Teaching tradition or traditional teaching? – The area of conflict of the modern Bharata Natyam dancer

This blog is a revised excerpt from:

Bansal-Tönz, Scharmila: Examinations of the songs of Purandaradāsa (1484 – 1564) and their modern reception in Indian dance Bharata Natyam. Zurich: University, 2018.

Dissertation at the University of Zurich, 2017

© Copyright by Sharmila Bansal-Tönz. All rights reserved.

The author as a young dancer, 8.10.1993 (picture: A. Tönz)

Modern Bharata Natyam is part of a South Indian performance culture that has developed a peculiar way of self-perception and self-representation in the past. This is due to the way in which this performance tradition reflects itself: it is an art with a partially reconstructed, partially ideologized history. It claims to be regarded as an elitist art form and builds on a historical idea of “Indianness”. Therefore, in the art of Bharata Natyam there’s a coexistence of emphasizing an idealized self-image and simultaneously referring to an authentic tradition of antique origin. It’s a complex interplay of authenticity, ideology, classicism and history.1 The following remarks describe this artistic-historical conflict with the example of my own dance and music education.

My earliest memories of my dance lessons go back to the age of six, when I danced and studied in the children’s classes of my mother’s dance school. What started playfully became a serious dance training at the age of eight. My mother Vijaya Rao (1948 -) and her master Pattakudi S. Ramaswamy (1927 – 1997) shared the task of teaching me. Uncle, as I trustfully called him,was teaching me during his stays in Switzerland. From my perspective his teaching was very strict. I was afraid of his forthcoming arrival, afraid of failing and fearing his strictness. The lessons with him proceeded according to traditional methods in which he dictated the dance to be learnt while seated. Errors in my reproduction of the given choreography were harshly criticized. He made hardly any corrections or improvements in posture or mimicry. My music training in Carnatic music began around the same time as my dance training. This training also corresponded to Indian conventions in didactics and pedagogy. None of these trainings, neither in dance nor in music, included the instruction on underlying theories. Neither structures of dances nor basic terms such as e.g. rāgawere explained. I was taught only as much as my current level and my age necessarily required. Asking questions – as long as they did not deal with mythological topics – was not favored. The historical background of the tradition was also not part of traditional education.3 My knowledge about what I danced and sang consisted of fragments of talks that I had accidentally picked up during performances, in dance rehearsals, or at home.4 Instead I should focus on the pillars of traditional teaching (devo guru-brāhmaṇaḥ): respect for tradition, humility before the teacher, and an almost aggressively demonstrated thirst for knowledge. The significance of this education was reflected in the further planning of my dance career. It was important to my mother that I make my stage debut before puberty.5 I should focus on my basic dance training and complete my first repertoire “without distraction” in order to then proceed on the path to becoming a professional dancer.

This period of my artistic training is very closely linked to my mother’s Bharata Natyam career as a solo dancer, which peaked between 1987-1994. I remember a lot of newspaper articles that covered her success at that time. Some of them were very sensitive and knowledgeable and gave account of the sensuality of her dancing, of the transcendental experience of the spectator and the universal wisdom that this art radiated. Other articles were struggling for openness, but were not able to avoid a rather tendentious reporting that served all prevalent clichés. In many of these reports the terms “temple dance” and “temple dancer” (devadāsī)6 were found again and again. My mother kept trying to educate people that Bharata Natyam is not a temple dance, but a “sacral stagecraft”. The labeling “temple dancer” seemed to disgust her. As a young girl I derived from this that a “temple dancer” was something inferior and bad, to which one does not want to be compared to as a serious Bharata Natyam artist. I derived from this that what wedance is something sublime, pure, that belongs to the stages of this world and must be appreciated accordingly. We – at that time – were my mother and I. Later, in my juvenile years, I saw other dancers like Alarmel Valli (1956 -) or Vyjayanthimala (1936 -) and understood that this weincluded all these incredibly talented and good-looking artists too. It took me another 15 years to realize that this wewas a complex socio-historical construct. We, that are the educated South Indian women of brahmin descent. We, that are dancers who represent Bharata Natyam in a dignified way and spread its spiritual message into the world. We, that are the tradition-conscious students, trained by brahmin teachers, who ensure that Bharata Natyam remains in its supposedly ancient form.

