Sangita Kala Acharya T. S. Parthasarathy

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[Editor's Note: Sangita Kala Acharya Sri. T. S. Parthasarathy, eminent musicologist, researcher and writer is one of the senior most scholars in the field of Music and related arts. He was also the Secretary of the Music Academy, Chennai for many years. He is a source of guidance to all musicians and a respected authority on music theory and history. This article is being published with the kind permission of Sri. TSP]

There are many styles of dance in different parts of India like Odissi, Kathakali, Kathak and Manipuri but the only dance style which has the name Bharata attached to it is the Bharatanatyam of Tamilnadu. Some scholars wrongly think that the name Bharatanatyam came into existence during the twentieth century. This impression is not correct. The term Bharatanatyam is mentioned by Purandara Dasa (1484-1564). Later Ghanam Krishnayyar in one of his songs describes a devadasi and says that she was an expert in Bharatanatyam. Subramania Bharati also mentions the word Bharatanatyam. Therefore there is no doubt that Bharatanatyam is not a new term which came into existence in the twentieth century.

In Tamil Nadu this dance was also known by several names like Sadirattam, Dasiattam, Koothu and other names. But the Natyashastra of Bharata is not a work on dance alone. In Bharata’s opinion Natya meant drama. His work deals with stage construction, music, poetry, prosody, costumes etc. Dance forms only a part of the huge work called Natyashastra.

Bharata also mentions lokadharmi which follows the ways of the world and Natyadharmi which follows the Natya tradition. The scholar who wrote the commentary on the Natyashastra was Abhinava Gupta from Kashmir. He calls the Natyashastra as a Natyaveda. He was a contemporary of Raja Raja Chola who built the Big Temple at Tanjavur.

Sarngadeva who wrote the Sangita Ratnakara lived in the thirteenth century and he also mentions the Natya Shastra as the Natya Veda. In his time dance was classified into Natya, Nritta and Nritya.


The earliest reference to dance in Tamil Nadu is found in the Silappadikaram in which Madhavi, one of the two heroines was herself a professional dancer. In that period dance was called Natyam and therefore the present name of Bharatanatyam is very appropriate.

In Tamil Natya was called Koothu, Aadal, Nrittam, Layam, Nartanam, Natam and by other names. Shuddha Nrittam was called sokkam in Tamil and all the 108 karanas were performed in it. Nritta was given great importance in Tamil Natya. Shiva himself is an expert in Nritta and the words Sadir Aadal and Karana are found in Tamil literature.


Attention was paid in Tamilnadu to the training of young children in dance. The training used to start at the age of five, and the arangetram would be performed at the age of twelve. During these seven years the girl was put through training not only in dance but also in music, languages, grammar, poetry etc.


The arangetram was very important for a girl and Tamil literature is full of information as to how the girl was dressed, taken in possession and after arangetram she got the title of Talaikoli. The accompanying instruments were flute, yazh, maddalam, idakka and other drums. An inscription in Tanjavur mentions that there were 64 accompanists to a dance performance. This may sound an exaggeration but this is what is mentioned in the inscription. Dance was also called Chinnamelam because Periamelam meant a Nagaswaram party.

Arangetram was called Talai Arangeral. A description is available as to how this Arangeral was performed. As soon as the dancer got on to the stage two songs were sung and they were called daivapadal or prayer. After this all the instruments on the stage will be played together and this was called as Antarakkottu. The dance started after this and the girl first danced desikkoothu. This will start with Mattatalam and end with Ekatalam. The next item was Margam for which a prabandham was sung in the panchatalam.

The Sangitaratnakara (13th century) mentions that the first item was Pushpanjali which is now called Alarippu. In the thirteenth century Jayasenapati wrote the Nrittaratnavali in which he says that after Pushpanjali, Nrittangam will be performed. The writer says, after Nrittangam Padam, Kavidai, Tuduku will be performed.

Serfoji II was the Maratha ruler of Tanjavur from 1798 to 1832. He was a great patron of Bharatanatyam and himself wrote many Nirupanams for dance in the Marathi language but in Karnatic ragas. In his time there were eighteen items in a Bharatanatyam performance and these were

1) Jayastuti

2) Sharanu Sharanu

3) Alaru (This was perhaps Alarippu)

4) Sollu

5) Shabdam

6) Varnam

7) Padam

8) Swarajati

9) Abhinaya Padam

10) Tillana

11) Abhinaya Padam

12) Jakkini Padam

13) Geetham

14) Prabandham

15) Triputa

16) Shloka Varnam

17) Kavuthuvam

18) Mangale

Serfoji patronized four brothers called Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu who came to be known later on as the Tanjore Quartette. They reduced the eighteen items to eight and introduced the Margam which is now in force. They also composed about fifty items in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil, which form the backbone of our present Bharatanatyam performances.

In those days the dancer used to sing while dancing but with Balasaraswati this practice disappeared altogether.


From inscriptions in Tamil we find that the jatis Ta Ta Tai Tai were in existence hundreds of years ago and this was called jati even in those days. Also, jatis like Ten Tam and Thirana Thirana like in our Tillanas were used.

The word Sadir is also a Tamil word and dance is referred to as Sadir Aadal. Dance played an important role in temple rituals and devadasis were employed to take the Kumbharati and to perform the Navasandhi Kavuthuvam one day prior to the commencement of important festivals. The Chola rulers were great patrons of Bharatanatyam and during Raja Raja Chola’ s time there were 400 devadasis settled around the temple. Even the names are found in a long inscription in Tamil.

Out of the sixteen upacharas offered to God in temples, the fourteenth was music and instrumental music and the fifteenth was Nrittam. More than eighteen kinds of Nritta were being performed in the Vishnu temples and dances like Ajappanatanam and Kukutanatanam were performed in the Shiva temples.

It will be seen that what is now being called as Bharatanatyam was being danced in our temples and courts for nearly 1800 years, although it was known by different names from time to time. In no other country has a dance tradition come down through so many centuries.

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