The twin arts of dance and sculpture developed together in
close spiritual association with the concept of the Divine Being himself as a
dancer in Tamilnad. The fusion of these two arts dates back to the dawn of our
civilisation. The figure of a dancer unearthed in Mohenja-daro of
proto-historic India explains the genetic relationship between the various
dance styles of India. The pose of this icon is still found in the varied
dances of our country.* Some dances have been
mentioned as purely indigenous in Tolkappiyam.(1)We infer
from the description that they were rather rustic and had not attained high
development or codification.
The first well lighted epoch in the history of the Tamil
land is that reflected in the literature of Sangam (the first 3 or 4 centuries
A.D.).(2) In this age, the Panar and Viraliyar were said to
have been roving bands of musicians and dancers, who preserved the folk songs
and dances of an earlier age. Their dance seemed to have also included certain
hand gestures as mentioned in Bharata’s Natya Sastra. Thus a conscious
attempt to synthesise the indigenous pre-Aryan modes with those of the north
resulted in the development of the dance art, as seen in the later work
The dance sculptures not only reveal the origin and
evolution of the art in Tamilnad, but also show that the Tamils were free from
all linguistic inhibitions in their endless quest for knowledge. They derived
inspiration not only from Tamil but also from Sanskrit sources for the
development of their culture. Treatises on all arts written in Sanskrit were
in the normal course absorbed and preserved in Tamilnad. Translations and
abridged editions arose in Tamil.
The earliest extant literature on dramaturgy is said to be
the Natya Sastra by sage Bharata. (3) All the works that came
to be written on dance in the post Bharata period had the influence of the
Natya Sastra. Cilappatikaram is no exception to this.(4)
The very titles, Bharatasenapatiyam (5) and Pancabharatiyam
(6) mentioned as Tamil works in the commentary of
Adiyarkunallar prove the recognition that Bharata enjoyed in Tamil country.
All these works deal with the theory of dance; the practical aspect is seen in
the sculpture of Tamilnad.
The association of the various Gods with dance made it
necessary for the sculptor to study the Natyasastra before depicting these
deities in stone. This knowledge was one of the main factors that contributed
to the refinement of sculpture. The presence of an accomplished nartaki - the
dancer - attached to the temple induced the sculpture to create dance
sculptures. In turn, such sculptures remain as everlasting guides for
successive generations of dance enthusiasts. They served to codify and
preserve the art for all time. Among such closely inter-related creations, benefiting
each other, the most important is the karanam in the field of dance and
sculpture. It is a matter of pride for Tamilnad that it has been able to
preserve in pristine purity the Kashmiriyan sage, Bharata’s style of dance
in the form of sculpture. Though there are dance sculptures all over India,
such close adherence to the Bharata tradition cannot be seen anywhere else.
Karanam is a technical term, derived from its Sanskrit
route, kr - meaning ‘to do’. In short, it is a unit of dance which was the
basis for concert items in ancient times. The karanm is generally mistaken to
be a static pose. As it is a combination of the three elements, namely cari
(movement for the legs), nrtta hastan (gesture for hands) and stanam (posture
for the body), it is a full movement and not a static concept. Thus a karanam
can be compared with the adavu of contemporary dance. Just as many adavus make
a tirmanam and many tirmanams an item, according to the number of karanas
specified, they were called kalapaka, matrka, bhandaka, sañghataka and
To compare it with the components of language, the
elements of karanas are alphabets, the karanas are words and the rest are
phrases and sentences.
Bharata’s Natya Sasstra is the earliest extant literature
giving details about these karanas. Bharata has described 108 karanas in his
fourth chapter. In Adiyarkunallar’s commentary on Cilappatikdram a reference
to karanam is found. While describing the requisite qualities of the dance
master, llango says
" he is supposed to know the rules pertaining to the
two types of dances". (7)
These types are explained as santi kuttu and vinôda kuttu
by Adiyarkunallar. Santi küttu is of four types, namely sokkam, mey küttu,
avinaya kuttu and natakam. The explanation for sokkam is given as ' it is made
up of 108 karanas'. It is also called Suddha nrittam or abstract dance. Thus
the 108 karanas were commonly in practice in Tamilnad.
