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.

Submitted by Vijay Menon (not verified) on Sat, 2005-03-05 00:44.

Ms. Jaya,
I read ur article on Bharatha Natyam & Kathakali. I feel u have to do more reaserch on Kathakali. As man who practised Kathakali in a very young age and ardant promotor of our Bharat & its great culture, I feel each dance form has a rich background. As for Kathakali, I am forced to again that it is the PERFECT art form, not because it is coming from my homeland, but it can perform any story, which has clear meaning, irrespective of its nationality or culture. It follows Bharatha Muni's priciple "yedha hastha tatho drushti, yedho drushti tatho mana, yedho manathatho bhava, yedho bhavasthto rasa". i am not an expert like u madam, but with due respect, if u resarch more on kathakali, u gain more gems. by the by, i adore n enjoy bharathanatyam very much. i do promote our great dance forms here in Dubai, where i am working as Chief Electrical Enginner in PALM project. Wish u all the best in all ur efforts for fine arts.
Vijay Menon

Submitted by Ms. Jaya Subramaniam (not verified) on Sun, 2005-03-13 03:55.

Dear Vijaya Menon:
Thanks for your comments on my article. It is not clear what you are objecting to; what is it that you think is misrepresented? Unless you point out and explain, it is not possible to respond in a meaningful manner.
Yours etc.
Jaya Subramaniam

Submitted by Vijay Menon (not verified) on Sat, 2005-03-19 22:34.

Ms. Jaya,
I feel I have not cleared my point. u have stressed about Bharthanatyam but not Kathakali in ur article. though it is a very classical dance form, Kathakali adopted many changes, not in its core classical aspects, but in the makeup aspects, stories, etc. for example, instead of our traditional Mahabhartha, Ramayana or other Puranas, it has the capacity and abitlity to perform the modern stories like those of Shaksphere, Bible, History, etc. the scope of Kathakali is unlimited. instead of the age old songs which contain tough Sankrit words, which is beyond the reach of common man, simple words in any language(?) can be used, as long as it can be sung in the Kathakali song form.
Kathakali has originated from, as u know, Yakshaganam (Karnataka), Koodiyattom (Kerala). but Kathakali outlives and popular than these art forms because of improvisations it had gone thru. (still i love full night Kathakali sessions in temples rather than short sessions which last from 1-3 hrs max. in the clubs.)
My point is, it is Kathakali which has gone thru major reforms as per social changes, which i feel u missed out in ur article. hope u take my critisism in the true spirit. it is not at all my intention to hurt u. if at all i have done so, please forgive me. i am simply a Kathakali enthusiasist (over?)
keep up ur good efferts and God bless u for promoting our great art forms.
Vijay Menon

Submitted by sureshmenon (not verified) on Sat, 2006-03-11 14:14.

Dear Jaya,
its nice read your article.good. iam from the birth place of kathakali,"kottakkal" and i do enjoy it..
anyway keep in touch.



Submitted by Prashanthy (not verified) on Thu, 2009-06-18 12:11.

Dear Vijay Menon,

I am a Bharatanatyam dancer, trained under Kalakshetra style under the disciple of Smt. Leela Samson. I am currently residing in Dubai and exploring this art form. It would be great to catch up and meet to discuss. Let me know your contact details.



Submitted by O.K. Sudesh (not verified) on Fri, 2009-06-19 15:53.

Kathakali originated from Yakshagana? This may be first time that I would read something like that! As I know, the performing art form called Kathakali has evolved from Aattakkatha which was influenced by Ramanaattam, a dance form created by the Kottarakkara Raja in rivalry to the dance form Krishnanaattam (belonged to the Zamorins of Calicut). If Kathakali has anything to do with Yakshagana then that could only be relative to the shared cultural heritage of India. As for me and many others -- leave aside an accusation on cultural chauvinism -- the artistic expression attained through Kathakali and Koodiyattom is far superior to that of Yakshagana.

Unlike what Vijay Menon thinks, I am afraid, Kathakali has neither the ‘capacity’ nor the ‘ability’ to perform cross-cultural stories or dramas. In other words, the rigidity earned out of an alien theme cannot be subjected to a matter of ‘capacity’ or ‘ability’ of any art-form. Such experiments have been tried, tested and gloriously failed to capture a niche in the popular imagination. The problem lies in the death-wish embedded in any classical art form. (Iyyankode Sreedharan’s ‘King Lear’ version comes to mind; it played several stages in Europe I believe; don’t forget that was a time when Kathakali was flying high-skies. Where is it now, I mean the ‘Lear Raja’?) You cannot run an opera themed in Indian mythology; just imagine the high pitched throatings; the sopranos. Every culture has a ‘bio’ of its own; of an evolution by itself; of a character in conducting everyday chores of its people’s lives. You cannot work-out a ‘Kathakalippadam’ for a situation involving Noah calling out pairs of each single species of animals and birds to the ark. Even if you have somehow ended up writing one, singing it out would incite infectious laughter among the audience. Vallathol’s ‘Magdalana mariyam’ –think about it. It was a bold cross-cultural experiment. Did it click?

There is a great ‘broad-minded’ chest-thudding around, in similar lines: ‘Music is a universal language’. As if ‘mimicry’ is not! I am not belittling the notion. I would be the last person to laugh at you folks. Tell me enjoying a music is something to do with your character, your accumulated cultural allegiance, your familiarity with an evocative capability towards certain ethos and pathos, your time-value certainties, ultimately what demarcates a line strongly from boredom and non-boredom. If I am made to sit listening an eskimo music, or an eskimo made to sit listening to carnatic music, what would be the ultimate effect on that sort of ‘universal listening tolerance levels’ attributed to such a ridiculing pretension?

What is not universal, that is human and that may come to be termed as too human? On the contrary, the ‘inhuman’, by that may I suggest the animal-bird ‘communicado’ –could that be ‘un’universal, at any time in history?

Let’s not blah-blah, Menon, if you are an aficionado of Keralite art-forms, break the chain, the chain-thinking, and be thinking boldly. Art needs boldness. Political boldness is over. Resisting boldness became a farce. The only territory which puts forward a pre-requisite for unremitting boldness, is art. It is going to be our finitude, the last stand; mark it please.

Submitted by sajeev (not verified) on Mon, 2010-11-29 16:43.

Dear All

Its really my pleasure to see the article related to Indian classical dance forms. I am also an ardent disciple of Natanakalanidhi Dr Gurugopinath. Studied dance and dance drama for more than 10 years , Learned Kathakali from Kalamandalam Balasubramonian and Keerikadu Sankarapilla.. I did lots of research work on Mudras and facial expressions and did some comparative studies between Kathakali and Bharathanatyam.. I produced another art form called Kathayattam - which is an amalgamated form of Kerala natanam (invented by Dr Gurugopinath) and various other dance forms of India, which was telecast in Surya TV during the Year 2002-2003

Currently I am in Dubai working with a leading oil and gas co as senior manager ( basically technocrat and management professional)

keep in touch


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