Bharatanatyam dance is a tradition rooted in Indian history and culture. This dance evolved from the text Natya Shastra and took its roots in the temples with the intention of deepening the religious experience.
Today, Bharatanatyam is a dance style that encompasses religious and non-religious themes as well as fusion styles.
This tradition, characterized by precise movements, sharp edges and expressive body language, has delighted audiences for generations.
Like many other aspects of the Indian tradition, this art form has struggled through periods of oppression. However, thanks to the efforts of teachers and students around the world, Bharatanatyam has been revived to continue to serve people who find joy in the formal and intuitive expressions expressed in the structure of the dance.
The word Bharatanatyam was composed of two Sanskrit words: natyam, meaning dance, and bharata, composed of bha (bhava/feelings), raga (melody), and ta (tala/rhythm). Thus, the term Bharatanatyam means a dance that expresses bhava, raga and tala.
History of Bharatanatyam
The history of Bharatanatyam is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of this art form. From its sacred origins in temple rituals to its resurrection as a revered classical dance, Bharatanatyam continues to enchant audiences with its beauty, grace and profound storytelling. It remains an integral part of India’s cultural heritage and embodies the country’s rich traditions and artistic expressions.
The theoretical structure of Bharatanatyam can be traced back to Natya Shastra, the foundational text on artistic expression. According to legend, Lord Brahma created Bharatanatyam, performing it for sage Bharata, who then incorporated it into the Natya Shastra. Devadasi (dancers dedicated to serving the Lord as servants) performed the Bharatanatyam style in South Indian temples. Bharatanatyam’s original performance style dates back to 300 BCE.
In South India, the practice grew in popularity. Lord Shiva is depicted in Bharatanatyam poses in many temples. Thillai Natarajar Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, has 108 Bharatanatyam poses carved into small rectangular panels on its eastern gopuram. In addition, in one of Karnataka’s Badami cave temples, Lord Shiva is depicted as Nataraja posing in Tandava dance in a 5-ft tall sculpture. The sculpture depicts the 18 arms of Shiva expressing mudras (hand gestures) associated with Bharatanatyam.
During British colonial rule, the Devadasis of South India were viewed as disgraceful, with the long-studied and religiously poignant Bharatanatyam tradition being equated with courtesan behavior. Several classical Indian art forms were banned, thus ending the practice of temple Bharatanatyam performances.
Classical art revivalists began working together soon after to resurrect the art form. The lawyer, activist, and classical artist E. Krishna Iyer took part in the fight to revive this traditional style of dance until he was imprisoned on charges of nationalism. Rukmini Devi Arundale, a theosophist and choreographer, advocated for the renewal of Bharatanatyam dance while Iyer was in prison. Together, they founded the Madras Music Academy, which works with the community to preserve traditional arts such as Bharatanatyam dance.
As more and more students took up this revered classical dance style, its popularity grew. As one of the most prominent Indian dances, Bharatanatyam is performed and celebrated all over India and abroad.
Bharatanatyam principles and techniques
Bharatanatyam dance can be divided into three major sections: Nritta, Nritya and Natya.
The technical aspect of the performance in which the dancer performs pure Bharata Natyam movements with special attention to speed, pattern, form, volume and rhythm, without introducing any interpretive elements.
The aspect of dance in which the dancer incorporates spiritual themes, emotions, and expressive gestures. To convey the Nritya, the body movements and gestures are usually slower and harmonize with the musical notes of the piece.
Dancers maintain specific body movements for specific characters, which are conveyed through interpretive dance.
Traditional Bharatanatyam costume
The Bharatanatyam attire of Bharatanatyam dancers traditionally consists of robes made of intricately tailored saris. The front of the sari is decorated with a specially folded fabric that opens in a fan shape when the dancer bends her knees or shows her intricate footwork. Usually, the performer also wears leather straps (called ghunghru) around her ankles so that the audience can not only see but also hear her foot movements.
The dancer emphasizes her facial expressions and head movements with jewelry, including jewelry on her head, nose, ear and neck. The dancer’s face is heavily made up so that the audience can clearly see her facial expressions, and her hair is traditionally braided into a neat braid decorated with jewelry or flowers. Finally, the fingers and toes are lightened with red henna to emphasize the gestures of the hands.
There are six portions to the Bharatanatyam dance performance: Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, and Tillana.
‘To bloom’ is a Tamil word. A larippu consists of a set of movements set to a beat at the beginning of a performance. Dancers typically use this portion as a warm-up before upcoming performances.
As the dance progresses, the movements become more complex. Despite not conveying any meaning yet, the dancers perform highly skilled and practiced postures.
The dance will include both Nritta and Abhinaya, as well as elements honoring Lord Krishna.
Varnam usually lasts 45 minutes to an hour and is the most challenging part of the performance. The contexts in this section are typically characterized by beauty, grandeur, and spiritual poignancy.
Padams are abhinaya sections, usually set more slowly and with the intention of conveying the many complex feelings and emotions of the piece of music.
A nritta component consisting of graceful movements with sculpture-like positions. This part typically ends in a fast-paced rhythm– that captivates the audience.