are depicted and it can take the form of a solo or group presentation. It was not always performed on stage. It originated as a solo dance form Sadir or Dasiattam, which was performed in temples and courts in South India as ritual dance. Like all Indian performing arts, Bharatanatyam too traces its origin to religion. Hereditary practitioners, many of whom were supported by temples in South India, originally practiced it. Until the 1920s this dance was the preserve of devadasis or temple dancers. However, during the British rule of India, this dance form fell into some disrepute, which led to the abolition of the institution of devadasis, who were deemed immoral by the British. The devadasi's role in secular society was questioned, as she was perceived not as an artist but as a courtesan.

As a temple dance, the purpose of Sadir or Dasiattam was to give symbolic expression to religious concepts. Devotion or Bhakti was the dominant mood of the dance and it was portrayed through the medium of love or Sringara. The Supreme God took on the form of a lover so that the devotee could gain access to the sacred through expression of love or Sringara, which was the motif of most solo dances in those days. These concepts permeated the lyrics of most of the songs in those days.

After the 1920s the dance form slowly underwent a subtle transformation and re-emerged as a secular form performed on stage by non-hereditary dancers. Educated elite, including E Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and Rukmini Devi, a theosophist spearheaded this revival and the dance form slowly passed from the purview of traditional families into the hands of the educated. Many changes were brought into the presentation as a result of this transition, including a new name, Bharatanatyam. Dasiattam, which was an esoteric temple dance, metamorphosed into Bharatanatyam, an artistic presentation performed on stage.

Though the form still remains rooted in tradition, it flourishes in the modern milieu because it is immensely suited to adaptation on stage. It has accommodated itself very well to new themes, and to the demands of the modern world. New themes, new techniques and new methods of staging have enabled the dance to make this transition from temple to stage in a smooth manner. Rukmini Devi who was instrumental in starting Kalakshetra, was a pioneer in this movement from temple to stage.

As Bharatanatymam moved from the temple to the stage, some of the older themes were deemed as archaic and irrelevant to the modern times, especially its predominant nayika-nayaka theme which was considered somewhat out of tune with current secular practices. As with any art form, what has prevailed today is a mix of the old and new. While traditional repertoires called Margams centred around the nayika-nayaka theme with Sringara (love) as the leitmotif are still performed by solo artistes, and are considered most suited to unfold the major dimensions of the dance form, many newer themes are being performed on stage today to much critical acclaim.

While the traditional format has thrived, many solo and group productions have turned to the vast repository of literature available in India, including the Ramayana and Mahabharata to mount productions not based on the Margam format. Many artistes have delved even further and interpreted these classics in their own creative ways and have come up with several abstract productions.  Rukmini Devi was one such icon- she was a pioneer of group productions. Her greatest contribution to Kalakshetra and to Bharatanatyam is her production and staging of dance dramas.  She invited several great musicians to Kalakshetra to guide her in this process.  These dance dramas were meticulously researched and exquisitely mounted ensemble pieces, originally choreographed by Rukmini Devi herself.  Beginning with Kuttrala Kuravanji and Kalidasa’s Kumara Sambhavam, she went on to create many master-pieces, including the six-part Ramayana series. These dance dramas gave Bharatanatyam a hitherto unseen dimension.

In addition to the ever-popular original dance dramas, Kalakshetra also encouraged its faculty and alumni to experiment in newer themes.  Sheejith Krishna, an alumnus and erstwhile faculty member of Kalakshetra pioneered several such thematic productions, which were both contemporary and abstract in theme, while following the classical idiom. Pravaha, which will be showcased by SIFAS* at Esplanade is one such endeavour. It will showcase the journey of rain, river and cloud through stories both sacred and secular, through the medium of Bharatanatyam.

We can see that Bharatanatyam has not remained frozen but evolved over time. The technique and vocabulary of this dance-form can indeed be used to depict a variety of themes and artistic concepts. Many practitioners, through their imaginative and creative interpretations, have given a new momentum to the traditional repertoire, and enhanced the value of this art form;  many others have added to the treasure trove by exploring new aspects, prompted not only by their own artistic perceptions, but also by such factors as changes in the audience mix,  changes in the performing milieu and societal context. Creative choreographers and dancers have used this dance form in recent times to present many abstract ideas like nationalism, feminine power (Shakti) and the sanctity of the environment. Thus, the dance-form has been anything but static in regard to its repertoire; indeed, it has shown a remarkable capacity for absorbing innovations

Bharatanatyam, in conclusion, can be said to be a dance of India, that encompasses the past, the present and the future within its fold.   Pravaha which will trace the journey of rain, river and cloud through stories sacred and secular, is one such effort and we are sure it will resonate well with the audiences.

* SIFAS has been showcasing Bharatanatyam dancers in recitals, both at the SIFAS auditorium and in other venues for several years.  The dancers who are pictured above have performed in the SIFAS festival of Classical music & dance over the years.

By Renuka Vaidyanathan

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