As a graduate Germanist, my mother used her knowledge of the German language to explain this art and its meaning to the Western audience of her performances. This was a novelty in the German-speaking world in the 1980s and people were impressed. Even more because my mother visibly lives her dance tradition down to her fibers. What the audience did not know was that in this appearance my mother embodies all that defines Bharata Natyam of the twentieth century. She is a western educated, brahmanically raised and tradition-conscious dance artist, dance teacher and dance historian in one person. When she explains her art, she speaks of the 2500-year-old art, which is based on the ancient script of Nāṭyaśāstra.7 She speaks of the spirituality in her dance, the metaphysical meanings that can be read between the lines, and its consciousness-expanding power. These beliefs also influenced my own self-image as a young dancer: “I am a member of an ancient chain of tradition that goes back to Śiva-Naṭarāja, the god of dance.” According to my dance education, there was no reason to doubt the authenticity of what I have been taught, let alone ask questions about it. In my eyes, Bharata Natyam was a God-given art. I vaguely knew of its past as a temple dance, its subsequent temporary degeneration, and its resurrection as classical stagecraft. The Bharata Natyam tradition survived all of these stations as a solid and complete art form that had found its way to the present day over the past 2500 years, that was my conviction. It took many years of Indian studies and artistic emancipation until I dared to look beyond the facade of this “eternal” tradition. What stopped me was the fear of total disillusionment, the fear of de-constructing my own artistic identity. Bit by bit, the image of the century-old Bharata Natyam turned out to be a collection of ideologies, and the eternal tradition was no more than a fragmented history of a manipulated tradition. I did not understand until much later that this arbitrary manipulation was legitimized by the performance of tradition itself, and that it was this performance that gave its tradition the actual power of survival.8

Many young women experience their Bharata Natyam training the same way as I did.9 Students of Carnatic music or Bharata Natyam are still being educated in this illusion of a supernatural tradition. They are still taught that every part of the art they learn – though made by human hands – is godlike and therefore inviolable. An absolute paradox, considering that it was exactly the socio-cultural change and human arbitrariness, which determines the essence of today’s Bharata Natyam. Therefore, in order to understand the performance and staging of Bharata Natyam in its very essence, the juxtaposition of its developmental history, its self-expression, and the forms of its realization is absolutely necessary: ​​”Tradition, especially when associated with religious ritual and liturgy, is often regarded as an exemplary display of consistency. Which is in the middle of its own infertility, traditionally, by virtue of its own steadiness, reveals itself as the living manifestation of history: the living past. And this is why the existence of living tradition proves invaluable in the past, especially in those cases where no documentary evidence such as written accounts, iconographic depictions, poetic descriptions or other sources are available.”10

The described tension between Indian art traditions and their history has triggered a critical work-up in the past 15 years, which has been published in interesting works from authors such as COORLAWALA (1992), SRINIVASAN (1984), KERSENBOOM-STORY (1987), MEDURI (2001, 2005 & 2008), BAKHLE (2005), PETERSON & SONEJI (2008), SONEJI (2010 & 2012), SUBRAMANIAN (2008 & 2011), O’SHEA (2007) and many more. They all shed light on the various aspects of the political, social and aesthetic processes which are subject to the change of tradition in Indian dance and Indian music. These investigations are necessary both for positioning the Indian performance culture within the modern discourse of performance, as well as for any further performative study that is sought in this area. They are also an essential reading for any professional Bharata Natyam artist who sees herself as a serious representative of her art tradition.



Bakhle, J. (2005): Two Men and Music. Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition. Delhi : Permanent Black; Oxford University Press.

Coorlawala, U. A. (1992): Ruth St. Denis and India’s Dance Renaissance. In: Dance Chronicle 15 (2), S. 123–152.

Gaston, A.-M. (2005): Bharata natyam. From temple to theatre. New Delhi : Manohar.

