History of Bharathanatyam

Bharathanatyam is thought to be created by the sage Bharata Muni who wrote the Natya Shastra, the Bible of the classical Indian dance. It is also called as the fifth VEDA. Legend has it that Lord Brahma created this fifth Veda ('Panchamaveda') at the behest of Gods and Goddesses, which would be simple for the common man to understand. Lord Brahma gave the ' Natyaveda'  to the sage Bharatha to popularize to this Veda on earth. Hence came to be known as Bharathanatyam. Lord shiva, who is considered as supreme lord of dance,  performed this dance with his wife Parvathi.

In ancient times it was performed as dasiattam , by temple Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in the temples are based on Bharathanatyam dance postures. Examples of such temples include:


Rameswaram temple, Tamil Nadu


Srisailam, Andhra Pradesh



Srirangam, Tamil Nadu


Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu



Tiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu


Until the early years of the century, Bharathanatyam was performed in the temples as part of a daily ritual worship. Later  the dance entered the Royal courts of South India.

From chronicles, it is learnt that the Chola and the Pallava kings were great patrons of the arts. Raja Raja Chola not only maintained dances in the Temples of his kingdom, but was a very great connoisseur of music and dance. The accuracy with which the artists of the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur  (Carvings of 108 adavus can be found in this temple) have illustrated the karanas of the fourth chapter of the Natyasastra is adequate proof of their understanding of the laws of the dance movement in those years. The patronage of Chola and Pallava kings towards the art of Bharathanatyam was kept alive by subsequent rulers, specifically, the Pandya ,Nayak, and the Martha, till the end of nineteenth century. It was the institution of great dance teachers known as Nattuvanars, who preserved the ancient dance art from generation to generation. The technical illustrations of dance movements were made in the several temples apart from that in Thanjavur. These include Sarangapani temple at Kumbakonam,  in the four magnificent gopurams of the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, temples of Cholapuram, Madurai Meenakshi temple and Kancheepuram.

During Maratha rule (1674- 1854 AD) over Thanjavur the art of Bharathanatyam received considerable fillip. King Shahaji (1684-1711 AD) 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 Saraswathi Mahal Library  at Thanjavur. King Tulaja II (1763-1787 AD) 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. From the creative literature in Tamil, Telugu, and Karnataka, one can easily conclude that the dance was a vigorous and living art.

Just like every dynasty in history has ups and downs, even Bharathanatyam was not immune. Between 1800 and 1920, it is stated that Bharathanatyam as a performing art took back seat and the performances used to take place only around Vasanthotsavams (temple festivals). In 1926, however, a young lawyer, E. Krishna Iyer played an important role in the revival of Bharathanatyam. He used to perform on various platforms by donning the attire of female Bharathanatyam dancer to remove the stigma attached to the art. in 1927, Krishna Iyer organized the first All Indian 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 (Free from British rule) 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, Smt. Rukmini Devi Arundale, disciples of Pandanallur Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Ram Gopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai and others. From then on to now, a host of legendary figures have contributed to the centuries old art of Bharathanatyam .

 Although over the years Bharathanatyam has been performed in India and abroad as theatre art from, it has not lost its flavor of spirituality.

Indian children growing up in the United States and elsewhere learn about Indian culture and religion through their study of Indian arts, especially Bharathanatyam. There are dance schools in United States established by teachers, who  are propagating this art from one generation to another with great dedication.

For further notes on history of Bharathanatyam, please refer to the following: