Bharata Natyam

Delinking, Digesting and Appropriating Bharata Natyam

Itihas, prachchanna and punarutthaan

(Loosely translated as History, Hidden, and revival)

By Ishwar (Ishwar ≠ God) Krupa (Krupa ≠ grace), we were privileged to hold Arangetrum for Bharata Natyam for our elder daughter in September 2013. That was the time when we decided to gift our daughter the book ‘Bharata Natyam’ compiled by Sunil Kothari which is an excellent introduction to this dance form.

This excellent book holds your hand and takes you into the inner corridors of mainly this dance form and also provides glimpses of the other art forms, all having their roots in Bharata Natyam, spelled out by Bharata Muni 2500 years back in his treatise Natya Shastra.

With a sense of pride, I would like to state that Bharata Natyam is perhaps the oldest, most sophisticated, and most extremely beautiful dance form in the world.

It’s the art of stage, drama, music, poetry, color, and rhythm, all nuanced together at the same time in the same performance. Even though its mainstay is the dance which certainly includes all of the above arts, its message is not merely for the senses but is for the Atma (Atma ≠ soul, please) of the dancer as well as of the perceiver.

When the dancer performs, flowers open in the hands of the dancer, and birds fly off from the tips of the fingers, the body sways, now in pride and now in devotion, each muscle of the face is transformed, and the eyes move in blandishments or scorn and the eyebrows express horror or suspicion, even as the whole face expresses different and often contrary feelings in the same breath. Such a dance-drama performed according to the most delicate nuances of a musical piece, or a poem, through the vehicle of one body, is surely unmatched in any art.

(Ref: Bharata Natyam by Sunil Kothari)

It includes all forms of dances and dance dramas that are in accordance with Natya Shastra. Bharata is believed by many to be an acronym of three words, Bha (meaning Bhava, emotion), Ra (Raga, melody), Ta (Tala, rhythm), and Natyam means dance form.

One can find thousands of inscriptions of various beautiful stances of dancers all over India in many mandirs, more so in the Southern part of India.

This art form has had its ups and downs, certainly due to invasions and colonization, but it is unbroken for thousands of years that has its roots in the Rigveda and 5000 years old Mohen-Jo-Daro figurine of a dancing girl.

Today’s Bharata Natyam, with some changes as compared to its traditional avatara, has its roots in the efforts for revival during the Maratha regime in the 18th century at the hands of four brothers known as Thanjavur Quartet.

During the British regime, it did decline because of the obvious animosity of the colonizers toward any precious Indian traditional heritage. However, it did not die due to efforts by a few individuals and families of many different backgrounds who worked very hard to preserve and pass on this ancient knowledge to the next generations. We Indians owe a huge debt to these nameless individuals without whose sacrifice, we would have lost this rich heritage.

And finally, due to the untiring efforts of people like E. Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kalanidhi Narayanan, Balasarasawati, etc. who all worked with complete devotion, Bharata Natyam was revived and is now thriving, both nationally as well as internationally.

It was the profound debut performance of Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1935 that changed the course of itihas of Bharata Natyam and laid the foundation of Kalakshetra in January 1936. Her reforms of costume, stage setting, musical accompaniment, and thematic content overcame the objections of the orthodox community, which earlier considered that Bharata Natyam, which itself was the result of a negative campaign run by the British, was vulgar and was not meant for upper-class communities.

Her approach and single-minded devotion to restoring the full spiritual potential of this ancient art form led to what became popularly known as the Kalakshetra style of Bharata Natyam. Not only that, soon she attracted many great artists and musicians to work with her and trained many generations of dancers cutting across all classes of the community.

Though operated like a modern institution, it functioned as a traditional gurukula, focusing on prayers to the deity Ganapati, vegetarianism, and a guru-shishya relationship. Now, far from being dead as intended by colonizers, the Church, and their Indian sepoys, Bharata Natyam again became well established as a spiritual art form and started to achieve acclaim throughout India and overseas.

