March 10 is Sivaratri and dancers once again pay obeisance to Lord Nataraja.

Come Sivaratri (March 10), and Nataraja, the King of Dance, inspires an unmatched fervour in dancers. Dance becomes ‘king’ for nearly a week in Chidambaram as also in many Siva temples across Tamil Nadu.

Lord Siva, in a dancing pose, is the central deity at Chidambaram. While every iconic representation of Siva is endowed with multiple mythological references, the one as Nataraja is a vital core of Dance. As for Bharatanatyam, the ananda tandava or ‘dance of bliss,’ which mythology places in the centre of the Universe – Thillai or Chidambaram – is its very soul.

No Bharatanatyam performance can be complete without at least one dance in praise of Siva as Nataraja. The symbolism of the dance of Siva has been expressed in a million words by thinkers, including world -renowned scientists of the western world.

But it is the simple poetry of our own Tamil poets and saints that moves dancers. The yearning to ‘see’ the Lord dancing is expressed in a myriad ways. Using appropriate gestures, the entire gamut of Siva mythology is expressed through the dance. What kindles the imagination of the lay viewer is that all these myths are so familiar to them.

Pilgrims flock to temples in an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm on Sivaratri. To be in the right place at the right time gives the devotee a sense of fulfilment as well as the feeling that somewhere such a pilgrimage is God’s will!

Not surprisingly, dancers too feel that to perform in Chidambaram is the will of Nataraja. If Raja Raja Chola had been king today, he would have had to recruit more than five thousand skilled dancers during Sivaratri in all the temples across his empire.

The first Natyanjali

I recall with wonder that the first Natyanjali held in the Chidambaram temple way back in 1981 when I was also invited to perform in front of the thousand pillared hall. That event was the brain-child of the scholar and dance aficionado, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan.

Today, looking back, serious historians of dance will conclude that it was a landmark in the renaissance of Bharatanatyam.

In less than four decades, Bharatanatyam had transformed so conclusively from a ritual performed by a chosen few, to a new avatar as a performing art known through the length and breadth of the country. The art had come back to the temple! Not as ritual but as classical entertainment!

Today, as Sivaratri approaches, dancers are eager to pay homage in many temples. The effort of organisations in various Siva temples in Tamil Nadu is to be lauded.

In Chidambaram, it has steadily grown into a five-day event. On Sivaratri, it begins at 6 p.m. and goes on till dawn the next day.

On the following four evenings, the performances go on from 5.30 p.m. to midnight. In all, 75 troupes participate. The ambience of the stage has become better and more artistic over time what with television coverage as well.

Taking a cue from Chidambaram, the Natyanjali festival has spread its wings and now takes place at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Nagapattinam, Tirunallar, Tiruvayyar, Tiruvarur and Sirkazhi. Representatives of other styles such as Kathak and Manipuri also participate and enthral small-town audiences.

This festival is the single most significant phenomenon in the renaissance of Bharatanatyam. As it grows bigger, my only prayer is that dancers dedicated to their art, regardless of their position in the professional circuit, get the generous support of sponsors. Truly, Sivaratri is a time when Natya is king.