Reconstruction of the Mārga-karaṇa-s; the Pravṛtti-s and the Prākṛt-s

This article is an adapted version of the talk presented by Arjun Bharadwaj at the Swadeshi Indology Conference in December 2017


The following sections describe how Padma Subrahmanyam’s art presentations and research suggest the inclusive nature of sanātana-dharma and all regional variations as an integral part of the classical mārga tradition.

1.The reconstruction of the mārga-karaṇa-s: the common dance language of the entire Indian sub-continent

Bharata's Nāṭyaśāstra has laid the foundation for Indian theatre, thereby providing the theoretical framework for all performing arts. Bharata not only gives the grammatical framework for different forms of art - literature, music, dance and theatre, but also tells us, through his delineation of the Rasa-s, how the grammar can be applied to present rich content. In this sense, Bharata plays a double role - both as an art-grammarian and an art-aesthetican, dealing with both form and content, a trait that is absent in scholars of other ancient civilizations of the world. Padma Subrahmanyam has shown in her thesis that Nāṭyaśāstra is at least 7000 years old and in Bharata’s own words, it is meant for Jambūdvīpa and Bhārata-varṣa.(Subrahmanyam – Volume 1, 2003, 2-11) (Bhārata-varṣa is India and South East Asia and according to ancient Indian geography, Jambūdvīpa meant more or less the whole of Asia and Europe together. Bharata-khaṇḍa is the Indian sub-continent.)

Tāṇḍava-vidhāna’, the fourth chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra, contains detailed descriptions of one hundred and eight karaṇa-s, which form the basis for the movement vocabulary of dance. Until Padma Subrahmanyam’s time, the karaṇa-s were thought to be static postures. With her efforts lasting over a decade, Padma Subrahmanyam reconstructed the mārga-karaṇa-s which had been lost for over a thousand years, after the times of Abhinavagupta (1000 CE). Through her research, she showed that Bharata’s original text (around 5000 BCE), Abhinavagupta’s Abhinava-bhāratī composed in Kashmir (1000 CE), the sculptures of  Brihadeeshwara temple, Tanjavur (completed 1010 CE), Thillai Nataraja temple, Chidambaram (12-13th century CE), Sarangapani temple, Darasuram near Kumbhakonam (10-15 century CE), Aruṇācaleśvara temple, Tiruvaṇṇāmalai (around 1520 CE), and Vṛddagirīśvara temple at Vriddhacalam (constructed post 1530 CE) all contain similar depiction of karaṇa-s (Subrahmanyam, 2003). Under the guidance of Prof. TN Ramachandran and her spiritual Guru, the Paramācārya of Kanchi, Śrī Śrī Candraśekarendra Sarasvatī, she reconstructed the karaṇa-s and showed that they were indeed movements and not merely static poses. The Paramācārya also instructed her to study the sculptures of Indonesia and with the help of Alessandra Iyer, she identified the karaṇa sculptures of the Caṇḍi Śiva temple at Prambanan, Central Java, Indonesia belonging to 9th Century CE (Iyer, 1996; Iyer 2000).

Padma Subrahmanyam’s reconstruction was not limited to mere textual and sculptural evidences dating back several millennia, but was also based on a close observation of today’s regional dance styles, that have been passed on for thousands of years. ‘Mārga’ refers to the universal classical tradition that is realized and documented, ‘deśi’ refers to the application of the mārga to suit regional tastes. Thus, a study of the deśi forms of dance, that are merely reflections of the mārga, was found to be indispensible for the reconstruction of the karaṇa-s. In her fourteen episode documentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra, Padma Subrahmanyam has shown how traces of the  karaṇa-s can be found in all Indian deśi forms of dance, including the folk variants. (Deśi is a relative term – regional forms of dance such as Sadir-dāsiāṭṭam, Mohiniaṭṭam, Kucupuḍi, Kathak, Odissi and Kathakali, and folk forms such as Gotipua, Kamsale, and Kolāṭṭam, all fall under deśi, if Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra is taken as the absolute Mārga). Thus, through the identification and reconstruction of the karaṇa-s, Padma Subrahmanyam has shown that the pan-Indian culture extended for several millennia and covered large portions of India and South East Asia its geographical extent.  It is interesting to note that even as Abhinavagupta was writing his commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra in the northern province of Kashmir, the Brihadeeshwara temple was being constructed in the southern province of Tanjavur. The description of the karaṇa-s as documented by Abhinavagupta closely matches the sculptures of Tanjavur. This is one of the instances that proves the geographical, cultural and artistic unity of the Indian sub-continent. As the grammar of all ‘folk’ forms of dance is derived from Bharata’s mārga tradition, they are integral to the pan-Indian culture, thus proving that the divide between the classical and the folk is fabricated.

