This is a dance form which cannot be adequately danced by anyone without reverence for technique and for spiritual life. It is an art that lifts one from temporal to eternal values. Dance has special mention in two important Tamil works Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai of the Sangam age ( 500 B.C )
The author of 'Natya Sastra' is undoubtedly the Rishi who was initiated by Brahma himself in the art of Dancing.All the important styles of Indian classical dances are based on the rules laid down by Bharata Muni in his treatise.
Hence each of these styles are a regional variation of Bharatha natyam. However, what we now call Bharatha natyam is ,in fact, strictly traditional and purest form of dance. This dance form has survived in the southern part of the sub continent in spite of centuries of social and political upheavals. This 3000 year old art is still as fresh and fascinating as it must have been when it inspired the sculptors who have left their imagination on stone. Thus India became a land where the teaching of the Rishis and Saints was imparted not only through learning and philosophy but through arts, music and dance.
Bharathanatyam is perphaps the oldest among the contemporary classical dance forms of India. Its claim to antiquity rests not on the name, which is derived from the word "Bharatha" and thus associated with the Natyasastra, but on the overwhelming literary, sculptural and historical evidence available.
Among the many forms and styles, there is one which is called the ekaharya lasyanga in the Natyasastra. In this form, there is one actor playing many many roles. The Natyasastra in this context, also speaks of the actor as the narrator. Instead of many actors presenting a dramatic story, the solo actor presents, through abhinaya, the particularly dominant state - Sthayi Bhava.
Bharatha Natyam is a composite art, whose message is not merely to the senses, but to the soul of the dancer and of the perceiver. Due to this, one could comprehend that Bharatha Natyam is an art that conveys spiritual expression. This dance form cannot be adequately danced by anyone without reverence for technique and for spiritual life. It is an art that lifts one from temporal to eternal values. The intimate association of dance with religion and as a ritual, a form of worship in the temples is well established. The institution of the Devadasis, servants of the God, contributed in perpetuating and preserving the art. In ancient times, the system of dedicating young dancers to the temples as devadasis seems to have prevailed.
Dance has special mention in two important Tamil works Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai of the Sangam age ( 500 B.C - 500 A.D ).
The sacred texts of the Shaivagamas prescribed the mode of worship and referred to the consecration of dancing girls in the service of the gods. The temples were not only places of communication between man and God, but also strongholds of the Arts.
In the beautiful Nata-Mandapas (dance-halls) of the magnificient temples, the devadasis used to perform ritual dances as votive offerings to the presiding Dieties.
The present BharathaNatyam can be traced back to this form. It has been established from the scluptural evidence, that of technique of movement which this style follows can be traced back to the 5th century, the position common to the classical dance ( margi style ) was the ardhamandali with the out - turned knees. By the 10th century A.D. , this basic position was common to dance styles from Orissa to Gujarat and from Khajuraho to Trivandrum. From about the 10th century A.D. in sculptures of dance, we find that basic position of the lower limbs is common to relics in particularly every part of India.
.After the 10th century, Bharathanatyam seems to have developed chiefly in the South and gradually came to be restricted to what is now known as Tamil Nadu. From chronicles we learn that the Chola and the Pallava kings were great patrons of the arts. Raja Raja Chola not only maintained dancers in the Temples in his kigdom, but was a very great connoisseur of music and dance. The tradition of the Natyasastra appears to have been widesprread. The accuracy with which the artists of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur have illustrated the karanas of the fourth chapter of the Natyasastra is adequate proof of their understanding of the laws of the dance movement.
Along with the building of the imposing temples in the South under The Pallava and Chola rulers ( 4th to 12th A.D), the arts of music and dance received a great fillip. The tradition was kept alive by rulers , specifically, the Pandya, Nayak, and the Maratha, till the end of the nineteenth century. It was the institution of the great dance teachers known as Nattuvanars who preserved the ancient dance art from generation to generation.
About the 14th century A.D. we find that technical illustrations of dance movements were made in the Sarangapani temple at Kumbakonam and in the four magnificent gopurams of the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. Illustrations of the charis and the karanas are found in temples of Gangaikonda, Cholapuram, Kumbakonam, Madurai and Kancheepuram. The sculptural evidence can be supplemented amply by the Sastras, textual criticisms, historical chronicles and creative literature.
Between the 14th and 17th centuries, there was much repetition of dance poses already sclupted in the three main temples mentioned above. From the creative literature in Tamil, Telugu and Kanada, one can easily conclude that the dance was a vigorous and living art. During the Maratha rule ( AD 1674 - 1854 ) over Thanjavur the art of Bharatha Natyam received considerable fillip. King Shahaji ( 1684 - 1711 ) wrote nearly five hundred padams ( short poetic compositions ). These marathi padams are found in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts in the Telugu script. These manuscripts are preserved in the Saraswati Mahal Library at Thanjavur. King Tulaja II ( 1763 - 87 ) wrote the Sangitasamrita which deals with adavus, the basic dance steps, is a landmark in the dance literature. During the reign of King Sarfoji II, the tradition of bharathanatyam received its definite shape from the Thanjavur Quartet Chinayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, the four brothers who were disciples of the composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the trinity of Carnatic music.
But the story is not complete without mentioning the contributions of the South Indian Saint poets and musicians. Bhakti or devotion, at its finest and purest, was infused into the the tradition by these poets. The literary content of Bharathanatyam was provided by them and their musical compositions determined the repertoire of Bharathanatyam. Between the period 1800 to 1920, bharatha natyam as a performing art took a back seat. The performances used to extensively take place during Vasanthotsavams (temple festivals)
In 1926, a young lawyer, E. Krishna Iyer played an important role in the ervival of Bharatha Natyam. He used to perform on various platforms by doning the attire of female bharatha natyam dancer to remove the stigma attached to the art. In 1927, E. Krishna Iyer organised the first All India Music Conference at Madras, during the session of the Indian National Congress and as an offshoot of the conference, the Music Academy was born in 1928. For a decade he worked as one of its secretaries. National spirit coupled with the freedom movement was responsible for the increase in the revival of performances at various places. Some of the exponents in those days were Pandanallur Jayalakshmi and Jeevaratnam, Dance Queen Balasaraswathi, Smt. Rukhmini Devi Arundale, disciples of Pandanallur Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Ram Gopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai and others. Since then, till now, a host of legendary figures have contributed to the centuries old art - Bharatha natyam.