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Bharata Natyam

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Bharata Natyam

Ranjitha Shivanna performing Bharatanatyam
Genre Indian classical
Country India
A male Bharata Natyam performer

Bharata Natyam (Tamil: பரதநாட்டியம், Kannada: ಭರತನಾಟ್ಯ, Marathi: भरतनाट्यम) also spelled Bharatanatyam, is a classical Indian dance form that originated in the temples of South India.[1][2][3][4][5] This dance form denotes various 19th- and 20th-century reconstructions of Sadir, the art of temple dancers called Devadasis. It was described in the treatise Natya Shastra by Bharata around the beginning of the common era. Bharata Natyam is known for its grace, purity, tenderness, and sculpturesque poses. Lord Shiva is considered the God of this dance form. Today, it is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over the world.[6]


The name Bharata Natyam is of relatively recent origin when performers like Rukmini Devi revived the dance in the 20th century. The original names of Bharata Natyam were Sadir, Chinnamelan and most commonly Dasi Attam.[7] A possible origin of the name is from Bharata Muni, who wrote the Natya Shastra. The meaning of the word Bharatnatyam is "Bhavam" means expression, "ragam" meaning music, "thalam" meaning rhythm and natyam meaning dance.

Dance tradition

One of the 81 Bharata Natyam dance positions carved on the outer wall of the upper storey of Peruvudaiyar Koyil, Thanjavur.

Surviving texts of the golden age of Tamil literature and poetry known during the Sangam Age such as the Tolkappiyam (தொல்காப்பியம்), as well as the later Silappadikaram (சிலப்பதிகாரம்), testify to a variety of dance traditions which flourished in these times. The latter work is of particular importance, since one of its main characters, the courtesan Madhavi, is a highly accomplished dancer. The Silappadikaram is a mine of information of ancient Tamil culture and society, in which the arts of music and dance were highly developed and played a major role.[8]

In ancient times it was performed as dasiattam by mandira (Hindu temple) Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharata Natyam dance postures karanas. In fact, it is the celestial dancers, apsaras, who are depicted in many scriptures dancing the heavenly version of what is known on earth as Bharata Natyam. In the most essential sense, a Hindu deity is a revered royal guest in his temple/abode, to be offered the "sixteen hospitalities" - among which are music and dance, pleasing to the senses. Thus, many Hindu temples traditionally maintained complements of trained musicians and dancers, as did Indian rulers.

In Kali Yuga, the center of most arts in India is Bhakti (devotion) and therefore, Bharata Natyam as a dance form and carnatic music set to it are deeply grounded in Bhakti. Bharata Natyam, it is said, is the embodiment of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Dance and music are inseparable forms; only with Sangeetam (words or syllables set to raga or melody) can dance be conceptualized. Bharata Natyam has three distinct elements to it: Nritta (rhythmic dance movements), Natya (mime, or dance with a dramatic aspect), and Nritya (combination of Nritta and Natya).

Tamil Nadu, especially Tanjore, has always been the seat and centre of learning and culture. It was the famous quartet of Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court during the Marathi King Saraboji’s time (1798–1824) which made a rich contribution to music and Bharata Natyam and also completed the process of re-editing the Bharata Natyam programme into its present shape with its various forms like the Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Sabdham, Varnam, Tillana etc. The descendants of these four brothers formed the original stock of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharata Natyam in Tanjore.

Essential ideas

This Bharata Natyam dancer's right hand is in the Katakamukha Hasta, 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.

Bharata Natyam is considered to be a fire-dance — the mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body. It is one of the five major styles (one for each element) that include Odissi (element of water), Kuchipudi (element of earth), Mohiniattam (element of air) and Kathakali (element of sky or aether). The movements of an authentic Bharata Natyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame. Contemporary Bharata Natyam is rarely practiced as Natya Yoga, a sacred meditational tradition, except by a few orthodox schools (see Yoga and dance).

Bharata Natyam proper is a solo dance, with two aspects, lasya, the graceful feminine lines and movements, and tandava Ananda Thandavam (Tamil) (the dance of Shiva), masculine aspect, which is identical to the Yin and Yang in the Chinese culture.

In most solo performances, Bharata Natyam involves many split characters that are depicted by the dancer. The dancer will take on numerous characters by switching roles through the swift turn in circle and creates a story line that can be easily followed by the feat of one individual. The characters will be understood by the narrative of the song and the expression, or "abhinaya. However, in more modern times, Bharata Natyam performances have taken stage as group performances involving dramatical performances that require many characters depicted by various dancers. In addition, these dance performances include numerous transitions and formations that are creatively choreographed to enhance the movements along with the music.

Spiritual symbolism

Bharata Natyam is the manifestation of the ancient idea of the celebration of the eternal universe through the celebration of the beauty of the material body. Some Bharata Natyam techniques can be traced back to the Kaisiki style. The Natya(I.44) reads, "... I have seen the Kaisiki style during the dance of the blue-throated lord (Shiva). It consists of elaborate gestures (Mridu Angaharas, movements of limbs), sentiments (Rasas), emotional states (Bhavas). Actions (Kriyas) are its soul. The costume should be charmingly beautiful and love (Sringara) is its foundation. It cannot be adequately portrayed by men. Except for women, none can practise it properly".

