Notions of “classical” in Bharatanatyam: a cultural operation of the classes - arguments of
the cosmopolitan Margi and indigenous Desi, repertoires of the Nayak period
- Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh

December 11, 2014
(This article was originally published in the Kalakshetra Quarterly and sent to by the author.)

India’s greatest wealth, development and civilisation have been stirred by its political and cultural processes (Talbot, 2006). In turn, the political agendas have used culture as a medium. In this paper, I will talk specifically about Bharatanatyam and the political history that surrounds this dance form during a certain period. Just as religious norms and practices were varied in India, in spite of emerging a single codification, so also dance, its practice and purpose remained varied notwithstanding the many treatises that documented it. Hence, one could believe that the codification evolved more as a documentation of the existing practices rather than a rulebook. However, these treatises have over the centuries brought about a semblance of a common code for Bharatanatyam. The important question is; what defines Bharatanatyam as classical? Rather, what is classical and by that definition which aspects of Bharatanatyam lend it its classicism? Many a times the term classical is interchangeably used with the word Margam. Margam means the “path” or a newly created space, a certain vision. The other term used alongside Marga is Desi, which means regional. But “regional” is not an antonym to the word path. Desi signified all aspects of art that were not intentionally created but rather were products of human evolution. During the later parts of 20th and the 21st centuries these terms and their connotations took another turn as “folk” and “classical.” Common comprehension of the term folk is any form of dance that is performed by the rural people, to music that is regional, reflecting the inherent cultural practices of the people there. It mostly is a naturally evolved practice, both ritualistic and entertaining in nature. Keeping this definition, can we then say that classical is performed by people who have consciously learnt an art form, performing to music that is more cosmopolitan in nature, reflecting values that are popular among many different cultural groups? Let us therefore pitch this idea of what is classical and what is folk. 

Existing Folk and evolving Classical
Bharata’s Natya Sastra elaborates on the dancing technique of Karanas [1] (units of dance). It is through this early work that we understand the place of dance in the various drama forms. The Karanas by themselves were not used in isolation but were the bricks that formed the structures for elucidation. Angaharas, for example, were the combination of several Karanas to create an idea. The creation of ideas alone is not the fulcrum of any unit although each unit can represent an idea. After all, ideas are suggestions or interpretations that cannot be restricted to any one definitive conclusion. Therefore, dance within the space of drama was an interlude of suggestive representation. They were abstract in the sense that they could have several meanings at the same time. Meanwhile, dance over the next centuries evolved into an independent art form. In works like Silappadikaram, the clear evolution of a “created, culled” court performance tradition through the dance debut of Madhavi [2] in the court of Karikala Cholan is understood. However, it is very interesting to note that Madhavi’s classical dance debut performance consisted of many dances that we categorise today as folk traditions. Out of the eleven kinds of dances she performed, at least five belong to modern day’s folk pantheon. Be it Tolpaavai, Kudakkuthu or Marakkaalattam [3] etc.

Therefore, we must understand that the dynamics of what is classical and what is folk is an ever changing one in the history of performing arts. Vaetiyal [4] that Ilango Adigal speaks of in Silappadikaram is the concept of a “court commissioned operation” of dances that appealed to the members of the courtly class usually comprising of people belonging to several diverse cultures. The imperial courts were the hub of cosmopolitan trade and political operations. Hence, culture and performing arts were commissioned to cater to this crowd. What was indivisible, more rigid against the onslaught of change, and very indigenous to the people (Desis) was under the safe roof of Desi and highly guarded. This protection in many ways was provided by religious and cultural sanctions. Desi arts were taught through strict oral transfer. Every author, including Bharata did not register these Desi techniques, as they were diverse, rigidly guarded and much in vogue with no threat of immediate or complete dislocation. Some later works such as Mathanga’s Brihaddesi, Jayasenapati’s Nrttaratnavali [5] took upon themselves the task of chronicling those performing arts that were imbibed from these Desi traditions into the “classical” pantheon as part of a cultural operation with a vision (Margam). It is in works such as these that we see the start of a strict “marga-desi” pattern.