Apart from the literary evidence for the popularity of
Bharata’s karanams, the dance sculptures in the temples of Tamilnad prove
beyond doubt that the Tamils took great pains in preserving Bharata’s style.
Just as the earliest extant literature on karanas is the Natya Sastra, the
earliest extant visual representation of these are found in the
temple at Tanjore. The credit of identifying them as Bharata’s karanas
goes to Padmabhushan Dr. T. N. Ramachandran, the eminent archeologist. When
the Chola king Rajaraja built the Tanjore temple in the beginning of the 11th
century, dance art enjoyed such a high status in society that he had the
karana figures chiselled as sculptures in the first tier of the Vimana.
Natya Sastra was already about a 1000 years old during
Rajaraja’s time. It is quite possible that the karanas were developing on
new lines, some of them even becoming obsolete; it was his genius that gave
immortality to Bharata’s karanas by such sculptural codification. Thus we
owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Chola Emperor for this service in the
cause of dance art.
The karana figures in Tanjore are about two feet in height
and are found one after the other in a serial order as prescribed by Bharata.
Starting from talapuspaputam, there are only 81 figures found. Slabs for the
rest are found left incomplete. But it is beyond doubt that each sculpture has
been carved after a deep understanding of the description of the relevant
karanas as found in Natya Sastra as well as its commentary the Abhinavabharati,
written by Abhinavagupta.
Chronologically speaking, next to the Tanjore
representation, the karanas are found in the Sãrangapani temple at Kumbakonam.
These belong to a century and a half later than those at Tanjore. Here, though
all the 108 were carved, they are not in Bharata’s serial order, as we see
them to-day. But the most interesting feature is that under each figure, the
name of the respective karanam has been inscribed in Tamil Grantha script.
temple at Chidambaram marks the next phase in such sculptural
codification. The four gopurams were built during the course of three
centuries, 13th to 16th. All the 108 figures are beautifully carved in the
entrance of these gopurams. The eastern and western gopurams arc particularly
important as they have the inscriptions in Tamil Grantha script which are
transliterations of Bharata’s text pertaining to each karanam. This was the
first and perhaps the last time too that the karanas were carved with their
sütras inscribed in full. It is evident that these were not mere
architectural embellishments, but they were to guide the dance enthusiasts
with regard to Bharata’s work. It is really amazing that the work of the
scholarly sage of Kashmir had been transplanted in Tamil soil so effectively
without any linguistic, political or geographic barrier. This clearly shows
the spirit of assimilation of the Tamils to imbibe and foster all that is
A comparison of the karana figures in the three temples is
an interesting study. In Tanjore, there is no inscriptional explanation; in
Kumbakonam, we see the respective names of karanas below each figure. The high
water mark is reached in Chidambaram, where the whole sütras of Bharata have
been inscribed with the corresponding figures. The Tanjore figures depict Siva
with four arms; in Kumbakonam the figures are those of Sutraddra as can be
inferred from the label inscribed therein. The sculptures here are said to be
older than the present gopuram wherein they might have been fixed
subsequently. In Chidambaram, we find female figures in the form of
ardhasirpas, strictly following the serial order of Bharata’s work.
The four arms found in the Tanjore figures are often used
for symmetry; it is also wonderful to follow the way in which the animation of
the movement is shown through them. The first two arms show the beginning
while the other two, its course or end. *
Dance and Acrobatics
There are slight variations in the interpretation of
karanas in the three temples, but it is clear that the 108 karanas are the
same for both the sexes. There are no tandava and lasya karanas independently.
Some are certainly more graceful than a few acrobatic ones. But even these
gymnastic movements seem to be common for men and women. The karanas such as
sakatasyam, cakramandalam and gangdvataranam which are highly acrobatic in
nature are meant as exercise for the body to keep the dancer trim. It might
also be due to the merging of acrobatics and the art of dance which has been
natural during the course of history of dance in any part of the world. For
example, Curt Sachs, in his World History of Dance says,
“It is significant that in the old Egyptian, the same
word ‘hbj’ is used to designate the ordinary dance and also the
gymnastic exercise known as the ‘bridge’ which is frequently depicted on
the monuments of the middle and new kingdom.” (9)
The figure described here is the very same as the
karanam, cakramandalam as depicted in Chidambaram and Kumbakonam.