Kersenboom-Story, S. C. (1987): Nityasumangali. Devadasi tradition in south India. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Kersenboom-Story, S. C. (2008): Marabu, the inherent flexibility of the Karnatak tradition: The example of Bharatanatyam. In: I. Viswanathan Peterson, D. Soneji (eds.): Performing pasts. Reinventing the arts in modern South India. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, S. 197–224.

Meduri, A. (2001): Bharata Natyam – What are you? In: A. Dils, A. Cooper Albright (eds.): Moving history / dancing cultures. A dance history reader. Middletown : Wesleyan University Press, S. 103–113.

Meduri, A. (2005): Rukmini Devi Arundale, 1904-1986. A visionary architect of Indian culture and the performing arts. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass.

Meduri, A. (2008): Temple stage as historical allegory in Bharatanatyam: Rukmini Devi as dancer-historian. In: I. Viswanathan Peterson, D. Soneji (eds.): Performing pasts. Reinventing the arts in modern South India. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, S. 133–164.

O’Shea, J. (2007): At home in the world. Bharata natyam on the global stage. Middletown : Wesleyan Univ. Press.

O’Shea, J. (2006): Dancing through History and Ethnography: Indian Classical Dance and the Performance of the Past. In: T. Buckland (ed.): Dancing from past to present. Nation, culture, identities. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press, S. 123–152.

Peterson, I. V.; Soneji, D. (ed.) (2008): Performing pasts. Reinventing the arts in modern South India. New Delhi : Oxford University Press.

Soneji, D. (ed.) (2010): Bharatanatyam. A reader. New Delhi : Oxford University Press.

Soneji, D. (2012): Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press.

Sorell, W. (1967): The dance through the ages. London : Thames & Hudson.

Srinivasan, A. (1984): Temple “prostitution” and community reform: an examination of the ethnographic, historical and textual context of the devadasi of Tamil Nadu, South India. Unpublished Ph. D. Cambridge University.

Srinivasan, A. (1985): Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance. In: Economic and Political Weekly 20 (44), S. 1869–1876.

Subramanian, L. (2008): Embracing the canonical: Identity, tradition, and modernity in Karnatak music. In: I. V. Peterson, D. Soneji (eds.): Performing pasts. Reinventing the arts in modern South India. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, S. 43–70.

Subramanian, L. (2011): From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy. A social history of music in South India. New Delhi : Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.

Thielemann, S. (2005): Itihāsa: the concept of history in India. In: S. Goswami, S. Thielemann (eds.): Music and fine arts in the devotional traditions of India. Worship through beauty. New Delhi : A.P.H. Publishing, S. 57–62.

Unni, N.P; Bharata (2003): Nāṭyaśāstra. Text with introduction, English translation and indices in four volumes. Vol. 1. Delhi : NAG, 2nd ed.



[1] See O’Shea (2006: 125).

[2] Rāga is a sound mode, to which a composition follows. The term is derived from the Sanskrit root rañj (Sa .: “coloring, blushing, glowing”). As a result, a rāga colors a composition and makes it shine. The rāga brings the word to life and emphasizes the emotional image (bhāva) of the composition so that the listener can feel the mood (rasa).

[3] I am speaking here of a so-called Western understanding of history, the contemporary history in linear progression, as well as of a so-called Indian understanding of history, which emphasizes criteria in the historical process that have created specific ideas and values. For more details on the different conceptions of history in the West and India see Thielemann (2005).

[4] How typical my own training as an example of traditional teaching is, is nicely illustrated by an experience report by the Indian dancer Lalli (n.d.), cit. in Sorell (1967: 56): “I’ve settled down in Lucknow for at least six months of study with my former teacher, Vikram Singh. We’ve had two weeks of lessons – two or three hours each morning, five or six days a week, with two musicians playing continuously. Vikram teaches in the traditional manner, by demonstrating a step, by part, while I follow, with little or no explanation. When I ask a question, Vikram affects the student’s question. He does not want to analyze or bring my own ideas to the dance. Whatever I dance is to his creation totally, his vision. In this way only the true art passed on. […]”

[5] The onset of the menarche made a girl in India a marriageable woman. Although the marriage of underage girls is legally no longer allowed in India, the onset of the menarche is still a significant transition to a new phase of life. In the context of dance education, this event gains an expanded component and proves to be a remnant of ancient customs from the time the temple dancers (devadāsī, explanation of the term see below). The training of a devadāsī girl and gifting her to the temple was subject to various ceremonies, some of which, according to Gaston (2005: 22), had to be completed before the onset of the menarche: “All six ceremonies were supposed to be completed at the latest, just after the first menstrual cycle. […] no temple authority would think of dedicating a girl above fourteen.” , see also Kersenboom Story (1987: 333).