State incorporated “Classical”
Cosmopolitanism is not a colonial contribution to India. It has been a feature of the imperial courts in varying degrees from the times of the Chera, Chola, Pandya kings in the South, with the arrival of the West Asians, Romans and Persians followed by a more active influx of various travelers and traders in the medieval period. The term “cosmo” means mixed or combined and the root to the term “politan” is “polis” meaning to protect or to govern. The classical art therefore is Vaetiyal, a state or kingdom commissioned and protected operation that is ever changing and is created from processes of deliberate studied approaches, multicultural influences and meant for the consumption of people of varied tastes and interests. These classical arts and repertories were meant to help develop a common interest in the men of the court, which in turn would help, better foster political and economic alliances. The production of an art form that was culled from the vision of a teacher, scholar or a group of such scholars etc., also needed the creation of a new class of audiences who could see this emerging art form as a “holy mix” of what is partly their’s and partly that of their neighbour’s. This emerging cosmopolitan spectator, Bharata calls as a “sahrdaya”, man with discerning taste. Bharata also says that a sahrdaya must be created. He acquires a taste for the state operated art form. As this art is bred in the highest citadel of the community, it naturally ranked higher among its regional counterparts. Just as any new operation requires documentation for its conformity and continuity, many treatises were written to inculcate an order of practice and performance for these classical art forms of music, dance and drama all through the early and later medieval periods, starting from Bharata till the 20th centuries. While its origin lies in its process of constant assimilation, over time, due to the universal nature of its structure and codification, it slowly appropriated the place of tradition.

One can thus comprehend how Karanas were created as mediums of suggestive representations that were well structured and were given imperial endorsement on the walls of Tanjavur by Rajaraja. This sort of endorsement for “classical” dances in the form of sculptures, inscriptions and frescoes were considered appropriate imperial commissions, immediately admitting the king into an elite class of patrons.

Classical’s Pan-Indian borrowings
By the medieval period, say the 16th century, the kingdoms across India had developed a great sense of what was appropriate sophisticated behavior. As European travelers became a regular fixture in our courts, lifestyles, costumes, food habits were all generously altered to accommodate the newer fashions that the kingdom and king either naturally assimilated or deliberately adopted. Along with this, music and dance was also tailor made to befit this ever changing multicultural scene by mildly stepping out of its regional provincial attachments or ideas. Let this not be mistaken for classical art lacking in ownership, but as a generous sharing of origins and ownership. Increase in a luxurious life, building of newer, bigger temples and other religious sites, and the need for proclamation of monarchy led to greater patronage of art forms like literature, sculpture, textiles, painting, dance and music. Both the Mughals [6] in the North and the Deccan under the Vijayanagara [7] rulers had the same operations. Court culture commissioned a whole array of wonderful repertoires that were assimilated into the classical dance realm and it further extended these norms to the state administrated temples. As far as Desi dances were concerned, some of them found their way into the courts as part of the classical forms or simply as the style depicting the region’s flavor to the world. A few regional dances were supported for ritualistic purposes and a few others for their entertainment value.

Margi and Desi during the Nayak period
The Nayaks [8] who were feudatories under the Vijayanagara Empire, were in an operation of their own in establishing an identity of royal lineage for themselves. They used art as a very vital tool in that process. They were not merely patrons but also active participants in creating these art forms. They were poets, authors and the patron–artiste relationship was always one steeped in the feudal hierarchy of India. The patrons were always kings, nobles and people of the higher castes and classes but the artistes were always from the lower castes, the fourth varna or the Sudras. While on the one hand this hierarchy lent very little vertical negotiation for the artistes, on the other, they had more than an employer-employee relationship. The camaraderie and pride the patron had for his artistes were matched by the loyalty and respect the artiste had for his patron. Many times, the artiste was at a privileged place. They could produce works of art keeping the patron as the central figure (the hero) who could be cajoled, criticised, loved, hated, reprimanded etc. This poetic license in turn afforded them closer access to the personal stories, emotions and lives of the patron. The king as a participant was actively involved in the creation, documentation of performing arts and literature. He was a scholar/ artiste whose impressions were vital to the process. This phenomenon, where the patron also becomes the participant is the keystone feature of the Nayak era. For example, Sangita  Sudha, a treatise on music and dance by Raghunatha Nayaka in its introductory chapter itself defines Margi and Desi. He says they are two styles of dance [9]. That which is presented in the divine presence of Lord Siva is called the Margam, it says. That which gives joy, happiness and appeals to the tastes of the people, that type of music, dance and instrumental music is called Desi.