Parallels in Tamil and Sanskrit
Coming to the practical aspect of the karanas, it is
interesting to note certain parallels in Tamil and Sanskrit works. Natyasastra
describes stanam (a static posture for body) as a constituent element of
karana. The Tamil works describe the same as nilai. Apart from
Bharatasendpatiyam and Pancabharatiyam referred to in Adiyarkunallar’s
commentary on Cilappatikaram, Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer often follows the
Suddhananda Prakasam which is an early Tamil work on dance. Wherever the
complete quotations are not available, this work has been utilised to throw
more light on the subject. While describing the rules for the various kuttus,
Adiyarkunallar quotes the following from an early work:
"Aruvakai nilaiyum aivakai patamum
irenvakaiya vankak kiriyaiyum
varuttanai nankum niruttakkai muppatum
attaku tolila vaku menpa”
The six nilai are the same as the six stana of Bharata’s
work. Suddhanandaprakasam also gives the same names; they are: samam,*
The five padam or feet variations given in the Tamil work
are: samam,* udghatitam,*
kancitam,* kuncitam * and
sancaram.* The terms, kancitam and sancaram must be
the same as ancitam and agratala saitcaram respectively of Bharata’s work.
Of the sixteen angakriyas mentioned in the Tamil and
Sanskrit works, some are as follows:
The normal posture of feet is samakali in Tamil and samam
in Sanskrit.* Moving the feet in sama posture without
lifting is sarikai in Tamil and sarika in Sanskrit;*
Stamping with the heel, toe or sole is kurttanam in Tamil
and kuttanam in Sanskrit.*
Crossing the feet is suvattikam in Tamil and svastikam in
Encircling with one leg, the other foot which is steady is
vettanam in Tamil and vestanam in Sanskrit.
The four varttanai mentioned in the Tamill works are the
same as the four hasta karanas of Sanskrit; they are: apavestitam,*
upavestitam,* vyavartitam *and
The 30 nrtta hastas are all exactly the same as in the
Adiyarkunallar explains mey küttu as concerning love
themes; they are also called ahamargam are of three kinds, viz., desii, vadagu
and siñgalam. The same term Ahamarga (11) is seen in the
Sanskrit work. Bharatarnava of Nandikesvara.
While describing the dance that was performed by Madavi
during her Arangetram - maiden performance - Ilanko says:
“Kottiran tutaiyatôr mantila makak
kattiya mantilam patinonru pökki”.(12)
Here a reference to mandalam is found. This has been
explained by Adiyarkunallar as:
“Pancatala pirapantamakak kattappatta teciyottai oru
talattirku irantu parraka pattum tirvu onrumaka patinonru parrale teci
kuttai ati mutittu enka.”
The pancatala prabandam is a musical form which consisted
of five talas. Just as we have ragamalikas in our contemporary music, there
were talamalika compositions in ancient times, which seem to have been used
for dance. Madavi’s dësi dance appears to have consisted of eleven parts,
including the final tirmanam ( tirvu) which may be compared with the ‘coda’
of western music. For each of the five talas, and danced two parru or groups
of movements which may be compared to the nandi of our contemporary dance. It
is also said that the dance was in the form of mandalas. Again there is a
reference to mw.z4aIam in the same chapter; Ilanko says,
"..atanai aitu mantilattal" (14)
After describing the musical form, he says that it was
danced with the help of mandalas The term aitu is explained as 'beautiful’,
thus being used as an adjective to the mandala. But my humble submission is
that it is quite likely that the word aitu means the numeral five, thus
indicating that the piece was performed in the form of five mandalas.
The term mandalam has been elaborately dealt with in the
Natya Sastra. Though there is a mandala stsna or posture mentioned, this term
is also explained in a different context. A mandalam is a combination of a
group of caris or leg movements. Hence mandalam is a more complex concept than
even the karanam. While the karanam is made up of a cari, nrtta hastam and
stanam, the mandalam is made up of many caris. Unless the caris and karanams
are all perfectly understood, the mandalas cannot be deciphered. Hence, to
reconstruct or even to get a vague idea of what the dance of Tamilnad looked
like during the age of Cilappatikaram, a thorough knowledge of the karanas has
got to be our primary goal. A study of the karanas by the understanding of the
literature concerned has got to be guided by the study of dance sculptures.