Even during the process of reconstruction of karaṇa-s and after its completion, Padma Subrahmanyam has been constantly applying them in her performances and has been teaching them through her institution, Nrityodaya. As per the directions of the Paramācārya of Kanchi, she designed 108 karaṇa sculptures for the Uttara Chidambaram Nataraja Mandir at Sattara. She designed the sculptures to have twin figures of Śiva and Pārvatī, that recorded the moments of movements which are not seen in the older temples of Tanjavur, Kumbakonam and Chidambaram. Muthaiah Sthapati sculpted the images and they were consecrated in February 1997 (Subrahmanyam – Volume 1, 2003:206-216).

2.Regional tastes for art forms and languages of India – the pravṛtti-s and prākṛt-s 

The twenty second chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra, describes four vṛtti-s pertaining to different levels of thought, word and action of the body.  Bharata divides the Bhārata-varṣa into four regions and documents their taste for different modes of behavior, speech, dialect, intonation, occupation, environment, dress and tradition. Ārabhaṭi and Sātvatī are recommended for the Northern region (Pāñcāli), Sātvati and Bhāratī for the East (Odramāgadhi), Kaiśikī and Sātvatī for the West (Vanti) and Kaiśikī for the south (Dākṣiṇātya). Kaiśikī-vṛtti, i.e., graceful activity of the body is the preferred style of the south Indians and its reflections are seen in the southern dance forms such as Sadir-dāsiāṭṭam of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Kuchipuḍi of Andhra Pradesh and Mohini-āṭṭam of Kerala. Thus, along with his description of mārga-nṛtya, Bharata observes and sanctions regional variations, which have in turn given rise to many more folk traditions. In her thesis (Subrahmanyam, 2003) and the Nāṭyaśāstra tele-serial, Padma Subrahmanyam has shown how different regional dance forms are but manifestations of the mārga-nṛtya described by Bharata. (Padma Subrahmanyam has coined the term ‘Bharata-nṛtyam’ to refer to the style of dance she practices and is derived out of Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra)

In the seventeen chapter (verse 47) of the Nāṭyaśāstra, Bharata also identifies seven major dialects, deśa-bhāṣā-s, of mārga-bhāṣā (i.e., Sanskrit, which he simply refers to as ‘bhāṣā’, i.e., language).  Just as the pravṛtti-s are regional variations in dance, these deśa-bhāṣā-s are regional variants of Sanskrit. They are Māgadhī, Āvantī, Prācyā, Śaurasenī, Ardhamāgadhī, Bāhlīkā and Dākṣiṇātyā. He also identifies less important dialects (vibhāṣā-s), namely Śakāra, Ābhīra, Caṇḍāla, Śabara Dramiḍa and Oḍra (verse 17.48). These major and minor dialects are named after the region where they are mainly spoken, or after a characteristic of the community that speaks the variant. He also gives the salient features of many of these dialects and their application in theatre. It is thus certain that several of these deśa-bhāṣā-s co-existed with the mārga-bhāṣā, just like the regional variants of dance forms co-existed with the mārga-nṛtya. The Dākṣiṇātyā dialect is thought to have metamorphosed into today’s South Indian languages. This again proves that the Aryan-Dravidian linguistic divide is artificial, is not in the cultural memory of the country and moreover, literary evidence tells us the contrary, i.e., a common bhāṣā throughout India along with several deśa-bhāṣā-s.



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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

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To be continued .....





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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