This article explores the idea of South Indian Architecture being influenced by the native dance forms such as Bharatnatyam during ancient times. Dravidian architecture can be seen in older South Indian temples and traces can still be seen in the architecture today.
Ancient Hindu philosophy saw the art of dance as a vehicle for divine invocation mirrored in architectural surroundings. This was the core belief of the Dravidians of the Indian sub-continent, who regarded dance and architecture as two physical models, co-existing in an intertwined system- rich with music, literature, and sculpture.
Originating in the Hindu temples of Tanjavore region of Tamil Nadu, Bharatnatyam is a classical dance form boasting a rich history and a strong legacy. Nurtured first in the temples and royal courts, this art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system. The Devadasis (Deva=God; Dasi=Servant) or the female temple dancers were the first ones to learn this style and perform it during rituals, functions, ceremonies and other auspicious occasions in the temple. The Devadasis culture speedily became an integral part of South Indian temple culture, and later evolved to royal courts as well.
The popularity of Bharatnatyam was clearly reflected in the architectural style of the Dravidian temples as well, which were planned with Mandapas (temple halls) to accommodate the Devadasi performances. These stone temples also had their pillars and door frames sumptuously decorated with sculptures depicting female dancers in various poses. Thus, both these art forms- dance and architecture complemented each other and attributed their development to their common praise of the Lord. The earliest influence of south Indian temple architecture and dance on each other can quite clearly be seen in the Cave Temples of Badami in Karnataka, from the 6th century, which houses a 5ft tall Nataraja performing the Tandava. This Lord Shiva sculpture has 18 arms- each expressing Bharatnatyam mudras (hand gestures).
With time, socio-economic changes in the state played a key element in shaping and transforming both south Indian temple architecture and dance. As the dance form spread from temples to royal courts, and even to smaller-scale functions, corresponding spaces designed and evolved to accommodate the dancers and the audiences too. Halls were highly ornate structures, having every surface profusely and painstakingly decorated with friezes, bas-reliefs, sculptures, and paintings. Specific spaces were designated to the performers, the guru, musicians, royal guests, and the common audiences. The rulers too were patrons of art and culture who enhanced the progress of architecture throughout the era.
Dravidian architecture saw a boost during the Chola period, where temples and courts were built and expanded to mark victories and success of the rulers. As a result, the prosperity of the kingdom reverberated in its architectural developments, and both, the art and artists transformed into highly respected, esteemed persons in the society. The emphasis given on the advancement of dance was prominent in the architectural importance laid on the structure. While the cities were built of perishable materials such as unbaked clay and wood; temples, with their increasing status in the community were renovated and expanded using stone and brick for permanence. The stone was seen as a more masculine material, analogous for strength and power, while the feminine materials, like wood, corresponded to fragility and transiency.
Massive temples were dedicated to Hindu Gods of Shiva, Vishnu, and their various avatars. They contained pillared dance-halls or Natamandapa for the purpose of recitals and performances. The walls, pillars, plinth, doorframes, and almost every other surface illustrated the mythological tales of gods along with elegantly portrayed by the temple dancers. The Shiva temple of Kanchipuram is decorated with carvings that manifest the development of this dance form by around the mid-first millennium CE.
The most prominent example that narrates the connection of south Indian temple architecture and dance is the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple in Tamil Nadu. Such is the prominence of this temple, that the architecture of the structure is regarded as a mediator, tying together the various facets of Hindu philosophy and culture. The physical edifice of the temple and the mythology surrounding the sculptural iconography link the human body, architecture, and dance together on a spiritual and cosmic level. Architectural cues, ornamental sculpture and the design criteria of the shrines reiterate this rhythmic momentum. The gateways or Gopurams are embellished with sculptural representations of the 108 karanas (dance poses) of Bharatanatyam, intricately carved in small rectangular panels. The inclusion of these panels indicates the popularity of the Tandava style and its influence on dance in the region. The main hall of this temple, The Nritta Sabha, as goes the name, is dedicated to dance. Carvings here depict the legendary dancers, musicians, and mythological figures.
It is also fascinating to note that the influence of this form does not only extend to the architecture of the temple and the royal court but also forms the basis of stage and theater designing. The ancient scriptures detail out the points of stage designing from the perspective of the performer, and not the spectator. This marks the significance of the art much higher than the general public. In fact, the three types of Dravidian temple architecture – Layana, Guhādhāra, and Guhārāja – are also derived from the descriptions outlined in the Nātya-Shāstra– the oldest Bharatnatyam handbook. Thus, it can be seen that Bharatnatyam and Dravidian architecture share a common upbringing as they developed simultaneously, complementing each other under the Cholas.
After the Cholas and Vijaynagaras, the influence of the Muslims led Bharatnatyam to the courts as well, wherein it continued to inspire the architecture around it. Unfortunately, these styles suffered a hit during the British Rule whose propaganda prevailed against Indian art; misrepresenting it as crude and inferior. This influence was pervasive enough to dissuade the patronage of ritual temple dances, destruction of sacred shrines and sculptures, and an aim to alienate educated Indians from their traditions. Later the Tamil Hindu migrants revived this custom and progressively Bharatnatyam attained the grandeur and honor that it does today, in India as well as abroad.
The southern part of our country has bestowed us with varied art forms ranging from dance, to music, literature, and paintings and it is the Dravidian architecture that blends them all in harmony.