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Bharatanatya Sastram-Tracing the history

Tracing the history of an art form

The Bharatanatya Sastra like other arts had its origin in Sanskrit. Believed to have been created by Brahma Deva, the art of dance and drama that has evolved over the centuries is here to stay.

S. N. Sriramadesikan

NATYA SASTRA was created by Brahma Deva, as the “Fifth Veda” compiling the quintessence of geetham (Song) instrumental music (Vadhyam), dance (Abhinaya) and rasa (Feelings) found in the four Vedas.

This is indicated in Chapter 1 of Bharata Sastra. The first letters of the three words Bhava, Ragha and Talam in Sanskrit (Bha + Ra + Tha = Bharatam) were linked together and that gave us the name “Bharatha” the art of dance and drama.

This is revealed in a play “Sangalpa Sooryodhayam” Written by Shri. Vedhandha Desika (1300 A.D) Nandikeswara (300 A.D) wrote Bharatarnavam and Abhinaya Tharpanam in which he had dealt with elaborately on the art of Natya.

In Sangam Literature, there is no specific mention about works on dance/drama. But subsequent authors have mentioned in their texts, the works pertaining to Natya Sastra. This is confirmed by the fact that in “Silapadhikaram”, it is stated that Madhavi danced, strictly according to Natya Sastra (Nataga Nanool). There are also authentic pieces of evidence for this in “Yapperungal Urai”, “Vazhichezitriyam”, “Poigaiyar Nool”. Researchers say there were several ancient works of literature on dance/drama. But, they all perished due to efflux of time.
In “Silappadhikaram”, we find the greatness of dance. Ancient dancers were well versed in all the 64 art forms. Dances exclusively meant for the kings were called “Vethial” and the others “Common dance”.

After the first dedication ceremony in the royal court, the dancers were conferred the titles “Thalaikkol”. The special features of dance can be witnessed from the paintings of Sithanna Vasal, in Pudhukottai district, Karnas and Muthras were witnessed in Chindambaram and Tanjavore temples. The architectural and scultural beauties in the Vaikunda Perumal temple of Kancheepuram reveals the grandeur of this ancient art. In Telugu land where the Vedic religion existed, during Yagas and Yagnas, gods like Dig Balakas Navagrahas, Pancha Boothams were worshipped in different styles and forms of dances. Lord Shiva was known for worship through various forms of dances. These can be seen in the Natya Sastras.


In Telugu land where Buddhism was practised, song and drama formed part of worship, Buddhists dedicated girls from their families solely for performing dance before gods and deities in temples. These girls were engaged in the profession till they were married and settled.

We can see the various postures and forms of dance in the carvings and sculptures in the Buddhist stupas in Amaravathi and the greatness and beauty of sculptural works in the Nagarjuna Gonda mountain caves.

In 1300 A.D. during the reign of the Kakatiya kings, dance flourished greatly in the Telangana region. Joyu the Commander-in-Chief of the Kakatiya King Ganapathy Devar, was a great hero and also a man of great talent and proficiency in art and dance. He wrote a famous Natya Sastra known as “Niruthya Rathnavali”. In this, he dealt with Bharathanatyam and all other tradional forms of dances that were in vogue in that country. There are several similarities between the formal Sastra Natyas and the traditional street folk dances.

Researchers consider poet Basar as a pioneer of literary drama in Sanskrit. He dates back to poet Kalidasa. His dramatical works bear testimony to the fact that he was proficient in Natya Sastra. He belonged to 300 B.C. One can thus infer that Bharatha’s Natya Sastra had its origin in 200 B.C. Poet Kalidasa (100 A.D) wrote the Sanskrit drama ‘Malavikagnit Mithiram’ in which he portrays a dancer as the he heroine.
Palm leaves / Manuscipts

Poet Manavalli Ramakishna collected palm leaf manuscripts pertaining to Bharatha’s Natya Sastra. He conducted an extensive research and brought out a publication through the Baroda University. Most of the palm leaves collected by him belonged to South India.

Natya Sastra was created by the trio – Sadhasivar, Brahma and Bharathar. Each contributed 30,000, 12,000 and 6,000 slokas respectively. It is not the beginning nor was it the original one. It is more a guide book. Gowri, Vasuki, Saraswathi, Narada, Agasthiya, Vyasa and the disciples of Bharatha also contributed to the creation of Bharatha Sastra, says Saratha Dhanayar in his book “Bhava Prakasika”. Vedic religion did not patronise Bharatanatya. Natya Sustra says that the art of dance is divine and was a creation of Brahma Deva.

Yet, sruthis, smiruthis and other Dharma Sastras held dancers in low esteem and considered those practicing the art as mere actors!

Saint Bharatha learnt Natya Sastra from Brahma Deva and on his advice taught the art to his one hundred sons. But they caused great insult and indignity to the art by their disgraceful behaviour and attitude, acts and deeds. As a result they lost their charm and character and landed in indignity and ignominy! As Saint Bharatha did not suggest a remedy or recourse to the curses of the saints on his sons, it seems he himself admitted that the actors as a race were a condemned lot.

(The author Hon. Secretary of the South Indian Sanskrit Association, Chennai, has translated into Tamil Bharata’s Natya Sastra.)
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1.Ashtanga Sangraham, Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita Ayurveda, Sanskrit (25,000 Slokas) Translated into Tamil and published by the Government of Tamil Nadu in Six Volumes containing about 6,400 pages.

2.Tirukkural Sanskrit Translation with Tamil and English exposition.

3.Naladiyar Sanskrit Translation with Tamil and English exposition.

4.Subramania Bharatiar’s works Sanskrit translation with English exposition.

5.Pathuppattu (Sangam Literature), Thirumurgatrupadai and Mullai Pattu Sanskrit Translation.

6.Ettu Thogai (Sangam Literature), Paripadal Sanskrit Translations.

7.Silapathigaram Sanskrit Translation

8.Avvaiyar Needhi works – Sanskrit Translation

9.Andrakavi Vemana Pathiyams – Sanskrit and Tamil Translation

10.Ezhu Nadaga Kathaigal (Short Stories of Seven Sanskrit Dramas) in Tamil

11.Sri Krishna Leela (Stories of the Lord Krishna from Childhood) in Tamil

12.Irumozhi Ilakkia Inbam, a collection of Literary articles in Tamil

13.Authorship of Mahabaratha – A Criticism in Tamil.

14.Krishna Katha Sangraha (Sanskrit Poetry)

15.Desika Mani Sathagam (Sanskrit Poetry) life of Vedantha Desikan.

16.Thiruppavai – Sanskrit Translation.

17. Bharata Natyasastra 6,000 Slokas in Sanskrit – Tamil Translation. A Government of Tamil Nadu Publication.

18.10,000 pages has been written and published till now.

19. Translation of Kamba Ramayanam ( Bala Kandam) in Sanskrit.