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Contemporizing Natya: Choreographing for the 21st Century Audience

by Shobha Subramanian

Classical Indian dancers of today find the need to adhere to tradition and yet be innovative in communicating to mixed audiences. Many creative artists have found a way to do this without tampering with the original technique and vocabulary. Contemporizing Natya is an attempt to take a glimpse into how dancers have “pushed the envelope”, and still maintained the classicism in Bharatanatyam. Sometimes, the change is merely cosmetic, and other times the change is deeper. So how can we present an ancient Sanskrit theatre in a way that is palatable to a diverse, multicultural audience? In a three-part series, the author attempts to answer this, by first tracing the Natya's historical background briefly.


Bharatanatyam is an ancient traditional classical South Indian dance style that has been handed down several generations from guru to sishya (master to apprentice) Needless to say, this dance form is more or less an oral tradition, and very little written notation exists to support its form, technique, content and theme before 1900s. Thus the exact form of Indian classical dance in the early period is debatable although its existence is undeniable.

Historically if we examine the state of the arts across the world, wars and foreign invasions have invariably shaped the direction in which arts and artists -- literary, visual and performing -- have carved their paths. Indus Valley civilization was one of the earliest civilized agrarian societies that existed in 5000 BC. Archeological evidence from that period points to a dancing girl’s statue. By 1000 BC early Vedic period of civilization started unfolding. Natya is now declared the 5th veda and Natyashastra, the earliest treatise on dramaturgy, is believed to have been written in the 2nd century BC . Hinduism takes deep roots and the Mahabharata was written and put into final form around 200 BC. Between 1 AD and 1200 AD, is known as the Golden age of Indian arts and sciences, when temples were built (most of them include sculptures of dancing figures in various poses), Maharajahs ruled and the country prospered.

Natya was known by names like Sadir, Dasiattam and Thanjavur Natyam, until it got its current Bharatanatyam nomenclature and structure in the postcolonial era. In the old incarnation, devadasis were called temple dancers, wedded to the deity and would perform ritualistic dances for every celebratory occasion. They were also known as “nityasumangali” or forever married (to the deity).

Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904–86), Founder of Kalakshetra
Shifting to Europe during the medieval period, Dark Ages was followed by Renaissance leading to the emergence of restoration artists. Italy, Spain, France and UK bloomed artistically and culturally with poets, painters, playwrights. While Michelangelo’s masterpieces adorn The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa decorate the Louvre Museum in Paris, Lord Chamberlain’s Men captured the theatrical world of England with Shakespeare’s plays. The Baroque and Romantic periods set the stage for Western Classical musicians like Mozart, Beethovan and Bach. When the first ballet academy (Royal Dance Academy) opened in 1661 in Paris, classical dance in the west was still primarily classical ballet.

At that same time, in the early 16th century, India (which was ruled by Maharajahs who patronized the arts), was taken over by Moghul Sultans who in turn brought their Muslim influence from the Middle East. They built mosques in a Hindu society, introduced Arabic where only Sanskrit prevailed. We saw the rise of a new classical dance form Kathak and Hindustani classical music which is heavily influenced by Urdu poetry and non-religious romantic text. This was a huge departure from the existing pattern of performances which revolved mainly around devotional compositions on Hindu gods and goddesses. Thus sacred dance now became tainted with sensuousness.

On the turn of the 17th century when the British colonized India, English culture and goods started pervading the country. Maharajahs lost their kingdoms to the East India Company under the rule of Queen Elizabeth in India. With the loss of that power, court musicians and dancers also lost the glory of royal patronage that they had enjoyed thus far. That is when Bharatanatyam (or dasiattam as it was then called) lost its pristine purity and the dancer who was earlier funded by the rulers, now resorted to prostitution for survival. Thus Natya became synonymous with prostitution.

When the western nations were waging World Wars I and II, Europe was going thru turmoil and then reeling to recover the economy. Soon afterwards, during post-war reconstruction, avant-garde theater sprung up giving rise to concepts like: (i)minimalism (less is more) (ii) expressionism (Strindberg), (iii) alienation (Brecht).

Balasaraswathi (1918-1984), A singer-dancer with musicians
During the same time, India was struggling to get independence from being a British colony. Finally, under leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, the country was a free democracy in 1947. And that led to more changes in the outlook of artists and performance scenario in postcolonial India. When the nation got freedom from colonial rule, the art form, Natya finally got its respectability back when pioneers form upper class families like E. Krishna Iyer, Balasaraswathi and Rukmini Devi Arundale took it upon themselves to perform, practice and propagate this art form. It is no surprise that only when India became politically free from foreign invasions, did Natya truly take on in its original form free from external influences.

Today, just as postmodern occidental theater practitioners have devised unique artistic outlets like Environmental Theater, Happenings and Theater Laboratories, likewise, oriental theater (specifically Natya) is now performed not only in traditional temple precincts but also in proscenium, blackbox, round theaters and street theater across the globe. As we trace the Indian political flux over the years, we see how that is reflected in the evolution of arts, artists and artisans in India. Content-wise, artists across genres, are playing with their art-form as a medium for expressing novel ideologies to coincide with current socio-political situations.

Like any other performing art, Bharatanatyam has stood the test of time and yet it has evolved over the centuries. The saga of Natya, like any other surviving art form today, has a story of waxing and waning over the years, affected by internal societal caste conflicts, external political colonial oppression and other factors.

To be continued...