No one can say when Bharatanatyam came to be practised for the first time. There are many myths connected with the dance. It has been said by many that this dance form had the name ‘sadir’. Some say, that the term came from ‘chaduru’, a Telugu word meaning ‘court’ or ‘sabha’. In that case, dances presented only in courts or sabha-s should have been called sadir, but this type of dance was prevalent in temples, even before it entered into the royal courts. In fact, sadir has another meaning: ‘beauty’. Saint Arunagirinatha says “Sadiraayirunda Rati Maami” and Nammazhvar says “Sadir ila madavaar” (meaning ‘beautiful young damsels’). The art of dancing that was very beautiful was called sadir. The devadasi-s, the custodians of this dance form, barring a few, did not call their art sadir. The famous dancer Pudukottai Ammalu Ammal signed her last will and testament as “Bharatanattiyam Pudukkottai Ammalu”. The name ‘Bharatam’ is said to have come down from sage Bharata.
The term ‘bharata’ also means ‘a dancer’. This was very much in use in literature as well as in the conversations of devadasi-s. To quote some composers and scholars, Arunagirinatha says ‘Bharatacchilambu’ and ‘Vidhamigu bharata sura vanitaiyar’. Kumaraguruparar’s Sakalakalavalli Malai speaks of ‘Pannum Bharatamum’, Seera Puranam of Umaru Pulavar says, “Bharatam aadidamum Geetappannoli arangum”. Inscriptions tell us that Kopperunchingan held the tile ‘Bharatam Valla Perumaan’ and one among many titles of Hoysala Vishnuvardhana was ‘Sakala Bharata Vidya Hridaya’. We can go on citing hundreds of such usages. Next we come to the important issue of who coined the term ‘Bharatanatyam’. An excellent article by the late Dr. Arudra, appeared in Sruti 27/28 (December 1986/ January 1987).
Before discussing the dance, he quoted first from Rukmini Devi’s writing in the Kalakshetra Journal, Vol. XVII - 1977): “So far as I know, I was the first person, when I began to dance in the early 1930s to give the (new) name to the dance and since then the word Bharatanatyam has been acceptable in common use.” He questioned this statement. Rukmini Devi had her first real introduction to this art only on 1 January 1935. She recorded this fact (28th Conference Souvenir of the Music Academy). A person who by her own admission, did not understand the art until after she encountered Meenakshisundaram Pillai and his disciples (Sabharanjitam and Nagaratnam) in 1935, could not have thought of naming it as Bharatanatyam earlier than that year.
Dr. V. Raghavan, during a dance seminar organised by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi, stated that he first started using the name Bharatanatyam and it soon became popular. Arudra wrote that V. Raghavan actually used the word Bharatanatya for the first time in his 1933 article captioned Bharatanatya Classical Dance – The South Indian Nautch (in the background of the controversy over the art) (Sound and Shadow – Madras, Vol. II, Issue 6, 1933).
A leading dancer wrote in The Hindu (dated 7.12.1997) that, “it was in the mid thirties that E. Krishna Iyer first coined the term Bharatanatyam for the Sadir dance”. There are numerous references to Bharatanatya by earlier writers. Palkuriki Somanatha in his Panditaaraadhya Charitamu mentions, “Bharatanatyamunu chakkaga nadipinchi”. Purandaradasa (15th century), in his devaranama, Aadidano Ranga clearly says: “Rambhe Oorvasi ramaniyarellaru chandadim Bharatanatyagala nadisi”. Vipranarayana Charitamu, a Yakshagana (1669) of King Vijayaraghava Nayaka of Tanjavur says, “Devadevee devaraku Bharatanatya sangeetaadi vidyanna vinupinchu”.
In the Tamil work Sokkanathasami Vannam (1685) we find this description: “Maruvum rasata sabhaiyul Bharata natanam idubavar Sokkar”. Mannip-padikkarai Kuravanji (1775) is another work that speaks about Bharatanatya: “Ati roopa mohana vanitaiyar abhinaya Bharatanattiyam puriya”. P. Raghavaiah Charry’s monograph, ‘A Short Account of the Dancing Girls treating concisely on the general principles of Dancing and Singing with the translations of the Hindo songs’ (dated 3.12.1806) states:
“It is slated that Bharata Nateya or dance of the devadasi should be composed of 5 Angas or parts”. When the wedding of Raja Bhaskara Setupati of Ramanathapuram took place on 13.5.1888, Ramalinga Kavi composed a Kummi and in that we find, “Singamidaiyotta Tangak Kanakambujam Sreerangam Janaki Nagarattinam paadagam tandai silambolikka vanda Bharatanattiyam neer kalikka”. Records show that dancers also used the word Bharatanatya to describe their dance. Opposing the proposal of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a letter from Rudraganika Sangam, Madras, signed by Bangalore Nagaratnam, Salem Tayaramma, T.M. Krishnaveni and others, was sent on 5.11.1927 to the members of the Legislative Council. It mentions, “You will admit that many of us are devotees to the arts of music and Bharatanatya.
A few of us are able to perform Kalakshepam to the public.” In 1910, a devadasi attached to the Ponnambalavanesar Temple, Colombo wrote a book, Uruttira Ganikaiyar Kathasarat Tirattu, in which, while giving her own bio-sketch, the author, K. Anjukam says, “… Easwara Varudam Tai 28 Vellikkizhamaiyanru, pottukkatti, Mayavaram Kandasami Nattuvanaridam Bharatanattiyap payirchi nadandadu…” Another devadasi attached to the Ulsoor Someswara temple, Venkatasundara Sani, in her work in Sanskrit (1908) wrote, “Someswarasya agre sthitam Bharatanatyam karayet”. Mahakavi Subramania Bharati wrote, “Paattum seyyulum kottiduveere – Bharatanattiyak kuttiduveere.” Poet KÄrai Muhammad Yusuf (1911) goes on to say: “Paangaana Bharatanattiyam ivarkku paramparaiyaal vanda sottu - enni paaraamaley neerum nerunginaal podum - pocchudaioo umadu sottu,” in his DasigaÄ¼in Mosak Kummi. The Dutchman, Jacob Haafner (1754/1809), who lived for more than thirteen years in India and Sri Lanka, spoke Tamil. He wrote in his autobiography (1807) that he fell in love with a “Bharatanatya dancer” in 1786. A Jesuit missionary, who first used the term ‘devadasi’ in European literature says (1713) that he baptised “a devadasi, who was a professional in Bharatanatyam”. It is clear that the term Bharatanatyam was very much in use, at least from the 12th century. So all other claims are false.
(The author is a scholar, writer and raconteur on music and dance)