Mārga-nṛtya and Sadir-dāsiāṭṭam

Books written and institutions established by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam for the promotion of Art and National Integration

Padma Surbahmanyam derived her artistic and scholarly inspiration, amongst other works from Deivattin Kural, an encyclopedic work on Indian culture written by the Paramācārya of Kanchi. She has written several books in English and Tamil that focus on Indian aesthetics, artistic and cultural unity of the nation. ‘Bharatakkalai Kotpadu’, a book in Tamil on the rudiments of dance, ‘Bharata’s Art – Then and now’, ‘Natya Sastra and National Unity’ and ‘Kanchi Mahaswami's Vision of Asian Culture’ are some of her works.

Padma Subrahmanyam has not merely reconstructed the grammar of dance, i.e., nṛtya, but has also revived several aspects of Bharata’s theatrical, i.e., the nāṭya tradition. She is constantly engaged in the revival of a few endangered theatrical traditions of India such as the Melattur Bhagavata Mela and has closely worked with Yakshagana artists of Karnataka. She has shown that these regional theatrical traditions of India too are derivatives of Bharata’s nāṭya. She has several times protested the Christian hijacking of Terukuttu, a folk art form of Tamil Nadu. She also constantly works for the revival of temple tradition and arts to bring socio-cultural unity in the society at large.

Nrityodaya, her dance institution based in Chennai recently celebrated its platinum jubilee. It has been constantly training students in dance while imbibing them with Indian cultural values at the same time. It not only teaches the movement vocabulary of the Nāṭyaśāstra  and its application from the scratch, but also trains dancers of different genre such as Kathak, Kuchipidi and Odissi in the technique of the karaṇa-s. The Bharata-Ilango foundation for Asian Culture is a grand project that aims at brining artists and researchers from around the world. The name itself indicates the inseparability of the tradition of Ilango Adigal from the tradition of Bharata.


Padma Subrahmanyam has worked tirelessly for over six decades for Indian arts and has clearly established the Nāṭyaśāstra as a common thread for anything that is Indian. Thus, as the arts have a common undercurrent and are united in spirit, the life style that governs art necessarily belongs to the common monolithic culture of the Indian subcontinent; i.e., if the reflected image, art, is monolithic, so is its original image. The Nāṭyaśāstra indeed has its roots in the Vedas and the Vedic culture, as is suggested by its first chapter. Padma Subrahmanyam’s has been an artistic protest against the separatist movements in Tamil Nadu. Art that is merely a reflection of life, has a deep impact on people’s attitudes and beliefs and can reach out to both the lay and the learned. Thus, anything communicated through art without compromising on its aesthetics can certainly guide the masses in a direction that is not opposed to the sanātana-dharma. Even as a proud Tamilian and a scholar of Tamil literature, Padma Subrahmanyam has artistically proved their oneness with the Indian sub-continent. She has remained true to sanātana-dharma and has carefully treaded the thin line that separates classical art from a story with a social message. She never gave up her innate nature as an artist and used art as a medium to emphasize on her bigger identity as an Indian while being a Tamilian. Her life and art are certainly going to inspire several generations of artists and research scholars.

Appendix: The transformation of Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam to ‘Bharatanāṭyam’ and the associated troubles

It was only during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that classical dance and music that were viewed with contempt by the Brahmin community until then came to be practised by them. Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam, that was originally a ritualistic dance with the dancer herself singing in most cases, was renamed ‘Bharatanāṭyam’, a ‘sanskritized name’, or rather a ‘brahminised’ one, making it sound ‘sacred’ and ‘ancient’. It was not merely the name that was changed to give it an elevated status: many of its major elements were also removed as they were deemed to be ‘erotic’. Curvilinear movements that used the hip, chest and neck to a large extent were removed and sanitized geometric patterns were emphasized. Śṛṅgāra that is hailed as rasa-rāja, the king of rasas and the primary aṅgi-rasa, i.e., the fundamental emotion, was done away with. Songs that contained lyrics suggesting love were looked down upon and bhakti (devotion) took predominance. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ removed the charm from not only the form but also from the content. This only proves that imposing fanatic ideas of religion and caste on art forms can leave them utterly devoid of beauty.

