Bharatanatyam – Reimaging a Subaltern Temple Dance Tradition

Many of the Dance traditions that have emerged across the world have been associated with religious practices. The swirling Dervishes of Cappadocia, Turkey, the Dance tradition of the Yezidies, the Spanish Franciscans, Hasidic Jews and the Buddhist Sherpa Lamas, are a few examples that come to mind. Bharatanatyam, a dance form that originated in the Tamil province of Southern India also had its origins in the Temples. Bha – Bhava or emotions, Ra – Raga – music or melody and ta-Talam/Rhythm, are its split components. It is influenced by Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra which was glorified as the fifth Veda. It is a treatise on Theatre/Dance and Music. Translated into English it means the ‘Dance of India.’ Nataraja is the patron God of this dance form. Nataraja is portrayed as the Dancing Shiva who is one among the Hindu trinity. Chola Bronze sculptures of Nataraja are prized possessions of Museums and Art collectors. The dance first gets mentioned in an epic, the ‘Silappadikaram’ authored by Ilango Adigal and is believed to have been written between the fourth and sixth centuries AD (Kamil Zvelebil). The ancient Dance form went by the name of ‘Sadir.’ It is however in the ninth and tenth centuries that Sadir received royal patronage by the Chola Emperors (Asia’s earliest   maritime conquistadors) who built mammoth temples for Shiva and patronized temple architecture and arts. Apart from being an inspiration to dancers, the Nataraja finds his place in CERN (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire), Switzerland for a more scientific reason. In the words of Fritjof Capra the Cosmic Dance conceptualizes the dance of atomic particles. The statement validates Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who had postulated in her magnum opus work The Secret Doctrine that Ancient Wisdom is a synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy.

 To quote the physicist Fritjof Capra from his book The Tao of Physics:

“For the Modern Physicist then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter. As in Hindu mythology, it is a continual dance of creation and destruction involving the whole cosmos. This metaphor of this cosmic dance is thus unifying Mythology, Religion, Art and Modern physics. It is indeed as Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy says in his book The Dance of Shiva – ‘Poetry, but nonetheless Science.’”

Capra was translating the metaphysical explanation of Ananda Coomaraswamy (AKC) in scientific language.  AKC, initially a member of the Theosophical Society from England, explains in The Dance of Shiva, in the chapter ‘Nietzsche and Oriental Philosophy’ that the essential significance of Shiva’s dance is threefold:

  1. It is the image of his Rhythms, source of all Movement within the Cosmos.
  2. To release the countless souls of Man from all illusion.
  3. The place of Dance, Chidambaram, is the centre of the universe and is within the Heart.

AKC further states that Shiva’s Dance is clearly expressed in Alexander Scriabin’s (a Theosophist and music composer from Russia) ‘Poem of Ecstasy’:

O my World, my Life, my Blossoming, my Ecstasy.
Your every movement I create,
By negation of all, from previously lived through.
I am external Negation,
Enjoying this Dance, chocking in this whirlwind.

(From the translation of Lydia L. Pimenoff in the Boston Symphony Orchestra Programme, Oct 29, 1917)

It was the inspiration emanating from the Shrine of Nataraja, in Chidambaram, that gave birth to a devotional Dance form. The Dance was called Sadir and performed in emotional ecstasy by primarily women. The Dance gradually spread to other temples of South India and beyond Shiva temples to Shrines of Vishnu and Shakti (Divine Mother) and Murugan. The dancers were called Devadasis (servants of God) and became a caste or community in themselves. These women were assisting the temple priest in errands and were secluded from mainstream spaces. From the shrines they moved on to the temple courtyard to the accompaniment of Male Nattuvanars or singers and musicians. In the course of time they graduated to the next level as court dancers in royal households. It was after all, the kings who built these temples in yester years.

The Dance is mathematical in construct, steps in sharp lines, triangles and circles, representing Mandalas. Cosmic shapes representing chakras in the Body. Mudras are hand positions and the musical sound vibrations are for Inner Bliss. Nikolina, a Croatian Dance student of Saroja Vaidyanathan of the famous Ganesh Natyalaya Institute in Delhi sums up: “Bharatanatyam Dance form is one which induces trance, contemplation and experience of the Divine.” Shiva – the yogi (ascetic) is the God of Dance. In the translated works of A.K. Ramanujan (the University of Chicago) the author states that “Bharatanatyam, like some other dance forms, has cleverly managed to keep the token umbilical cord to the courtesan performing traditions of erotic poetry through either sanitizing them or exaggerating them.” Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh, a Fulbright scholar and a teacher in world arts at the University of California in an article  that appeared in The Hindu (26 Feb, 2015), talks about the American couple Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis travelling to India 1925-26, and on the advice of AKC visiting Madurai to witness the traditional Sadir by one Kamalambal. Their photographs are among the small amount of valuable archival material available from the early 20th century. The Dance form was both ‘Sensual and Sacred’. Dancer Malavika Sarukkai who was featured by the BBC as one among the top contemporary dancers of the world writes about her experience of coming across a Chola Bronze at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington and her reaction. “There are two choreographics entitled ‘Darshan’ and ‘Raas’. They are inspired from different impulses – Chola Bronze sculptures and Indian miniature painting. In each composition the Energy and Dance design is unique. ‘Darshan’ condenses the penetrating Power of Bhakti (Devotion) into the Self, whereas ‘Raas’ celebrates the same as an ecstatic outpouring.”

