Bharata Natyam and Kathakali : interactions with society

Bharata Natyam in its present shape is based on a single dancer presenting a number of items solidly based on Sringara Rasa (the erotic emotion) in a particular pattern from Alarrippu to Tillana, very closely tied to vocal carnatic music. It took this shape over Centuries of evolution governed strongly by socio-economic forces. In a similar manner, Kathakali, the stylized drama of Kerala, was equally influenced by local socio-economic factors. A comparison of the differing artistic developments in these two neighboring states of South India illustrates the importance of a sociological study of local socio-economic influences to the evolution of the performing arts.

Both Kerala and Tamilnadu were part of the Tamil political trinity of Chera, Chola and Pandya kingships but Aryan ideas and mores had quite a different impact in these two areas. Kerala society and polity were subjected much more to the ideas and mores of the immigrant Brahmins called Namboodiri as advisers to the king, macro-landowners and as patron – creators of the performing arts. The Namboodiri took up the basic ideas of Bharata's Natyasastra which treats about theatre as a whole with dance and music as parts of it. They evolved Koodiyattam essentially on the pattern of Bharata's theatre with all its conventions. The male dominance in this classical theatre also followed from Bharata's characterization of it as "Kratu" i.e. holy sacrifice, thereby keeping out females for reasons of "pollution". A late and limited concession was made to women in the form of Nangiayar Koothu.


Performing arts were free and close to the people in Kerala and were always regarded openly as tools for mainstreaming social stability. The rise of Kathakali from Koodiyattam in the late 17th century was partly due to this reason. Koodiyattam had become too erudite for Kerala's changed society divided into smaller principalities. It gave way to less erudite Kathakali with more popular appeal in late 17th and early 18th centuries. The important motivation was reaching the common people through the performing arts and in this process some ideas of Bharata were concretized. The concept of Sthayi Bhava was translated into the basic nature of a character as "Pachai" or "Thadi" or "Kathi" and exemplified at the beginning of the drama by the Tirai Nokku or curtain look.

Bharata Natyam developed differently. Bharata's Natya Sastra talks about a single dancer playing many parts and calling it Ekaharya Lasyanga but gives it a rather minor place. Sringara is given importance but it does not have the dominance it attained in latter day Bharata Natyam. how did this come about?


An important reason was the absence of Brahmin influence. Right till the 7th century Tamil country was under the strong influence of Jains, while its own ethos was quite secular. The Brahmins were a small minority and were themselves de- Aryanized by the local milieu. Many followed non Vedic occupations. The ideas of Bharata were not widely known till the 8th century. The local dance tradition of "Virali" was quite feminine and not theatre oriented. It was just called Koothu or Natam or Adal in those times. Bharata Natyam as it is now called took shape as a result of a number of related socio economic and literary transformations in South India. The local dance tradition was very strongly female based and love based as detailed in Tolkappiam chapter Meypattial. Secondly, the highly developed secular erotic romantic poetry of the Sangam period was the model for Tamil Vaishnava Bhakti poets and was transformed into Bhakti Sringara ( the bhakta or the devotee i.e. the dancer imagines himself or herself as the beloved of the Lord suffering the pangs of separation and crying for reunion.) At the same time another genre of Sangam poetry called Atruppadai, glorifying a munificent chieftain was transmuted by Saiva devotional poets - Nayanmars. They equated the deity in the temple with the generous King which led to concept of Rajopachara in the temple (treating the deity as a Rajah) a concept later legitimized by the Agamas. (handbooks or manuals of worship) This also generated the complimentary practice of regarding the King as a god or one with divine attributes giving rise to another genre of literature like Mutttollayiram, Nandi Kalambakam etc. Together these two transformations shaped and legitimized the single dancer dancing as the Lord's beloved in the temple or in the court. This single dancer institution was entrenched in due course by endowments by Kings to temples in exchange for the legitimacy the temple conferred on them.

This institution got a new lease of life and became further entrenched in the 19th Century in Tanjore not simply due to the systematization carried out by the Tanjore quartet ( the four Tanjore brothers Ponnaiya, Chinnaiah, Vadivelu and Sivanandam). In fact it was partly anticipated by Tanjore Maharajahs like Tulajaji. What really perpetuated was the creation of a stable landed middle class by the British policy of low tax on agricultural produce in South India. With a substantial surplus which they were unable to invest productively the gentry encouraged the single dancer Institution through expensive marriage celebration and concubinage. A little later, the urban middle class shaped the institution of Sabhas to sustain music and dance. In short the single dancer institution is the result of a number of socio economic and socio political factors and cannot be changed overnight. On the credit side its intense concentration on the lonely dancer has built up the most highly sophisticate repertoire in the language of mime and gestures and the most complicated and aesthetically pleasing rhythmic patterns, that is Adavus. On the debit side it is a tight package-deal with verbal music i.e. the narrative, dictating every aspect of Abhinaya and every stroke of Nritta, sharply focusing on the single Rasa of Sringara with all other Rasas as Sanchari satellites.

Of course a number of changes did take place within this defined pattern for several reasons. The dance teachers or Nattuvanars were fortunately not too well versed in the rigid textual prescriptions and were making minor changes which were accepted in course of time. Secondly certain items of repertoire were transformed over the centuries. Thus the Karanas got diluted and several rhythmic patterns emerged like Jakkini in Andhra Pradesh under the Vijayanagar empire. Credit goes to the Tanjore quartet for imposing some order on to these varying patterns and evolving the modern system of Adavus.

In short, the present shape, format and repertoire of both Kathakali and Bharatanatyam is the result of a socio-cultural evolution of centuries, accommodating changes on the way. To twist and change it artificially to please a small so called modernizing minority would be counter productive. Both dance systems will accommodate necessary and suitable changes without such misplaced enthusiasm for change.

Jaya Subramaniam
Jaya Subramaniam is the executive director of Lumbini Arts Society in Ottawa, Canada. She is a free lance journalist focusing on Indian dance.