The melam or troupe of Kannuswami Nattuvanar (1864-1923) in Baroda. The nattuvanar holds the cymbals (talam) in his hands and leads the performance. Musicians traditionally stood behind the dancers. This image was taken at the turn of the century when Kannuswami Nattuvanar was invited to perform at the court of the Gaekwad princes of Baroda in northern India.The term nattuvanar connotes a man who accompanied the devadasi dance in the capacity of a dance-master, music conductor, and vocal percussionist. In pre-modern South India, particularly among the Tamil-speaking devadasi communities, the nattuvanar would train the dancer and would also join her during the performance by reciting vocalized rhythms (sollukattu). The primary visual marker of the nattuvanar was the talam, a pair of small hand-cymbals that he would beat in consonance with the footwork executed by the dancer. Some of the most famous nattuvanars served in the Thanjavur court. The ancestors of the Thanjavur Quartet, for example, had been serving as nattuvanars in the Thanjavur court since the seventeenth century. The nattuvanar tradition, however, is not the only instance of male involvement with devadasi dance. Ritual specialists, such as otuvars (men who recite the hymns of the Tamil Shaiva poets), as well as court poets and other upper-caste composers regularly interacted with devadasis, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Dance Class at Kalakshetra A Bharatanatyam class at Kalakshetra, the institution established by Rukmini Arundale in Chennai, India Photograph Hari Krishnan

The nattuvanar community also became stigmatized as a non-Brahmin community of performers during the social reform movement, but unlike the devadasis, they continued to receive patronage from the new community of urban practitioners who approached these men (and not the devadasi women) for technique and repertoire to create the contemporary form known as “Bharatanatyam.”

Classroom Activities

  • Read: Anne-Marie Gaston’s article: “Training of Bharata Natyam Teachers.”  Discuss how gender and caste have influenced the decisions as to who teaches Bharatanatyam over time. Gaston describes how nattuvanars teach Bharatanatyam, which is different from the Western studio approach. Have you encountered any non-Western methods of teaching movement?
  • Discuss: How has urbanization affected the teaching of Bharatanatyam? Can you find examples of other dance forms whose teaching methodologies have been affected by our changing global climate?
  • Move: Divide into groups and create movement phrases. Teach these phrases to the groups with various restrictions (Ex: you may not speak while teaching, you must sit while teaching the phrase, you cannot give musical counts to the phrase, etc.) Compare the experiences of teaching movement with these different methodologies.

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