Kalakshetra grew into a university with a large campus in Chennai and in January 1994 Parliament, by an act, recognized it as an Institution of National Importance.

Perhaps the greatest monument to Rukmini Devi is the manner in which the dance she brought out of the shadows has flourished and grown. The rhythms of Bharatanatyam in the Kalakshetra style may be heard on almost every continent on the earth. Equally or sometimes better known are her dance dramas (she composed more than 30 of them) which are still performed with reverence and strict adherence to her choreography. They have, each one of them, retained their freshness and beauty, even sixty years after some of them were created. They are still being performed and retain the power to enthrall the audiences and to create a sense of the temple on the stage, which was her intention. She brought alive mythology and lore through the finest sensibilities in art – be it in costumes, music, stagecraft, and of course in the dance itself.

Thanks to the complete dedication of these supremely dharmic individuals, today Bharata Natyam has achieved an exalted status and enviable popularity. Learning of this and related art forms is considered today a status symbol for many. In such a short period of fifty years, from the precincts of the temples, Bharata Natyam has reached the masses of all classes.

Process of Delinking, Digestion, and appropriation

Rajiv Malhotra describes in his seminal book ‘Breaking India’, how the process of delinking, digesting, and appropriation of India’s ancient parampara (traditions), sacred texts, etc. takes place. In 2005, Leela Samson, a Christian, was appointed as the new director of Kalakshetra. In 2006, she began the process of delinking Bharata Natyam from its adhyatmik (adhyatmik ≠ spiritual) roots with her completely unconvincing explanation. In the same year, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the head of the Art of Living foundation, expressed his concern over her attempt to thwart the participation of Kalakshetra students in the inaugural function of a ‘Health and Bliss’ religious course being conducted by him in Chennai, by stating that ‘this function is concerned with Hindu religion, so Kalakshetra students need not participate in it.

Following this incident, an article was published in Hindu Voice that claimed that under her leadership, most of the Vinayaka images for which regular pujas had been historically conducted by the students, were removed. Only after a lot of criticism, she replaced just one image.

She also ordered all prayers to the deity to be stopped, and the clothes adorning the deities were removed. As this progressed into a major controversy, Samson was forced to react but denied all the charges. She claimed that ‘Kalakshetra never had idols that were worshipped. A lamp was all that was lit in every place we worshipped, according to Theosophical principles and the highest philosophical principles upheld by our elders’.

(Breaking India, by Rajiv Malhotra)

At another place in his book, Rajiv Malhotra also talks about Father Francis Barboza, a prominent Roman Catholic priest, and dancer of Hindu art forms, who is also considered as someone who had a big role in digesting and appropriating our paramapara. Father Barboza, the dancer of Hindu art forms, confesses that the main difficulty he faced was in the area of technique concerned with what is Indian classical dance’s unique feature, namely, the hand gestures (hasta) and postures.

He states:

I could use all of them in the original form except for the Deva hasta [hand gestures] because the nature and significance of the Bible personalities are totally different and unique. Hence, when I wanted to depict Christ, the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), I drew a blank. I realized that I had to invent a new Deva Hasta to suit the Divine personalities and concepts of the Christian religion. This was a challenge to my creative, intellectual, and theological background. Armed with my knowledge of Christian theology and in-depth studies of ancient dance treatises, I then introduced a number of Deva Hasta to suit the personalities of the Bible. These innovations succeeded in making my presentation both genuinely Indian and Christian in content and form.

Rajiv Malhotra continues; Dr. Barboza has digested into Christianity the Bharata Natyam by inventing the following Christian mudras: God the Father; Son of God; The Holy Spirit; The Risen Christ; Mother Mary; The Cross; Madonna; The Church; and The Word of God; as well as two postures: Crucifixion, and The Risen Christ.

This strategy is quite similar to the development of Christian Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Muslim Yoga by western and Muslim practitioners who take what they want from yoga but reject or replace any symbols or concepts that are explicitly Hindu.