 A Trajectory from Sacred Mime to Erotica/Social intervention and Revival/Transcendence from Sadir to Bharatanatyam.

TS-World-Congress-Salzburg-1966. Joy MIlls; Gep

The Sadir as mentioned earlier, was an age-old Temple Dance form which came to popular culture around the tenth century. In fact, images of Dancing women and the Mother Goddess have been excavated from old Dravidian cultures as ancient as the Indus Valley. (Journey of Civilisation, R. Balakrishnan). Sadir however, became visible initially in the area around Tanjore and Madurai which were the seats of power and epicentres of art and culture during the Chola and Pandyan dynasties. The rulers celebrated their war victories by building mammoth temples dedicated to either Shiva, Vishnu or the mother Goddess – Amman or Shakthi. It was in these temples that the art form flourished and gradually spread across the Southern states. In the Northern part of India, there was the Nautch girl tradition which peaked under the patronage of the Moghul kings. Behind each of these gargantuan temples constructed in what is generally known as Chola Style architecture, was a patron mystic called a ‘Siddhar’. These Siddhars would emerge from nowhere and through their knowledge of Sacred Geometry (Vastu Shastra) and Divination would inspire the location and design of these temples.

Sadir dancers were unmarried women, who dedicated their dance and life to the reigning deities of these temples. The musical male accompanists from within their families were known as Nattuvanars. These dancers grew into a matrilineal community and in later days were referred as ‘Devadasis’. After the decline of the Tamil kings, the Nayak Rulers followed by the Marattas patronized these art forms. In 2019, Sarfoji Bhosale, hailing from the lineage of these erstwhile Maratta kings, honoured the last surviving Sadir artist, Ms. Muthukanammal of Vannimalai, Trichy. The event was organized at the Dakshin Chitra Cultural Centre in Chennai. The centre was founded by the American Social entrepreneur Ms. Deborah Thiagarajan. Initially practiced as a sacred and pristine dance form within the shrines, then in temple courtyards for public performance during festivals, from there it gravitated to the Kings courthouse for the few fortunate dancers, and the less fortunate ones landed in the residence of rich landlords – Zamindars. After the establishment of the Madras Presidency by the British, who disempowered the local royalty, the patronage was lost and Sadir fell into bad days. The government looked upon the Devadasis in a lesser light and brought in a legislation in 1930 banning these temple dances. The ‘Padams’ or recitals deteriorated from the earlier tradition of Devotional lyrics to a lewd form of limerick, corrupting the dance form and the dancers as well. The ‘Shringara’ transformed from devotional love to erotica.

The plight of these Devadasis caught the attention of Dr. Muthulakshmi Iyer Reddy, the first Indian female doctor and first woman legislator of the Madras Presidency. Subsequent to the ban of temple dancing the Sadir dancers were driven into penury and the dance form was experiencing a slow death. Dr. Muthulakshmi opened a women’s shelter called Avvai Illam, very close to the Theosophical Society Headquarters at Adyar, Chennai. She rehabilitated these orphaned Devadasis and encouraged them to sanitise the Dance form in order to revive it. There were others like P.V. Krishna Iyer, founder of the iconic Institution, The Music Academy. The Music Academy in the city of Chennai spearheaded an annual calendar for the performance of traditional music (read carnatic) and Dance (Bharatanatyam).  It became a platform for the revival of Sadir in this new Avatar which was called ‘Bharatanatyam’. In 1931, the Music academy arranged a performance by Balasaraswati, of Devadassi heritage for the first time. Bala as she was known was another distinct contributor to the revival of Sadir. She rose to great prominence and was the subject of a documentary directed by Satyajit Ray, a celebrated director of the Indian cinema. Balasaraswati together with her family members took the Dance Form to the United States and Japan. Although, the first exposure of the Sadir in the west, according to Dance Historian Jane Pritchard, was when five ‘temple dancers’ from Pondicherry arrived in Europe in 1838, to perform in London and Paris. The ‘Bayderes (dancing girls) of Pondicherry’ as they were advertised had everyone agog with their rapid movements, “prodigious winks” and outlandish costumes. Much later in 1915, German Theatre Director Carl Hagemann staged a play ‘Vasantasena’ in Mannheim. He described the Tanjore Temple dancers as most pure and refined. In the war-ravaged Europe of the early 1900s, the Dutch spy Mata Hari, regaled soldiers with her dance steeped in Indian mysticism, with a bronze statue of Nataraja staring at the audience. Bala’s son in law, Douglas M. Knight Jr, (a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow) himself an exponent of the Dance form has written an engaging biography of her contribution in his book Balasaraswati – Her Art and Life. She had admirers like Ted Shawn and Martha Graham. The book gives a graphic description of Sadir and its social acceptance in its new Avatar of Bharatanatyam.

