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Temple Dances of South India

Bharatnatyam performance at Brihadeswarar Temple.
Image courtesy: Department of tourism Tamil Nadu

Classical dance evolved from Tamil Nadu’s temples across centuries. The revived and reformed bharatanatyam keeps the art born of these ancient temples alive even to this day.

Temples of Art
Since ancient times, in Hindu thought dance was one of the most beautiful expressions of the divine, the eternal rhythms of the universe, powerfully and exquisitely symbolised in the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. Once sustained and nurtured in temples as part of a rich and vibrant temple tradition, classical dance in South India has remained over centuries a dynamic, living tradition that is continuously renewed.

Temple Dance
Even 2000 years ago, dance in India was a highly evolved and complex art. It was an integral part of ancient Indian theatre as established by the Natya Shastra, the oldest and exhaustive treatise on theatre and dramaturgy. Dance dramas were performed in temple precincts. Dance movements were crystallised in stone as karanas in temple sculpture. Following the Bhakti movement in the 6th century, dance and music became powerful vehicles of veneration. The deity was treated like a much-loved king, praised and royally entertained with music and dance, as part of the daily sacred rituals of worship. Gifted, highly educated temple dancers or devadasis were supported by the temples that were richly endowed by the rulers. Some 400 temple dancers were dedicated to and maintained by the Brihadeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. Dance evolved as a composite art in temples as dancers, nattuvanars (dance gurus),  musicians, poets, composers, architects, sculptors and painters shared a holistic approach to all the arts.

Bharatanatyam performance by Alarmel Valli.
Image courtesy: R. Prasanna

Tanjore Quartet
The evolution of bharatanatyam derives from the invaluable contribution of The Tanjore Quartet. The four Pillai brothers – Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu – served as court musicians at the kingdom of Maratha king, Serfoji II in the early 19th century. Their legacy to bharatanatyam has been their restructuring of the dance repertoire into the margam format and their vast and diverse music compositions set specifically for dance. Some of their descendants like Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai evolved the famous Pandanallur bani (style) and trained many eminent dancers.

From the temples, dance made its way into the courts of kings and dancers were not just devadasis, but also rajanartakis. By the early 17th century dance forms like sadir or chinna melam, precursors to bharatanatyam as we know it today, had become popular in the courts of the Maratha rulers in Thanjavur. However, in the 19th century, colonial propaganda perceived such dance as vulgar and immoral. It led to the Anti-Nautch Movement and legislation against temple dance and dancers. Divested of all patronage and temple support, devadasis were thrown into dire straits. In the early 20th century, thanks to enlightened visionaries like EV Krishna Iyer and later, Rukmini Devi Arundale, and the dedication of a handful of devadasis and nattuvanars, classical dance was resuscitated and revived as bharatanatyam. Today, apart from a few cultural festivals in some temples, dance has left the temple for the proscenium stage. Bharatanatyam may no longer be part of the daily rituals of worship, but it has a dynamic new lease of life, rooted in the past, enriched in the present and reaching out to the future. For me, it still remains a joyous prayer with my entire being.


For more, watch out for our upcoming Temple Trips South India.


AUTHOR'S BIO: Alarmel Valli is a renowned exponent of bharatanatyam.