The King was perceived as the messenger of God or in many allegorical interpretations as God himself. He too, endorsed this perception by tracing for himself a divine lineage. In the case of the Nayaks, they addressed themselves as belonging to the Mannaru gotra implying that they were descendants of Lord Mannaru Rajagopala [10]. Hence, many repertoires that were deemed fit to be presented in the presence of the Lord were also many a time presented in the presence of the King. That is why perhaps, for example, while Sangita  Sudha prescribes Karanas and Angaharas to be performed only in the presence of God or danced by celestials, they were in fact performed in the courts. Raghunathabhyudayamu by Ramabhadramba notes how dancers performed “faultlessly the naţya techniques and its nuances in the presence of the King who appreciated it.” During the Nayak period “margam” clearly constituted many special dance forms. These were perhaps based on the principles of a strict paddhati (tradition). Codification was needed to chronicle these newer forms. They were not always contemporary creations but products of continuous cross cultural interactions from centuries before and therefore in many ways evolving. They had to be edited to fit within the accepted norms of courtly, elitist tastes. Let us also remember that the Nayaks in many ways emulated the courtly life of the Rayas and the Rayas themselves imbibed much from the Mughal court and vice versa. The dances may have been performed in the state-patronised temples and courts by the Devadasis, Rudraganikas, Manickkams as a cultural operation to establish these as “state approved” art forms among the commoners. The various mythical origins associated with these dances perhaps lend the much needed religious sanction and antiquity to them to become incorporations in ritualistic practices, sometimes along with their Desi counterparts or sometimes, replacing them altogether. What were the constituents of the Desi styles during the Nayak period? As Sangita  Sudha describes, they were the regional styles specific to the immediate geographic context that existed, appealing to the tastes of the common man. They must have been steeped in deeper religious and cultural ethos of the locals.

The dance and music would be participatory in nature, using local instruments, singing, movements, depicting a local myth, invoking a local deity. When “state approved” cultural operations were established as the preferred art forms in ritualistic practices, many Desi forms that had mostly a tribal antecedent remained only in the temples of village deities and were performed in festivals related to these temples, and for the entertainment of the common man [11]. A manuscript titled Adibharatamu [12] dated to the Nayak period gives the “Dasa vida natyalaksanam,” the ten constituents of what it calls as “suddha margam.” The concept of associating purity or “suddha” to certain dances is perhaps because of it being for the consumption of people with whom, all that is pure, higher and courtly were associated. It certainly had little to do with it being a part of a longer, stricter lineage, although by the time of the Nayaks, many of these dances were steeped in the life and psyche of people as “traditions.” Suddha margam is explained in the Telugu commentary [13] as “vicitranatyamu”. Vicitra means unique. This term more accurately indicates the character of these dances as newer cultural operations for the consumption of the elite courtly class rather than as “pure” (Suddha) dances. Nrttaratnavali mentions two separate varieties of dances under the headings “suddha”and “citra”. Citra could mean a dance that is a spectacle for the viewership of the “men of the court”, combining many cultural contexts and creating a unique (vicitra) style. Kundali or Gondali from the Maharashtra / Karnataka tribal culture, Ghurjari with a nomenclature association to a form imbibed from the Gujarat regions, Jakkini which is influenced by the Persian language and Sufism, Syamala and Dandalatika, the unique dances employing the regional variations of Kolattam, Prenkhani which evolved from a minor drama form [14] etc., are all unique dances, inspired by or adapted from various cultures.