Rukmini Devi Arundale – A Theosophist and a Culturist

A major contributor to the revival of the Sadir is Rukmini Devi Arundale. She was a multifaceted personality. Drawn to Theosophy at an early age, she hailed from a family of urban scholastic and cultural milieu and was a rare combination of tradition and radicalism. She was born on 29 February 1904 in Madurai, in British ruled Madras Presidency. She was a second-generation Theosophist. Her Father Neelakanta Shastri was inspired by Dr. Annie Besant. In 1920 she married Dr. George Arundale, principal of the Central Hindu College, Varanasi. Dr. Arundale later became the President of the Theosophical Society. The Arundale marriage was facilitated by members of the Blavatsky Lodge, Mumbai, who conducted the marriage in Mumbai. Madras of the early twentieth century was a caste ridden traditional society and a marriage of an Indian lady with an Englishman would have rocked the boat. It was Mumbai again where she attended a performance of Anna Pavlova, the world-famous Russian Ballerina. Anna was performing in the Opera House in 1928, a stone’s throw away from the Blavatsky Lodge (it is sheer coincidence that ballet classes are still held at the Blavatsky Lodge by the Dallas family. It was Trushna earlier and is now Krushecher Dallas). It was in 1927 that the foundation for the existing Blavatsky Lodge building was laid by Dr. Arundale. The Arundales happened to again meet Anna Pavlova on a ship to Australia, and that was a turning point in Rukmini Devi’s life. She came under the tutelage of Pavlova’s leading solo dancer, Cleo Nordi.

Subsequent to her marriage, Rukmini Devi travelled the world with her husband and came into contact with many prominent personalities, both Theosophists and in the field of Art. Among them she developed a close relationship with Maria Montessori and the poet James Cousins. Her travels widened her Theosophical involvement as well as her cultural horizon. She became the President of the World Federation of Young Theosophists in 1925 and in later years, the Administrator of the International Theosophical Centre in Naarden, The Netherlands. She became the first Indian woman representative in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. She was instrumental in passing the Animal Welfare Bill, in the spirit of her Theosophical thinking.  Rukmini Devi was launched as a Bharatanatyam Dancer to the public, when her ‘Arangetram’ (the first public performance of an Indian classical dancer) was held during the Diamond Jubilee International Theosophical Convention at Adyar, Chennai in 1935. Over two thousand people thronged to witness the event. This was a stamp of social acceptance of the Sadir, being performed by a Brahmin dancer. Anna Pavlova advised Rukmini to revive traditional Indian Dance. Rukmini Devi herself, had an inherent interest in the traditional Dance form, but it was unheard for a lady of the Brahmin community to embrace the ostracised Dance form of Sadir. She became a trail blazer in taking up Sadir, renamed Bharatanatyam, through the efforts of P.V. Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi. She learnt the dance from stalwarts like Mylapore Gowri Ammal and Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. She re-structured the Dance form and transformed the attire, movements and style, while retaining its sublime form of yogic movements. Some say she was heavily influenced by Sergei Diaghilev, Director of the Paris based Ballets Russes, who was a powerful influence in ballet across the United States, Britain and Spain during the 1920s. Her style came to be known as the ‘Kalakshetra’ style, named after the Dance Institution she founded in Madras with Dr. George Arundale in 1936. In order to dedicate heart and soul to the Institution, she graciously declined the post of President of India, offered in 1977 by the then Prime minister Morarji Desai. Kalakshetra is ranked as India’s leading Dance school. From virtual disgrace and death Sadir rose like a Phoenix.

The Dance form became popular, initially across South India and now across the whole nation, being recognized as a national dance form. Rukmini Devi had laid the foundation for Bharatanatyam to be recognized on the world stage. It was ranked as one among the prominent dance forms in the world by the BBC. Janet O’Shea, of the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, in her article ‘At Home in the World: Bharatanatyam on the Global Stage’, writes “Both Rukmini and Balasaraswati mobilized Indian epistemology and specific local aesthetics, as a range of practices, including non-Indian ones.”

