Neo Desi Karanas (A Sequential Link)
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Neo Desi Karanas (A Sequential Link)

Item Code: NAM240
Author: Sundari Santhanam
Publisher: Bharata Nrityasala
Language: English
Edition: 2013
Pages: 247 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.5 inch X 8.5 inch
Weight 1 kg
About the Author

In the Kedareswara temple in Balligave, Karnataka, there are dance sculptures dating back to the 11th century vaguely resembling Marga Karana-s, but not prefect frame. It was Puzzling. The only clue was contained in an inscription found in the same temple that glorified a new dance form that was presented during that period-Desi.

The inscription says that “Rani Laccala Devi comingled the Marge and Desi giving a new dimension to the dance”. This ensures the fact that the queen must have been aware of the Marge style and must have added desi movements to create a new dance form. It is also possible that the Queen had created 108 Desi Karanas, considering the fact that Marge has 108 Karanas.

The only reference to Desi Karanas in the 36 Utpluti Karanas mentioned in the Sangita Ratnakara. Hence, the author presents a newly created set of 72 Karanas to bring alive the form suggested in the inscription and visualised I the sculptures of that temple. In addition to this, the author also provides each Karana with proper definitions i.e. assigning Sthanas, Caris and Nrtta hastas not only for the 72 but also for the 36 in the Sangita Ratnakara.

In 2009, the author Smt. Sundari Santhanam passed away. This beautifully illustrated book depicting each of the 108 Karanas is a culmination of her research in this field and has been published in her loving memory by her school for dance, Bharata Nrityasala.


This book Neo Desi Karanas, a sequential link of Sundari Santhanam is a milestone in the contemporary history of Indian Classical dance. Sundari is my devoted disciple with not only a passion for dance but also a questioning mind from her early teens. Her elder sister Uma and Sundari belong to the first batch of my direct disciples at Nrithyodaya, founded by my father Director K. Subrahmanyam in 1942. These sisters had their maiden full length performance in early 1960s with no less than the legendary Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale presiding and Guru Dandayudhapani Pillai as Chief Guest. I personally did Nattuvangam for them. I had choreographed a Jatiswaram of Tanjore Quartette in Sankeerna gati Adi tala. Both the sisters made a mark as dancers and later equipped themselves with my entire reconstruction of the 108 karanas of Bharata's Natyasastra. While Uma stayed back in Chennai, performing and teaching at our Nrithyodaya, Sundari shifted to Bangalore, after gaining a worthy understanding life-partner in Santhanam. Her daughter, Harini, who is also her disciple, helped her in the smooth running of her Bharata Nrityasala dance school. Sundari strictly followed my style of dance as well as the pedagogy that I have evolved from Natyasastra.

Traditional Hindu learning is three fold - (1) Acquiring knowledge from the Guru (2) Studying and practicing along with classmates (3) Evolve with self experience. Sundari had experienced all these stages. Karnataka became her second home and she has contributed immensely for the development and understanding of Bharatam in this region.

Regional flavour in performing arts is called 'Desi' in our tradition. The common grammar for the whole Indian subcontinent was termed 'Marga'. Marga came to be understood as that based on Bharata's Natyasastra and Desi is the regional observance of Marga based on the Pradesha's inheritance in taste and also combining local traditions. From around 9th Century, starting from Mathanga's Brhaddesi, the Desi elements in dance, music and drama came to be documented in texts. The most important works dealing with Desi elements in dance belonging to medieval period are-

1. Someshwara's Manasollasa (1131 A.D), Kalyana Chalukya, Karnataka
2. Sarngadeva's Sangeeta Ratnakara (1210 AD - 1247 AD), Devagiri, Maharashtra
3. Jayasenapati's Nrtta Ratnavali (1253 A.D), Kakateeya, Andhra Pradesh

While the first work blossomed in Karnataka, the second came from Maharashtra and the third was written in present Andhra Pradesh region. There are many common elements in all these three works. Later, Sangita Raja of Kumbharana of Mewar mainly followed Sangeeta Ratnakara. One question that arises in my mind is the 'geographic connotation' by the term 'Desi', used in these three texts. Sarngadeva hailed from Kashmir and migrated to Devagiri in Maharashtra, after the Muslim invasion in his homeland. Did he carry a Kashmirian heritage to be recorded in Maharashtra? Did he record the traditions of his new surrounding? It is important to note that Sarngadeva only versified the prose of the commentary on Natyasastra that Abhinavagupta wrote in Kashmir about a century before him. Though Abhinavagupta does not enlist Desi elements, he does mention some terms like 'Dombika' and also gives Prakrit passages to give a lakshya (practical) example for the purpose of the Marga Nrtta Karanas. This term is found in some of the later works too.