They were all classified as “classical” or “suddha.” Sangita Sudha mentions a great deal about the dance terms, their definitions, techniques, talas for dance etc. Besides revealing Raghunatha Nayaka’s in-depth knowledge about dance, it also throws light on the usage of the various dance techniques then in currency. This is the short version of perhaps how these unique dances influenced by many cultures, developed in the courtly potpourri, became our “classical dances” or what we know as “margi.” The musical styles that these dances required were also considered classical. The margi dances by themselves had a very large repertoire. In my work [15], I have identified over thirty different repertoires; each has a history, context, musical style, movements, costumes. These were all largely in vogue until the early part of the Maratha rule in Tamil Nadu. They added to this corpus, repertoires like Sherva, Nirupanam etc. The credit to the Tanjore Quartette (19th century) is of course in excogitating a very crisp, appealing, sophisticated line up of what they considered the best from these larger corpuses of Bharatanatyam repertoire to create a “new margam.” Many repertoires in the new margam were either amalgams of two smaller forms to create a larger, more emphatic piece, or were simply forms that had acquired newer nomenclatures, therefore unidentifiable with their antecedents. Even the more indigenous dance forms like a tribal gypsy dance came under the gamut of “classical folk” with the advent of Kuravanjis, albeit with fragmental remains of the rustic music and dance combined with structure and form of the “classical” operation [16]. The Tanjore Quartette themselves were only following this evolutionary trend that had set in much before them. Thus, the old order gave way to the new order. The “classical operation” of the elitist class, gave these “created arts” the status that the elitists themselves enjoyed in society. Under the vigilance and guidance of sages, senathipatis (army chiefs), ministers and kings [17], the classical dance of Bharatanatyam was being shaped and tempered to taste. While the masons were the high class elite, the labourers were always from the lowest castes. It is interesting to note that, in discourses on socio-economic, gender platforms the arts were associated with the birth status of the artiste who practiced it and therefore considered “adhama” or “low.” But in discourses on culture, regional identity and nationality they were put on a pedestal as “classical.” Therefore, this course of comprehension leads us to ponder further upon the larger notions of “renaissance,” “revival” and “reformation” that form the modern dialogue of Bharatanatyam.

“Classical” is therefore less to do with rigidity and in that sense tradition, and more to do with acceptance, assimilation and change. The Nayak era epitomized in polishing this very sophisticated genre of “suddha margam” or classical for a cosmopolitan, secular audience. The following centuries adapted this without resistance, be it Javalis and Padams in English or Parsi or singing the British national anthem in Telugu!

1. Karanas are hundred and eight in number and are all elucidated as a sutra or couplet in the fourth chapter of the Natya Sastra under the title Tandava Lakshana. In this early context, Tandava is not associated with the hyper masculine (a term I borrow from Hari Krishnan) form but rather to pure dance or Nrtta.

2. Madhavi is the name of the character of a danseuse in the epic. She is one of the principal characters. Her debut is chaptered as a separate segment called the Arangetra Kaadai. Here Ilango details about the number of years of training, the rituals associated with hereditary training, debut, the royal preparations of her debut etc., along with details about the various technical nuances.

3. While one has to be careful not to draw direct parallels, we can see the nomenclature association of Tolpaavai being leather puppetry, Kudakkuthu being a precursor to Karagattam and Marakkalattam a precursor to Poikaal Kudirai.

4. ‘Vendan’ means King and ‘Iyal’ references to the form. The forms of dance that received court patronage and that which were considered “fit” to be watched in the presence of the king, nobles and the courtly class came under this gamut.

5. Nrttaratnavali enumerates among other dances, forms like Kundali and Ghurjari. Kundali has a tribal origin in the Karnataka, Maharashtra region in the song and dance of a huntress named Billi, according to a legend narrated by King Somesvara.

6. The Mughals exuberantly patronised the building of gardens known as Char Bagh-s, fused generously the Islamite, Indic traditions in paintings, architecture and literature. Added to this was the dimension of Timurid influence.

7. They had very ceremonial celebrations like the Navaratri festival etc. Travelers who visited the courts of Krishnadevaraya have left great accounts of the festivals they witnessed in great splendour at the Ramanavami Dibba etc.