According to Indian-American anthropologist and advisor to the Asian Art Programme at Solomon Guggenheim, Arjun Appadurai, “Immigrants seek an emblem of cultural identity explicitly – Bharatanatyam has provided the Indian immigrant community to access the world with a potent symbol of cultural status”. Global artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Peter Brooks and MIA have used the Bharatanatyam Dance form in their repertoires. It has become an integral part of Bollywood from the time of the Industry’s inception.

A major role is played by the seventy-five year old Mumbai based Raja Rajeswari Bharatanatya Kala Mandir, an institution established in 1945 by hereditary Dance Gurus and founded by Guru Govindaraja Pillai and Karunambal. It is presently headed by the most sought-after Guru in Mumbai, Guru Kalyanasundaram. The dance today transcends language, geography and style. Rukmini Devi had laid a foundation for the flowering of the Dance form to a global stage. Modern day vocal critics like musician T.M. Krishna, (author of Sebastian and Sons), schooled in a J. Krishnamurti institution, and danseuse Ms. Nrihtya Pillai, a hereditary Dancer, see the modern day trend in Bharatanatyam as an “appropriation of the Art form.” Writing on Bharatanatyam in New India, Mr. Krishna writes “The earlier Kalakshetra style as practiced by Rukmini Devi and Radha Burnier does not look anything like the linear geometry that is proposed to be Kalakshetra style today.” For a Dance form to survive for centuries, change would be a necessity, both the traditionists and modernists must have their autonomous space. When the art form takes a global stage, alternatives to orientalism are bound to transgress tradition, a fallout of ‘cultural heterogeneity’. Rukmini Devi being a Theosophist must have envisioned a Universal stage for the new Avatar. Bharatanatyam is moving in the right trajectory. The Sadir has survived social upheavals over centuries. For Nataraja – the Dancing Shiva – the Universe is a dynamic ever-changing, Cosmic Stage.


Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy – Dance of Shiva – Noonday Press, NY 1957. – Malavika Sarukkai-Rasa, Rapture and its Enactment, 13 November 2018.

Fritjof Capra – The Tao of Physics, Shambala Publication, NY, 1975.

Kamil Zvelebil – The Smile of Murugan, BRILL, 1973.

Douglas M, Knight Jr – Balasaraswati – Her Art and Life, Wesleyan University Press, 2010.

T.M. Krishna – Sebastian and Sons, Westland Publications, Chennai, 2020.

Jens Richard Giesdorf/Yutian Wong – The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, Google Books, January 2010.

Janet O Shea – At Home in the World: Bharatanatyam on the Global stage, Wesleyan University Press, May 2007.

Sasakiya C. Kersenboom (University of Utrecht) – Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1987.

Swarnamalya Ganesh – A Peek Inside the Attic, lecture/demonstration at the Department of Performing Arts, Ashoka University 12 April 2018.

Higgins, Jon B. – The Music of Bharatanatyam, American Institute of Indian studies, New Delhi, 1984.

Inputs from Guru Kalyanasundaram, Sri Rajarajareswari Bharatha Natya Kala Mandir, Mumbai.

Paul Younger – The Home of Dancing Sivan: The Traditions of the Hindu Temple of Citamparam, Oxford University Press.

Lakshmi Viswanathan – Rukmini Devi – Visionary Artiste/Hindu, Chennai, 28 February 2020.


1) Rukmni Devi at the 1966, Salzburg World Theosophy Congress. Photograph: Nathaniel Altman, NY.

2) Theosophists attending the ‘Lotus Sutra” Bharatanatyam Dance Preview event at the Forum Art Gallery, Adyar, Chennai.

Left to right: Eliana Grandoss (NY), Pablo Ruiz (Cuba), Veena Ramachandran (Adyar), Arni Narendran (Mumbai), Michael Hass (Netherlands), Anita Ratnam – Choreographer and Dancer (Chennai), Shalini Biswajeet (Forum Art Gallery Director), Marja Artamaa (Finland, International Secretary of the Theosophical Society). Photograph: Asha J. Kumar, Forum Art Gallery.

Share Post
Written by

Arni Narendran began his career as a Radio and Print journalist. He moved to the Banking Industry where he stayed put for four decades. and won Banking Awards at Shanghai and Dubai. He continues to serve the Industry as a Banking consultant for Banks targeting clients at the Bottom of the Pyramid- the marginalised. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1976 and served as the Manager of the International Theosophical Youth Centre at the Adyar, Chennai Headquarters. He is presently the Honorary Treasurer at the Blavatsky Lodge, Mumbai and a regular speaker. He contributes to journals across the world in content relating to Theosophy and metaphysics. A keen student of Art History, he is a practitioner of the Ananda Kriya Yoga, and has been directly initiated by the late Swami Kriyananda.-founder of the Expanding Light Retreat, Nevada-California.

No comments