Evolution of Karanas
The 108 karanas which had formed the foundation of the
dance of Tamilnad in ancient times underwent many changes as centuries passed.
The culmination of the process of assimilation of Bharata’s work together
with indigenous development is seen in Cilappatikaram. While describing Madevi’s
dance, Ilanko says,
“Nattiya nannull nankukataip pitittu". (15)
It is most likely that by Nattiya nannull he means only the
Natyasastra of Bharata which Matavi is said to have strictly followed. Coming
to the Pallava period, we find a sculpture of Siva in catusra posture of
Bharata in the Dharmaraja Rata in Maliabalipuram;
closely following this, there is adherence to Bharata’s work in Kailasanatha
temple at Kanchi. Later even the Saivo Agamas which dealt with the 64
tandavas of Siva had the influence of Bharata’s karanas; for example, the
ananda tandava figure of Nataraja is known as bujanagatrdsitam in the Agamas
and the Natiyasastra.
We have already seen the progress of sculptural
codification of Bharata’s karanas from the 11th century. Any art, which is
dynamic, develops, changes and grows on new lines with the passage of time; in
the 13th century, the desi style reached new heights by the merging of folk
arts and creative genius of the local artistes. Even this development was the
subject of literary codification; in his Sangita ratnakara, Sarangadeva
describes 36 desi karanas in the name of utpluti karanas, i.e., karanas with
Kudumiamalai inscriptions mention the terms, tiru,
pattataivu, mey kattataivu, tiruvalatti as dances. The term adaivu literally
means combination. The Tamil terminology for karana must have been evolved as
adaivu. Gradually the term and concept of karana as propounded by Bharata were
fading. During the time of the Nayak kings, innumerable dance sculptures were
added to our temples; that often they seem to be repetitions of the same
poses. From this we infer that they were meant to be only architectural
ornamentation and not meticulous interpretation of theory. During the 18th
century, the Maratha king Tulaja in his Sangita saramrta, recorded the adavus
of his time; by this time the ataivu had by usage become adavu.
Tulaja’s work may be termed as the basic text for what is
to-day known as Tanjore style of dance. The final phase was reached at the
time of the famous Nattuvanats, the Tanjore quartette; by then Bharata’s
karanas had almost become a dead concept for all practical purposes. It is a
sad fact that even some of the adavus which were prevalent as late as the 18th
and 19th centuries are lost to-day. Due to various political, economic and
sociological causes, we have lost the capacity to retain with us some of our
valuable artistic traditions. But there is no doubt that our art has the
invincible capacity to survive. The striking evidence for this is the fact
that Bharata’s karanas are still found scattered all over India, the Far
East and even in the West.
The explanation of the origin and evolution of dance based
on mythology cannot draw a clear line between fiction and fact. Only a
rational approach can satisfy those interested in art history. For others who
believe in “art for art’s sake” the technique of theory and practice is
the main attraction. Thus for all those who are interested in the spiritual,
emotional, intellectual, esthetic, historical or any other aspects of our
dance art, the sculptures are the primary source. They depict what was really
in vogue and are not mere fantasies. By studying them, we will not only regain
Bharata’s art in the real sense, but also have the profit of the 2000 years
of evolution this art has undergone.
Proper preservation of the dance sculptures in the country
is an immediate necessity. Spoiling them by white-washing and covering them by
careless constructions should be ruthlessly prohibited. An extensive survey of
all the dance sculptures of our country and the Far East will reveal valuable
facts. Evidently individuals cannot afford to do this. Educational foundations
and universities should come forward to undertake such gigantic projects. It
is high time that our universities had faculties for dance, giving the art its
due place in the academic world. In this connection, I would like to express
my gratitude to the Annamalai University for having given me an opportunity
to carry on my humble research.
