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A Bharatanatyam dancer

Bharatanatyam (also spelled Bharathanatyam, Bharatnatyam or Bharata Natyam) is a South Indian classical dance form. It owes its name to Krishna Iyer and, later, Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Bharata is Bha Bhava (mood); Ra = Raga (music); ta = Tala (rhythm). However, Bharata is also a name for the country of India and natyam is the Tamil word for the art of dance-drama. It was brought to the stage at the beginning of the 20th century by Krishna Iyer.


Traditional roots

Bharatanatyam is thought to have been created by the Bharata Muni, a Hindu sage, who wrote the Natya Shastra, the most important ancient treatise on classical Indian dance. It is also called the fifth Veda in reference to the foundation of Hindu religion and philosophy, from which sprang the related South Indian musical tradition of Carnatic music. In ancient times it was performed as dasiattam by mandir (Hindu temple) Devadasi's. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharata Natyam dance postures. In fact, it is the celestial dancers, apsara's, who are depicted in many scriptures dancing the heavenly version of what is known on earth as Bharatanatyam.

Essential ideas

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Bharatanatyam performance

Bharatanatyam is the manifestation of the South Indian idea of the celebration of the eternal universe through the celebration of the beauty of the material body. In Hindu mythology the whole universe is the dance of the Supreme Dancer, Nataraja, a name for Lord Shiva, the Hindu ascetic yogi and divine purveyor of destruction of evil.

Natya Shastra (I.44) reads, "...I have seen the Kaisiki style during the dance of the blue-throated lord (Shiva). It consists of elaborate gestures (Mridu Angahara's, movements of limbs), sentiments (Rasa's), emotional states (Bhava's). Actions (Kriya's) are its soul. The costume should be charmingly beautiful and the erotic sentiment (Sringara) is its foundation. It cannot be adequately portrayed by men. Except for women, none can practise it properly".

Bharatanatyam is considered to be a fire-dance, being the mystic manifestation in the human body of the metaphysical element of fire, is one of the five major styles that include Odissi(element of water), and Mohiniattam (element of air). The movements of an authentic Bharatanatyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame.

Contemporary Bharatanatyam is practiced as Natya Yoga, a sacred Hindu meditational tradition by a few orthodox schools (see Yoga & Dance).

A professional danseuse (patra), according to Abhinayadarpanam (one of the two most authoritative texts on Bharatanatyam), must possess the following qualities. She has to be (1) young, (2) slender, (3) beautiful, (4) with large eyes, (5) with well-rounded breasts, (6) self-confident, (7) witty, (8) pleasing, (9) well aware of when to dance and when to stop, able to follow the flow of songs and music, and to dance to the time (thalam), (10) with splendid costumes, and (11) of a happy disposition.

Medieval decline

Local kings often invited temple dancers devadasis to dance in their courts, the ocurrence of which created a new category of dancers and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. By that time, devadasis had already gone from being high-status life-long celibate priestesses (brahmacharya) to being lower-status temple servants who were allowed to have children from priests.

By the time of Mughal and British rule, the devadasis had fallen to the status of concubines or prostitutes.

Modern rebirth

Rukmini Devi Arundale raised Bharatanatyam to a puritan art form, divorced from its recently controversial past by "removing objectionable elements" (mostly, the Sringar, or the expressive Tantric elements) from some original styles of Sadir (such as Pandanallur, Tanjore or Thanjavur, Vazhuvoor, Mysore etc.), according to Shri Sankara Menon. A top contemporary dancer Alarmel Valli said, ``Though Chokkalingam Pillai often told us not to dance like a jadam (zombie), I suspect that the masters had to shed much of the full blooded quality of the repertoire to be accepted by the `respectable' Mylapore matrons".

Rukmini Devi Arundale founded the school Kalakshetra outside the city of Madras to teach it and to promote other studies in Indian music and art. She was one of first teachers to instruct a few men to perform the dance, which until then was the exclusive domain of women, while men, called Nattuvanars, had only been teaching Bharatanatyam without actually performing it.

Rukmini was also instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the attention of the West after being heavily influenced by Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballet dancer.

It is worth noticing that most of the contemporary Bharata Natyam dancers do not satisfy the criteria for a professional danceuse stated in the scriptures.

