How is it that an art form that was banned, has now become one of the most famous dance forms in the world? We live our lives everyday with small things changing here and then, but imagine someone’s dream, passion and job being torn apart just because of new power. Well, that’s what happened when the British invaded India, banning the amazing dance form called Bharatanatyam, but why?


Amongst the vast majority of dances such as hip hop, jazz, contemporary, Bharatanatyam is one that has prospered largely, amongst India and today this whole world. In 2019, Narthaki Nataraj, became the first transgender woman to be awarded the Padma Shri,which is the fourth highest civilian award in India. Narthaki Nataraj is someone who is deeply involved in the classical dance industry and has made many proud with her unbelievable achievements.  Bharatanatyam is a classical form of dance that originated in Tamil Nadu, India. It first began in South Indian temples, dating back to 300BCE, later gaining its own identity around the world. Bharatanatyam first obtained its name from two Sanskrit words, ‘Bharata’ coming from a mnemonic of words in Sanskrit that mean feelings and emotion, melody, rhythm and ‘Natyam’, which means dance. 


Many myths have said that Lord Brahma, known as the creator God in Hinduism, showed this form of dance to a sage called Bharata. Sage Bharata then put this holy form of dance into a text called the ‘Natya Shastra.’ The Natya Shastra is text that consists of thousands of verses that includes theories about different Indian classical dances, different forms of dances within Bharatanatyam itself, different poses, simple steps, expressions and gestures. However, Bharatanatyam was banned in 1910, by the British government. 


During the 19th century, when the British first began to rule over India, many forms of classical dance were not being practiced as often. Regardless, Bharatanatyam was one form of dance that was still performed but just in Hindu temples. Nevertheless, throughout the 19th century, Christians and British officials, felt as though the Devadasi culture (a Devadasi was a woman who dedicated her time to God and almost a servant to a God or temple for the rest of their lives) was associated with this form of dance, and had an attitude towards girls that performed classical dances as ‘prostitutes’, which tarnished their reputation. This then lead to the end of performing Bharatanatyam dances in temples and in India as whole in 1910, after an anti-dance movement was launched in 1892.


Our society could change so much with a snap of a finger for the better or for the worse, but these are the times when we see people you wouldn’t expect to unite and stand up for each other and what they believe. This classical form of dance revived soon after. Many Indians were worried that such an amazing, intricate form of dance would become forgotten, a classical artist himself, Krishna Iyer, fought against this discrimination. Krishna Iyer was later arrested and imprisoned for his actions. However, during his time in prison he convinced many to fight for Bharatanatyam to stay. Later, a Bharatanatyam choreographer under the name of Rukmini Devi was found by Iyer, who also did not want to let this iconic dance form die. Regardless of the fact that dancing was strictly forbidden in temples also, Esther Sherman, who was a dancer in America, came to India to learn classical forms of dance. In fact, she later adopted the name Ragini Devi and joined the movement to stop Bharatanatyam being banned. Finally, during the 20th century, this classical form itself was revived when Tamil migrants began dancing Bharatanatyam in British Tamil temples. 


Today now that we are in the 21st century, it is amazing to see how widely this classical dance form is taught, learnt and performed around the world. Bharatanatyam is performed in countries such as Germany, the UK, the US, Switzerland, India, Sri Lanka and many more. Just like any musical instrument and other dance forms, Bharatanatyam is also assessed by many different boards of examination, such as OEBL and OFAAL. These board examinations require students of any age and gender, to learn different steps, hand gestures and different dances from Bharatanatyam, through Grades 1- 8. In addition to this, students are also given the option to a Post Diploma grade, which allows students to teach Bharatanatyam to other people as well. Shaaru Kuna, tell us, ‘Having completed my Grade 8 for Bharatanatyam, at OEBL, makes me extremely proud. I’ve learnt so much from attending dances classes - it has given me more confidence and has allowed to express my feelings in other ways, rather than singing or playing music. I hope Bharatanatyam continues for many generations to come.’ 


Amongst a person's career in Bharatanatyam, they are bound to have performed on a stage in front of many people. This allows teachers and students to show parents, family members and others in general to see what the students have been learning. Whilst performing, the dancers wear a beautiful, coloured costume in many different forms. Although all costumes are formed from sarees and also worn in a similar way to sarees, there is an option to wear a skirt on the bottom or even specially tailored trousers. These costumes are accompanied by particular jewelry, around most of the dancers body, including their waist. In addition, to finish off the complete look, dancers wear makeup, that enhances their eyes and makes them look brighter. This often results in the dancers being more confident and expressing their expressions very well, captivating the audience's attention. 


There is a huge appreciation for people who have carried and are still carrying on this astounding art form, such as Rukmini Vijayakumar, who is mainly based in India, Sitara Devi, Saswati Sen. However, amongst all these amazing women there has been many men who have helped promote Bharatanatyam, such as Lachhu Maharaj and Bijiru Maharaj, Vaibhav Arekar, Praveen Kumar and Christopher Guruswamy. As we head into the future, we hope that this art form is continued for many generations.


By Varjitha Kunalan