The Role of Dance Sculptures in Tamil Nadu


Jul 20, CANADA (SUN) — A paper by Padma Subrahmanyam on classical Bharath Natyam dance, presented at 2nd International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies.


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. 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.). 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 Cilappatikaram.

Dance Sculptures

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. 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. The very titles, Bharatasenapatiyam and Panca­bharatiyam 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, sanghataka and angahdra. 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".

These types are explained as santi kuttu and vinoda kuttu by Adiyarkunallar. Santi küttu is of four types, namely sokkam, mey kuttu, 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.

Tanjore Sculptures

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 Brhadiswara 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.

Kumbakonam Sculptures

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.

Chidambaram Sculptures

The Nataraja 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 sutras 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 best.


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