Someshwara, who ruled from Kalyan, in present Karnataka region, had added more elements of Desi in his work, which was not far removed from Sangeeta Ratnakara in time. Do these belong to Maharashtra region? Another perplexing factor is that Jayasena of Andhra has also mentioned the same elements along with a few more additions. We see an echo of this technique in Rajasthan in the pages of Sangita Raja. All these factors reveal that like how Marga was common to the entire Indian subcontinent, or even Asian continent, the Desi elements of medieval ages also seem to have been common from Kashmir to the South.

Sundari enlists the Desi elements in dance from all these three sources. In addition to these, she has also taken cognisance of Asokamalla's Nrttadhyaya, Pandarika Vittala's Nartananirnaya and made an elaborate study of the literary sources for her work. Apart from these, from the archaeological sources she has quoted an inscription of Queen Lacchala Devi, who was a great dancer, and was able to incorporate a new style of dance called 'Dese'. She was able to amalgamate Marga and Desi. The inscription says that she performed Valana Vartana Bhedas of Desi Shaili. All these prove the validity of the evolution of performing arts. New elements make their entry on two accounts - 1) Due to forgetting old ones and 2) Developing new line without loss in the philosophy of aesthetics. Sometimes even recreating forgotten elements become a combination of 'old and new'. In any case, from the time of Bharata Muni (who, I think, was a contemporary of Valmiki), yugas have galloped, retaining basic values of symmetry and proportion. In these days of knowledge explosion, the regional boundaries have already faded away. Forty years ago, when I was reconstructing the Marga Karanas, it was hard for some critics to reconcile to my theory that these are the common cultural roots of India and even Asia. My dear disciple Sundari Santhanam has dared to present to the world of dance, a new set of Desi Karanas from her intellectual and artistic exercise. To achieve the mystic number of 108, Sundari has created 72 new Desi Karanas which become a prefix to the 36 karanas of Sangeeta Ratnakara. She establishes the theory that Sangeeta Ratnakara of 13th Century has been inspired by the 11th Century inscription of Lacchala Devi at Kedareshwara temple. This gives one more reason for me to appreciate the fact that this Kashmirian pandit, Sarngadeva, living in Maharashtra was influenced by the inscription from Karnataka.

The extension of the list of Desi Karanas by Sundari Santhanam has been validated and documented theoretically by Satavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh, who is a phenomenal personality in the world of linguistics, literature, arts and science. He has penned the slokas defining each of Sundari's Desi Karanas with such rare clarity, to enable practical understanding. This work is hence an interdisciplinary scientific work of art. In medieval period, Nrtta was classified as-

1. Laghu (graceful dance)
2. Vikata (dance of jesters)
3. Vishama (acrobatics)

Some of the Desi Karanas described are acrobatic in nature, when practically reconstructed. Sundari has softened these and also created her own Desi Karanas which belong to the first category, i.e, Laghu, and structured on the principles of Indian aesthetics. Modern dancers of India need not look to the West for their choreography. They have a treasure in this book of Sundari Santhanam.

I write this foreword to Sundari's work with pride and pain in the heart; pain due to missing her physical presence so essential for dance, but pride in visualising her love and grace through her work.


Dance is a medium of expression of the psychological state of the human mind. The expression is achieved through physical movements of the limbs of the body. The entire process results in sheer enlightenment - which is experienced alike by the performer and the qualified spectator.

The art form of dance is known by various names like nrtta, nrtya, nartana etc., which signifies its changing attributes over time. This art form is the proud offspring of its mother "The Natya Sastra", which is the earliest available work on 'Natya' i.e. the technique of drama.

Dance being a visual art form has inherited all the elements of drama. Hence the discussion of all elements finds relevance in the technical analysis and the presentation of dance.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam transformed everything we knew about the Art of BharathaNatyam when she constructed the 108 Marga Karanas and gave naissance to Bharatanrtyam.