Apart from the Kaisikii style, Bharata Natyam imbibed some others. These reflect other yogis of spiritual revelations, such as the vision of two sages, Vyagrapada and Muyalaka (PRIT) -- who represents ignorance, the destruction of which brings enlightenment, true wisdom, and release from the bondage of existences.[9]

Medieval decline

Bharata Natyam in Serfoji II's period

Local kings often invited temple dancers (devadasis) to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers - rajanarthakis—and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself (surrendered) to the Lord, but the rajanarthaki's dance was meant to be an entertainment.

The Natya Shastra-based margi elements, such as karanas, that were meant to spiritually enlighten the spectators, were gradually replaced by desi karanas which were later replaced by adavus. The Bharata Natyam recitals and ballets started more and more popularly viewed as a form of desi entertainment.

The quartet of Chinnayya Pillai, Ponniah Pillai, Sivanandam Pillai and Vadivelu Pillai of the Tanjore Court, during the rule of Maratha King Saraboji II (1798–1832), made a rich contribution to music and Bharatanatyam and also completed the process of re-editing the Bharatanatyam programme into its present shape with its various items. The descendants of these four brothers formed the original stock of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharatanatyam in Tanjore. Some of the well known Nattuvanars were Guru Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Guru Muthukumara Swami Pillai, Guru Ramaiah Pillai, Guru Kittappa Pillai, Guru Kubernath Tanjorkar, Guru Dandayudhapani Pillai and others. The fall of the Hindu kingdoms in the South marked the eventual decline of Natya, as the Muslim invasion in the North has completely wiped out Natya there. The sacred dance, one of the constituents of the Sodasa Upacharam, was replaced by rice offerings.

Modern rebirth

Rukmini Devi Arundale is considered the most important revivalist in the Indian classical dance form of Bharata Natyam from its original 'sadhir' style

E. Krishna Iyer was one of those who raised the social status of Bharata Natyam and greatly popularized it. Rukmini Devi Arundale was also instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharata Natyam and bringing it to the attention of the West. E. Krishna Iyer said about Rukmini Devi, “There is no need to say that before she entered the field, the art was dead and gone or that it saw a renaissance only when she started to dance or that she created anything new that was not there before”. Rukmini Devi Arundale introduced group performances and staged various Bharata Natyam-based ballets. According to Shri Sankara Menon, Rukmini Devi raised Bharata Natyam to a puritan art form, divorced from its recently controversial past by "removing objectionable elements" (mostly, the Sringara, certain emotional elements evocative of the erotic, such as hip, neck, lip and chest movements) from the Pandanallur style, which was publicly criticized by Balasaraswati and other representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. Not all love was portrayed, at least outside parameters considered "chaste". Balasaraswati said that "the effort to purify Bharata Natyam through the introduction of novel ideas is like putting a gloss on burnished gold or painting the lotus". Having studied Bharata Natyam for three years, in 1936 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. The dance, at that time, was exclusively performed by women, while men, called Nattuvanars, had only been teaching Bharata Natyam without actually performing it. It is worth noticing that most of the contemporary Bharata Natyam dancers do not satisfy the criteria for a professional danseuse stated in the scriptures.

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, who was originally trained in the Vazhuvoor style of Bharata Natyam, was another figure that greatly influenced the development of Bharata Natyam. She started her research on karanas in early sixties, and later announced the creation of a new Bharata Natyam variety, Bharatanrityam, which was a Bharata Natyam-based reconstruction of Natya Shastra's technique. While the Pandanallur style, Tanjore or Thanjavur, Vazhuvoor, Mysore, Kancheepuram were based on the art of rajadasis and are exoteric in nature, some others, like the Melattur style and Balasaraswati's style grew out of the devadasis' distinctly different esoteric art.

The development of the Bharata Natyam dance form has therefore been surrounded by controversy as some including Ashish Khokar the Indian dance historian have seen it as a means by which many women, have appropriated certain Devadasi traditions while disassociating themselves with other aspects of the contemporary devadasis' practices.[1]

At present, Bharata Natyam 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 adapted, or "semi-classical", Bharata Natyam has been exposed largely through depiction in popular movies and TV programs.

Learning Bharata Natyam normally takes many years before the arangetram (debut). There are academic and commercialized dance institutes in many countries. Many people choose to learn Carnatic music along with Bharata Natyam as they go together.

At present, not only Hindus but many Christians and Muslims also learn it, bringing it beyond the rigid forms of religious boundaries.

A paradigm shift was introduced in the field of Bharatnatyam when it got introduced in Maharashtra. Shri Kamleshji Maharaj was the pioneer in Maharashtra who introduced a new confluence of bharatnatyam and local dances like tamasha to create a new form called Tattumucchlum.