This transformation was also closely related to the advent of the Anti-Nautch movement and the change in status of the deva-dāsi community. Their dance and music, which was essentially a ritualistic service in the temples they were associated with for generations, were turned into a commodity. Some devadāsi-s who enjoyed the process of the ritual dance and expected no returns except the joy of dancing, started taking dance as a paid profession and the monetary gain thus became more important to them than the beauty of the art. This began to attract rich patrons who funded the devadāsi-s, while some even abused them at the same time. The advantage of these socio-political changes was the devadāsi-s who practised Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam and had been previously limited to temples and royal courts, came into the main stream and their art became accessible to different strata of the society, but not without repercussions. Their art was ‘ethnically cleansed’ and subjected to artificial constraints imposed by sectarian biases, thereby compromising its aesthetic charm. [For related information, Sriram, V: 2007 and  Geroge: 2004]

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam and the current authors have time and again shown that the name ‘Bharatanāṭyam’ is merely an eye-wash and that the dance form, Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam is only remotely connected with Bharata and is technically not ‘nāṭyam’. Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam is Tamil Nadu’s (and Karnataka’s) regional adaptation, i.e., a deśi form of Bharata’s classical mārga and is no different from several other such regional adaptations – Mohinattam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Yakshagana, Odissi, Kathak and others. Such being the case, all these regional variants can rightfully carry the tag ‘Bharata’ wither their name and its use should not be limited to Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam alone. Moreover, Sadir- dāsiaṭṭam draws its grammar largely from Abhinaya-darpaṇa and other later works, which, though derivatives of Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra in spirit, differ vastly in structure. In addition, it is not ‘Nāṭyam’, because ‘Nāṭyam’ is a term that used to have a broader meaning – it is not just dance, but theatre art. Thus, Sadir-dāsiaṭṭam is only remotely connected to Bharata’s ‘Nāṭyam’, thus the name is a misnomer.

In this context, Padma Subrahmanyam’s task was not only opposed by the separatists but also the faction that fanatically supported the brahminised and sanitized ‘Bharatanatyam’. The former found it hard to reconcile with the fact that a monolithic culture existed throughout the sub-continent as shown by Padma Subrahmanyam’s work and the latter despised the mārga-karaṇa-s as they were ‘erotic’ and ‘anti-traditional’. There was an indirect attack on Padma Subrahmanyam and her guide Prof TN Ramachandran even from staunch supporters of the sanātana-dharma  such as Dr. V Raghavan (Raghavan: 2004, 42). Thus, the teacher-student duo had to fight the battle on two opposite poles to show that the entire India had a common language for dance and for theatre art in general.


Subrahmanyam, Padma and Balakrishnan, V. Bharatiya Natyashastra – 14 segment serial, Doordashan

Barboza, Francis. Experiencing Christianity in and through Bharata Natyam. March 2003. http://www.drbarboza.com/inno.htm (accessed 28 August 2017)

George, TJS (2004) MS-A Life in Music¸ HarperCollins Publishers, India

Hindusim Today. ‘Symposium Om Muruga!’ News, May 1999

Malhotra, Rajiv and Neelakandan, Aravindan (2011). Breaking India – Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines. Amaryllis. Delhi

Nagar, RS (Ed.) (2012) Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharatamuni. Parimal Publications, Delhi

Raghavan V (2004). Splendours of Indian Dance.  Dr. V Raghavan Centre For Performing Arts, Chennai

Sriram V (2007). The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. East West Books, Chennai

Subrahmanyam, Padma (2003). Karaṇas – Common Dance Codes of India and Indonesia. Nrithyodaya, Chennai

Subrahmanyam, Padma (2008). Nritya Saptaham. Nrityodaya, Swathi Soft Solutions and Kalakendra, Chennai [A set of seven DVDs]

Subrahmanyam, Padma (2014) Vellai Pani Malai            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V4L7D3Xg4I, (accessed 28 August 2017)

Subrahmanyam, Padma http://www.padmadance.com/nrithyodaya/school.htm, (accessed 28 August 2017)

Iyer, Alessandra.(1996) “Prambanan revisited: a fresh perspective on the dance sculptures of Candi Śiwa”, Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient Année. 1996 Volume 83 Numéro 1 pp. 157-184

Iyer, Alessandra (2000). “Śiva's Dance: Iconography and Dance Practice in South and Southeast Asia”, Music in Art. Vol. 25, No. 1/2, pp. 25-32

Santhanam, Sundari (2013). Neo deśi karaṇas – a sequential link. Bharata Nrityasala, Bangalore

Sivaramamurti, C(1974). Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature, National Museum: distributors, Publications Division [Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India],




Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.

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உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
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इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


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