Sundari Santhanam, one of Dr. Padma Subramahmanyam's first students' embarked on a journey to discover and create a parallel set of movements to elucidate the desi style of Natya. This Treatise then is a culmination of Sundari Santhanam's epic and ground breaking work in creating, defining and illustrating a total 108 Desi Karanas.

To put things in perspective; Sarangadeva, in the Sangeeta Ratnakara, names and describes only 36 karanas of the desi style. Sundari Santhanam not only created an additional 72 Karanas, but has detailed each of the existing karanas as well. Each of the 108 karanas in this treatise is accompanied by a name, definition, composition, illustration, sculptural evidence (excepting a few) and a shloka which has been especially composed for the sake of this study and research work by Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh.

This is not a work of fantasy. This is a treatise come out of genuine research with substantiating evidence of imagery obtained from temple architecture and sculptures in Karnataka spanning several centuries. What is indeed magnificent about this work is the ability of the author to envisage movement in stone.


Sage Bharata's Natyasastra deals with the eleven aspects of stage craft and these are beautifully crystallized into one verse; viz. Rasabhavaabhinayadharrnivrttipravrtt iyahsiddhissvarastathatodyam ganam rangascasangrahah. The whole of Natyasastra is nothing but a detailed commentary on the aforementioned verse.

We should be proud that this precious form of art belongs to India and the dancers have preserved the same for thousands of years in many forms. One of the forms which include a high standard of technique perfected and recorded in Bharata's Natyasastra is the "Karanas". The Karanas were only restored by Bharata and not created by him.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam's book, "Common Dance codes of India and Indonesia", explains that the entire 36 chapters of the Natyasastra can be viewed as answers to five questions asked by the Rsi disciples of Bharata in its very first chapter. The following passages are excerpts from Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam's book and they help elucidate further, the eleven aspects of stage craft mentioned above.

The pertinent questions are:

1) How did Natya Veda come in to existence?
2) For who was it meant?
3) What are its limbs?
4) What are its means or sources?
5) How is it reduced to practice?
The answers to these questions are spread across the thirty-six chapters with cross- references all over. The essence of the answers is as follows:

1) Brahma created the Natya Veda as an audio-visual aid to save humanity from deterioration in moral standards, resulting in their pleasant experiences being mixed with sorrow, at the beginning of Tretayuga. Brahma created this Veda by taking elements from the other four Vedas and handed over to Bharata.
2) It is meant for both the poet and the actor.
3) Its limbs are Rasa, Bhava, Abhinaya, Dharmi, Vrtti, Pravrtti, Siddhi, Svara, Atodyam, Ganam and Ranga.

Rasa: Rasa is the soul of Natya. It is the experience of aesthetic pleasure. It is born out of a whole process of enactment of feelings called Bhava.

Bhava: This is a psychological state of mind. Vibhavas are the causes, Anubhavas are their effects and Vyabhicari Bhavas are the transitory moods. They jointly strengthen any one of the eight dominant psychological states of human experience. These are the eight Sthayi Bhavas. When enacted and expressed, they produce aesthetic pleasure or Rasa, which is carried forward to the spectators. This expression is Abhinaya.

Abhinaya: This may be physical, verbal, ornamental or emotional in nature. Natya depends on Abhinaya or enactment. It is therefore described and redefined by Bharata as imitation and glorification. Anukarana is imitation; Natya is not mere re-telling, but it is Anukirtana or a stylised glorification of an event. Hence, it is a recreation.

Natya includes the whole creation in it. The objective world is personalized by the actor and then again externalized through Abhinaya. In other words, it is a process of transformation of 'Being to Becoming'. When realities of life with all its pleasures and pain are applied through Abhinaya of four kinds, it is Natya. It is seemingly real. It has similarities with reality, yet illusory. Bharata, being a Rsi, could see the world in totality and analyse it to systematize its representation.

Dharmi: These are the modes of expression. In short, they are realism and stylism called Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi. Both are involved in Natya with a harmonious blend, while Lokadharmi is more Satvika based, Natyadharmi is more Angika based. For eg: Gesticulating as crying is Natyadharmi, while, shedding real tears will be Lokadharmi, Unfortunately, these two forms are often misunderstood. There is a thought process that if the spectator does not understand what is being presented, it is Natyadharmi, and when every Bhava gets communicated to the last man in the spectator, it is Lokadharmi.