8. Nayaks are feudatory lords or kings who enjoyed semi royal kinship. The Tamil country was ruled by three prominent Nayaks; that of Tanjavur, Madurai and Gingee. The received portion of Kingdom to rule was called Nayakadanam.

9. Sangita Sudha; Slokas 8 and 9

10 Rangajamma, a poetess in the Tanjavur Nayak court, in her work Rajagopala Vilasamu addresses Vijayaraghava Nayaka as Mannaru Gotra varu.

11. In the beginning of the essay, we discussed Silappadikaram enumerating dances likened to Karagam etc., under the classical pantheon or as part of Madhavi’s debut but in the medieval periods, as a decided operation of the cosmopolitan court, they were pushed back to village temples, performed as part of village deity temple festivals like a Mariyamma temple or Madhuraiveeran temple festival.

12. This Nayak period manuscript perhaps was written by Vijayaraghava Nayak himself (according to Late Pandit Viswanathan of the Saraswati Mahal Library, Tanjavur), a handwritten copy of which was attached by this author as part of her doctoral thesis.

13. Adibharatamu is written in Sanskrit as slokas and sutras with elaborate Telugu commentaries or Teekkas.

14. Employment of utpluti karanas, bhramaris, caris and uddhata mandala prayogas, this dance has its origin in the Yaksharaja kula according to Adibharatamu. This exemplifies how exotic and unique Prenkhanam would have looked.

15. Doctoral thesis “Research and Reconstruction of Dance repertoire of the Nayak period; (Ganesh, 2012)

16. Sarebendra Bhupala Kuravanji was performed by Devadasis at the Brihadeeshwara temple on a specially erected dais called the “Kuravanji media.” As in the case of many other Kuravanjis, this work too received “classicalisation” at the hands of the Nattuvanars, here the Tanjore Quartette. The ragas, talas combined with many intricate jathis and swara korvais make this a “classical folk” version of the more rustic Kuratti /gypsy dances.

17. Sages like Bharata, Matanga, Narada, Ilango Adigal, kings like Someswara, Raja Raja I, Akbar, Krishnadevaraya, Raghunatha Nayaka, Vijayaraghava Nayaka, Tulaja, Serfoji etc. Ministers and nobles like Govinda Diskhita, Venkatamakhi etc., and senathipathis and army chiefs like Jayasenathipathi, Gopatippa Bhupala and others.

Select references
- Bharatamuni, S. (1943). The Natyasastra. Mumbai: Satyabhamabai Pandurang
- Ganesh, D. (2012). Research and Reconstruction of Dance Repertoire of the Nayak Period; Doctoral Thesis (in print)
- Raghavan, D. V. (1981). Abhinavagupta and his works. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia
- S.S.Barlingay (2007). A Modern Introduction to Indian Aesthetic Theory. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld
- Sastri, K. A. (2008). A History of South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press
- Talbot, C. B. (2006). India Before Europe. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press
- Vatsyayan, K. (2003). Bharata The Natyasastra. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi
- Vriddhagirisan, V. (1942). The Nayaks Of Tanjore. Annamalainagar: The University

Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh, director of Ranga Mandira Natya Shala in Chennai, is a dance historian,   choreographer and performer. She delivers lectures on the subjects of dance history at many places, including going as an adjunct faculty at university. She is a Fulbright Fellow and has been invited to teach ‘Past performing practices’ at University of California, Los Angeles.

Margam means the ‘path’ or a newly created space, a certain vision.”  This statement definitely defines the word and function of margam. It explains the artist’s need to construct a structure of presentation when he feels compelled to reveal or communicate an idea and that created structure of presentation or choreography is margam. This fact is proved by the way I have used this definition in the concluding portion of the article and the introductory part of the article
The Tanjore Quartet margam through its structure of presentation puts forth in a simple way the idea in the systems of Indian philosophy through Bharatanatyam. Even mediate knowledge of the reality of ‘self’ brings bliss, is theistic standpoint of Vedanta. Thus, through art the audiences are informed about the highest reality of life.
- Chandra Anand (Feb 21, 2015)

Post your comments
Unless you wish to remain anonymous, please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted with name & email id in the blog will also be featured in the site.