[6] Devadāsī, the servant (dāsī) of God (deva), danced to entertain the temple deity and the performance was considered as an offering. Young girls were given to the temples by their families before the onset of puberty and were ritually married to the temple deity. The temple dancers were said to have promising powers. Thus, they were important ceremonial contributors to weddings, temple processions or various celebrations that celebrated specific life cycles (e.g. onset of puberty), see Gaston (2005: 31ff.). Although the devadāsī followed a tradition in a matrilineal line, according to Srinivasan (1985: 1869), they can not be considered a caste: “[…] there exists a devadasi ‘way of life’ or ‘professional ethic’ (vrtti, murai ) but not a devadasi jati. The office of devadasi was hereditary but it did not confer the right to work without adequate qualification.”

[7] The ancient theoretical foundations of Indian dance, drama and music are recorded in professionalized and authoritative texts such as the Nāṭyaśāstra. It is the best-known and oldest surviving script in Sanskrit on dance, theater and drama, which according to legend was written by the sage Bharata. Its creation is dated between 200 BC. and 200 AD, see Unni (2003: 31f.). The Nāṭyaśāstra covers in 36 chapters the practical elements that make up the representation of the dance theater and also the ritual, infrastructural and musical conditions that accompany this representation.

[8] See Kersenboom Story (2008: 200).

[9] A very beautiful account of this is provided by Meduri (2001: 103ff.) in her essay “Bharata Natyam – What are you?”.

[10] Thielemann (2005: 59)


  1. Meiner Ansicht nach muss man ganz klar zwischen zwei verschiedenen künstlerischen Genres unterscheiden, dem Klassischen und dem Volkstümlichen. Dies trifft mit wenigen Ausnahmen grundsätzlich für Kunst zu, sei sie aus Ost oder West. Laut indischem Verständnis sind der klassischen Kunst zwei wesentliche Kriterien eigen, die ihre Herkunft und ihre Überlieferung, sprich Tradition betreffen. Diese sind: Brahma Vidya und Ishwara Pranidhana. Brahma Vidya definiert die meditative Verbindung des Künstlers mit Brahman, der kreativen universellen Kraft, die sich in vom Ego losgelöster kreativen Intuition, Prajna, äussert. Ishwara Pranidhana definiert die Intention des Künstlers. Gemäss diesem Verständnis von Kunst besteht eine idealisierte Form ihrer Darbietung darin, dass sie nicht (nur) zum Amüsement gereicht, sondern die Aufgabe besitzt, die Zuschauer und Zuhörer emotional und spirituell zu erheben. Kunst hat sich demnach nach dem höchst Ideellen auszurichten und sollte nicht eine Darstellung des profanen Lebens sein.
    Dass für solche Kunst und solche Ansprüche an die Kunst strickte Reglementierung Voraussetzung sind, um sie auch von Künstlern, die diese innere Verbindung zum Brahman nicht besitzen, mit entsprechender Wirkung ausgeführt wird, liegt auf der Hand.
    Grundsätzlich kann alles immer in Frage gestellt werden, und in manchen Dingen und Bereichen mag dies opportun zu sein.Im Falle von Künsten wie dem Bharata Natyam ist eine differenzierte Betrachtung vonnöten. Ohne vertieften inneren Zugang bleibt nur das äussere Gerüst. Dieses ist aber geprägt von so vielen mehr oder weniger verständigen Künstlern, die irgendwann zum Massstab für die Kunst und Künstausübung werden.
    Mehr dazu später, falls erwünscht.

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