Vrtti: Vrittis are functions or actions. It is in the levels of thought, word and action of the body. When they are ornamented in Natya, we get four Vrttis, which are;

Bharati - pertaining to activity of speech

Sattvati - speech at the mental level

Arabhati -forceful activity of the body

Kaisiki - graceful activity of the body.

Pravrtti: These are the activities relating to thought, word and action pertaining to regional modes of behaviour, speech, dialect, intonation, occupation, environment, dress, tradition etc. Bharata divides Bharatavarsha into four regions and prescribes vrittis in production of plays to

PravrttisRegionRecommended Vrtti
Pancali North Arabhati and Sattvati
Odhramagadhi East Sattvati and Bharati
Avanti West Kaisiki and Satrvati
Dakshinatya South Kaisiki
Siddhi: This means attainment. It is of two types - 'Manusi' or 'Daivi'. If the spectator vociferously applauds, it is Manusi- siddhi; if they sit in a trance, transcending mere physical conciousness, it is Daivi-siddhi.

Swara: Swaras are musical notes.

Atodyam: This is the term for musical instruments. They are classified as stringed, wind, percussion and metallic.

Ganam: Ganam is music and Gitam is vocal music.

Ranga: This is the place of enactment of Natya conceived by the divine architect Visvakarma. The term Ranga includes the theatre-cum-auditorium, its classification, construction and consecration. All these are elaborated. There are all the limbs (or Anga-s) of Natya. Thus the third question of the Rsi s is answered in several chapters. Moreover, the chapters are not organised in the above serial order.

4) The fourth question is with regard to the pramana or the primary source for Natya. Bharata says that there are three Pramanas for Natya. One is Veda; the second is Loka or the perceivable world and finally, Adhyatmika or one's own experience. The beginning less tradition of the Veda gives the spiritual basis of natya. The Loka gives it unlimited themes for inspiration and self-experience sharpens the capacity to enliven the events. It also implies one's own vision of the self.
5) The fifth and the last question concerning the mode of putting the Natya Veda into practice are also answered with details of productions of varied kinds. These need Gurus and the living tradition to guide. The last chapter gives warning to actors. Natya is not an easy path. This chapter tells us how the actors annoyed Rsi with their bad behaviour and got cursed. This signifies the importance of restraint on the part of artistes.

Technical understanding of the Karanas of Natya Sastra described in the fourth chapter is imperative at this point.

The term Karana is better understood from the term Nrtta. In Natyasastra, Bharata mentions only Nrtta and Natya. Nrtta has also been treated as a part of Angika Abhinaya. When an idea is expressed through the movement of body it is termed as 'Angika Abhinaya'. Bharata divided this in to three parts as 'Sakha', 'Ankura', and 'Nrtta'. 'Sakha' literally means branch. Here, it would denote the 'Abhinaya Hastas' which are used to convey particular ideas. When these Abhinaya hastas are used imaginatively to portray various ideas, then it becomes 'Ankura', which forms the basis of 'Sancari Bhava'. 'Nrtta' is an expression of ideas through the movements of the entire body.

Bharata's Nrtta is based on Karanas which are similar to our contemporary adavus. What is Karana? Bharata says, "Hasta pada samayogah Nrttasya karanam Bhavet". This does not mean to merely include the hand gestures and the foot movements. According to Abhinavagupta's commentary "Hasta" implies all the actions pertaining to the upper part of the body and "Pada" denotes all the actions of the lower part of the body.

"Karana" has its root in the word "Km" which means 'to do'; hence a Karana is a unit of movement and not a static posture.

'Karana" is a unique combination of 'Sthiti' and 'Gati'. 'Sthiti' means static, being sthanas; 'Gati' means 'dynamic' and includes the Caris and the Nrtta Hasta-s. The 'Sthana' of the Karana gives the position of the body and the 'cari' gives the action. The body retains a specific position i.e the Sthana, even while moving around. This happens when the Caris and Nrtta Hasta-s are performed within the framework of the Sthana.


Field Trip19
Desi Karanas - Origin27
Literature Survey37
Vyayamas and Sthanas51
Desi Caris89
Nrtta Karanas and its application123
108 Desi Karanas127
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