Malhotra provides another example in his book, that of the Kalai Kaveri College of Fine Arts, founded by a Catholic priest in 1977 as a cultural mission. He received patronage from various sources and sent out priests and nuns to learn from the unsuspecting Hindu gurus. The college claims to offer ‘the world’s first, off-campus degree program in Bharathanatyam’, with another program in south Indian classical music (both vocal and instrumental).

Malhotra contends that it is backed and funded as a major church campaign. The Tamil Nadu government is also actively funding and promoting it. You find the following information on its homepage;

The historical work of publishing the Tamil Epic “Yesu Kaviam” on the life of Christ written in the popular, traditional, yet simple poetic style of Tamil literature by Poet Laureate Kannadhasan, in 1982, has drawn the attention of the entire Tamil-speaking world admiring Kalai Kaviri for this monumental contribution to Tamil literature (6 Editions with more than 3,00,000 copies). “Nattuppura Isaiyil Namma Yesaiah” (The life of Christ in 114 Folk Dance Songs) in audio series, is a venture to give recognition and social status to the Folk arts. 

Its twenty-fifth-anniversary handbook, Resurgence, found on its website reveals their usual Christian approach of first praising Indian spirituality and then mapping it to Christian equivalents, such as the subtle use of the phrase ‘holy communion’, which has specific religious importance to Christians that might not be noticed by others. Rajiv Malhotra states that it starts out with respect for the Vedic tradition;

Music and dance, when viewed in Indian tradition, are fundamentally one spiritual art, an integral yoga, and science of harmony. . . . According to the Vedas, the Divine Mother Vak (Vag Devi) sang the whole creation into being. God’s eternal life force, Para Sakthi, entered, or rather, assumed the perennial causal sound Nada through the monosyllabic seed-sound Om (Pranava). Thereby, the phenomenal world with its multiple forms evolved (Now, observe the change in this narrative). This process of physical, vital, mental, and soul contact or holy communion with God aims at complete harmony, perfect integration, and absolute identification with God, in all His manifested as well as unmanifested Lila (divine play and dance) at the individual, cosmic and supra-cosmic levels of existence.

The same technique of first praising the Indian/Vedic roots and then navigating to digestion and subsequent appropriation into Christianity can be observed in Dr. Barboza’s approach as well.

There is another Christian Yoga that was founded by Brooke Boon in 2006 named Holy Yoga. She claims proudly on her website as well as in her writings and in her talks that;

Holy Yoga embraces the essential elements of yoga: breathwork, meditation, and physical postures. In all of these elements, Christ is the focus of our intention and worship. Our Christ-centered yoga philosophy doesn’t focus on what you have been, but on the person, you are becoming in Christ.

Rajiv Malhotra provides another example of Rani David, the founder of Kalairani Natya Saalai in Maryland, USA, (strategically located right next to a prominent Hindu temple) who is even more blatant about Christianizing the Bharata Natyam. Her website unabashedly expresses her hatred for Hindu symbols that are linked to Bharata Natyam, and her vow to remove them from the dance. Her avowed objective is to delink Bharata Natyam from Vedic roots.

This article exposes the delinking, digestion, and appropriation of only Bharata Natyam.

However, Rajiv Malhotra has explained these issues in his book ‘Breaking India’ citing instances beyond this art form. Some of our heritage up for appropriation include our Yoga, our sacred texts such as some Upanishads, many of our Puja rituals, and the whole Sanatana Dharma. Even our Tamil Rishi Kavi like Thiruvalluvar was claimed to be Christian.

It is important that we Hindus need to wake up and take back our heritage from those who stole them away and who are continuing to do the same without any fear.


Udit Shah
Udit Shah

I live in Canada since 2001. I am a Pharmacist by profession. Translated Rajiv Malhotra’s book “Breaking India’ into Gujarati. I also volunteer for some of his works, for Samskrit Bharati, for local Mandir activities etc.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. Intellectual Kshatriya does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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