1. Tolkappiyam ascribed to c. 300 A.D.: K.
A. Nilakanta Sastri, History of South India, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press,
1958. For a description of dances, see V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, Studies In
Tamil Literature and History, Luzac & Co., London, 1930, pp. 191-2: “Vallikkuttu....in
honour of Valli...popular among lower classes of society. Kalanilaiküttu was
of high order.. .arranged in honour of a young soldier... .His friends
presented his Virakkalal an anklet and indulged in a dance... Purattinaiyial
refers to Velan Veriyadal. The chief feature of this dance was to offer bali
or animal sacrifice.., in the course of such worship one got possessed with
the spirit of God and began to dance... .There was another kind of adal... .It
was a custom then that when once the King who led the host fell in battle, to
whatever side he might belong, other kings stopped the fight, surrounded the
dead body and honoured it by a kind of dancing in which skilled display of
swords was a feature.”
2. K. A. NILAKANTA SASTRI, op. cit., p. 100
3. See MANM0HAN Ghosh, The Natyasastra
(translation), 2nd ed., Manisha Granthalaya, 1967, Introduction, pp. lxiv-Ixv:
“Apart from the fact that Bhasa once mentions the Natyasastra, there is
plenty of evidence to show that the dramatist was acquainted with the contents
of the work. Under these circumstances the most probable date for Natyasastra
becomes about 500 B.C. because it was known to Bhasa.”
4. Ascribed to 600 AD. See K. A. Nilakanta
Sastri, op. cit., p. 82. See also ibid., p. 112: “In its present form the
work cannot be placed earlier than the fifth century.
5. Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar,
Cilappatikara mulainum... .atiyarkkunllar uraiyum. 5th ed., 1950, pp. 10, 79,
6. Ibid., pp. 9, 231.
7.“Iruvakaik kuittin ilakkanam
arintu “: see Arañkerru kdtal, line 12 (p. 57).
8. “Atu nurettu karanamutaittu “: see
Swaminatha Aiyar, op. cit., p. 80.
9. Curt Sachs, World History of Dance,
trans. Bessie Schonberg, Bonanza Books, New York, 1937, p. 221.
10. "Aruvakai nilaiyum aivakai
irenvakaiya vankak kiriyaiyum
varuttanai nankum niruttakkai muppatum
attaku tolila vaku menpa”
See Swaminatha Aiyar, op. cit., p. 81.
11. Dola hastha (a gesture for hands) and kuttanam
(movement for feet) are involved in dances pertaining to ahamarga (erotic
sentiment). See Nandikesvara, Bharatarnava, ed. and trans. by K. Vasudeva
Sastry, Saraswathi Mahal Library, Tanjore, 1957, pp. 34, 138.
12. “Kottiran tutaiyatôr mantila makak
kattiya mantilam patinonru pökki”.
Arakerruru katai, lines 144-5 (see Swaminatha Aiyar, op. cit., p.
13. “Pancatala pirapantamakak kattappatta teciyottai oru
talattirku irantu parraka pattum tirvu onrumaka patinonru parrale teci kuttai
ati mutittu enka.” Ibid., p. 119 (Arankerru katai).
14. "..atanai aituman tilattal", Arakerruru
katai, lines 153-2.
15. “Naltiya nannull nankukataip pitittu". Ibid.,
16. Viswanatha Pillai, Tamil-English Dictionary, 7th ed.,
Madras School Book and Literature Society, 1963.
Details of Demonstrations
* Denotes demonstration during the course of
reading the paper.
Demonstration after Reading the Paper:
1. Demonstration of Kararnas along with the projection of the slides of
(a) Representational: Gajakrsiditakam, Mayuralalitam.
(b) Abstract: Talapuwaputam, Kajiccinnam, Mattafli. (Lasya type);
Danpapadam, Aksbiptarecitam (Tandava type).
(c) Demonstration of Karanas evolution into Adavus.
2. Demonstration of Tirmanam choreographed with Karanas weaved into Adavus.
Example from “Meenakshi Kalyanam” Dance-drama.
3. Demonstration of the jati (rythmic syllables) inscription. This
inscription in Brahmi script at Aricalur has been recently deciphered and is
ascribed to the second century.
4. Demonstration of a Thillana which was composed simultaneously when the
Karanas wore included in the Choreography.