In the first half of the 20th century South Indian temple dance underwent a remarkable transformation from a low-caste activity to a national art form—from nautch to bharatanāṭyam. This transformation was nurtured by the Indian nationalist movement, which was deeply rooted in European Orientalism and Victorian morality.
The earlier dance repertoire focused on amorous relationships between a nayaki (female devotee) and nayaka (male deity), the latter often identified as the earthy, sensual, and sometimes philandering Krishna or Murugan. For the newer repertoire, a more suitable nayaka was Shiva as Naṭarāja—resonant with spiritual detatchment and masculine power, an ideal model for both revivers of dance and Indian nationalist politicians.
The Western-educated philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy groomed Naṭarāja for this role and brought him to the attention of artists including Rukmini Devi Arundale, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn. Arundale, in particular, moved Naṭarāja to center stage, both as an independent force and as one heavily conditioned by a set of people and ideas.
This according to “Rewriting the script for South Indian dance” by Matthew Harp Allen (TDR: The drama review XLI/3 [fall 1997] pp. 63–100; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1997-28267).
Above, a traditional sculpture depicting Shiva as Naṭarāja; below, a bharatanāṭyam piece that evokes the cosmic dancer.
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