At present, Bharatanatyam recitals are usually not performed inside the temple shrine but outside it, and even outside the temple compounds at various festivals. Most contemporary performances are given on the stage with a live ensemble. In popular culture, the classical dance form of bharatanatyam is exposed largely through depiction in popular movies.




Although most of the contemporary Bharatanatyam ballets are popularly viewed as a form of entertainment, the Natya Shastra-based dance styles were sacred Hindu ceremonies originally conceived in order to spiritually elevate the spectators. Bharatanatyam proper is a solo dance, with two aspects, lasya, the graceful feminine lines and movements, and tandava (the dance of Shiva), masculine aspect. Typically a performance includes:

  • Ganapati Vandana - A traditional opening prayer to the Hindu god Ganesh, who removes obstacles.
  • Alarippu - A presentation of the Tala punctuated by simple syllables spoken by the dancer. This really is sort of an invocation to the gods to bless the performance.
  • Jatiswaram - An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body.
  • Shabdam - The dancing is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme.
  • Varnam - The center piece of the performance. It is the longest section of the dance punctuated with the most complex and difficult movements. Positions of the hands and body tell a story, usually of love and the longing for the lover.
  • Padam - Probably the most lyrical section where the dancer "speaks" of some aspect of love: devotion to the Supreme Being; or of love of mother for child; or the love of lovers separated and reunited.
  • Thillana - The final section is an abstract dance when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.

The performance concludes with the chanting of a few religious verses as a form of benediction.

Other elements

  • Costume - From the ancient texts and sculptures, one can see that the original costume did not cover most of the dancers' bodies. The medieval times, with the puritanistic drive, caused the devadasis to wear a special, heavy saree that severely restricted the dance movements. There are several varieties of Bharatanatyam costumes, some of which do not restrict the dancer's movements, while the others do. The modern costumes are deeply symbolic, as their purpose is to project the dancer's subtle body, sukshma sharira (cf.aura), in the material world.
  • Music - The music is in the Carnatic style of south India, "purer" than the classical music of north India (Hindustani music) only in the sense that it was not heavily influenced by traditions, like those of the Persians, from outside of India.
  • Ensemble - Instruments for Bharatanatyam are more often found in the south than in the north. These include, the mridangam (drum), nagaswaram (long black wood pipe horn made from a black wood), the flute, violin and veena (stringed instrument traditionally associated with Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of the arts and learning).
  • Languages - Tamil (predominant),Sanskrit,Telugu and Kannada are traditionally used in Bharatanatyam.


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This Bharata Natyam dancer's right hand is in the Bhramara Hasta (yoga, upward offering to the Divine), the 3 joined fingers symbolizing the sacred syllable AUM.The left hand's fingers are in Alapadma Hasta, the rotating lotus of spiritual light.The eyes are directed towards the Supreme Lord. The left leg is lifted, symbolizing the swift ascent of the consciousness in one step from the Earth to the Heaven.
A professional Bharatanatyam dancer must demonstrate a number of qualities. As Sangitaratnakara puts it, the true dance is connected to the beauty of the body, therefore any other dance is simply a parody (VII.1246).

The AbhinayaDarpana has a sloka that describes Patra Prana Dasha Smrutaha - the ten essentials of the dancer: Javaha (Agility), Sthirathvam (Steadiness), Rekhacha (graceful lines), Bhramari(balance in pirouettes), Drishtir (glance), Shramaha (hard work), Medha (intelligence), Shraddha(devotion), Vacho (good speech), and Geetam (singing ability).

Natya shastra (XXVII.97-98) provides a comprehensive description of a professional Bharathanatyam danseuse patra.

It is worth noting that the male dancers have rarely performed but often taught as nattuvanars. This reflects the traditional Indian view that the woman's body is better suited for performing the dance, while a man's mind is better at analysing and teaching it. It is related to the Purusha-Prakriti dualism embodied in the dualism of the human nature.

Not all Bharathanatyam celebrities fit the description stated in the sacred scriptures. Very few dancers continue to practise it sufficiently to be able to perform on the stage, therefore the majority of the dancers aged 40+ are considered as gurus rather than as performers.

External links

Online multimedia resources

fr:Bharata natyam pl:Bharatanatiam sa:भरत नाट्यम् sv:Bharata natyam


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