Bharata Natyam simplified

There are 3 aspects to dance; Nritta, Nritya and Natya. Nritta is a pure dance without any emotions, expressions or sahityam. Nritya has sahityam (a sentence which means something). It has emotions, expressions and has a meaning shown by the hastas. Natya is when a person is portraying a character. There are 4 types of abhinaya in dance. They are

  1. Anghika - Physical or body movements.
  2. Vachika - the song being played, poetry
  3. Aaharya - Ornamentation of a character/dancer e.g. jewellery, costume
  4. Satvika - Involuntary movements e.g. trembling, break of voice, tears


Bharata Natyam dance performed by Rama Vaidyanathan at the auditorium of the Guimet Museum on June 6, 2009

Typically a performance includes:

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. Alaripu is performed in different jatis. Tishra, Mishra, Chatushra, Sankirna are the different types of jatis.
Ancient temple dance item performed in the beginning of the recital, containing rhythmic syllables sung for jathis.
Ganapati Vandana
A traditional opening prayer to the Hindu god Ganesh, who removes obstacles. See also Pushpanjali
a starting dance in which we show respect towards the god. This item was adopted from the karnatic music margam.A beautiful example of a todayamangalam is "jayajankaki Ramana"
Jatiswaram or Jathiswaram
An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body. Here the Dancer displays the Korvai in a rhythmic form. Jatiswaram or Jathiswaram brings out three aspects of dance: unity of music, rhythm and movements.
The dancing is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme. Shabdam is usually depicting graceful movements in a story or a poem
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.
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.
Hymn in praise of a deity that may contain a feigned mockery, etc. See also Stotra
Item containing a lot of dramatic elements.
Javalis are relatively new, pure abhinaya types of compositions of light and pleasing nature. Like Padams the underlying theme of Javalis is Sringara Rasa depicting the Nayaka-Nayaki bhava.
The final section is a pure dance (nritta) when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.

Apart from these items, there are items such as Shlokam, Swarajathi, Krithi etc. The performance concludes with the chanting of a few religious verses as a form of benediction. Certain styles include more advanced items, such as Tharanga Nritham and Suddha Nritham. When a dancer has mastered all the elements of dance, as a coming out performance, he or she generally performs an Arangetram (debut).

This is a devotional song on Lord Shiva and an item dance in Bharata Natyam. It can also be performed in byapti slow motion. The words for the shloka are " Angikam Bhuvanam Yasya, Vachikam Sarva Vangmayam, Aaharyam Chandra Taradhi, Tvam Numah Satvikam Shivam"

Other aspects

Bharata Natyam dancers wear a unique set of jewelry known as "Temple Jewelry" during the performance.
Dancers wear anklets made of rope or leather with rows of sleigh-like (traditionally copper) bells attached on the anklet. The dancer's talent is judged (along with style and presentation) by the amount of ringing heard and the number of bells on the anklet. The less ringing heard from the anklet then the better the dancer, which is seen as having control and fluid movement. Typically, beginners have 1-2 rows, mediocre dancers have 3 rows, and advance dancers have 4-5 rows.
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 Bharata Natyam 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 sukshma sharira (cf.aura), in the material world.
The accompanying music is in the Carnatic style of South India.
Mostly, South Indian instruments are used in the ensemble. These include, the mridangam (drum), nagaswaram (long 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).
Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit are traditionally used in Bharata Natyam.

Ideal qualities of dancers

A professional Bharata Natyam 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 Abhinaya Darpana, one of the two most authoritative texts on Bharata Natyam, has a sloka that describes Patra Prana Dasha Smrutaha — the ten essentials of the dancer: Javaha (agility), Sthirathvam (steadiness), Rekha (graceful lines), Bhramari (balance in pirouettes), Drishti (glance), Shramaha (hard work), Medha (intelligence), Shraddha (devotion), Vacho (good speech), and Geetam (singing ability).

A professional danseuse (patra), according to the Abhinaya Darpana, must possess the following qualities: She has to be youthful, slender, beautiful, with large eyes, with well-rounded breasts, self-confident, witty, pleasing, 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), with splendid costumes, and of a happy disposition.

As Natya Shastra states, narthaki (female dancers), are required to be "Women who have beautiful limbs, are conversant with the sixty-four arts and crafts (Kalā), are clever, courteous in behaviour, free from female diseases, always bold, free from indolence, inured to hard work, capable of practising various arts and crafts, skilled in dancing and songs, who excel by their beauty, youthfulness, brilliance and other qualities all other women standing by."[10]

In Popular Culture (Movies)

  1. Paattum Bharathamum
  2. Thillaanaa Mohanambal
  3. Saagara Sangamam
  4. Senthamarai (Tamil 1962)

See also

  • Bhangra- Folk dance of Punjab
  • Chhau dance - classical dance of west Bengal.
  • Kathak - classical dance prevalent in Northern India
  • Kathakali - classical dance of Kerala, largely performed by men
  • Kuchipudi - classical dance of Andhra Pradesh
  • Manipuri - classical dance from Manipur
  • Mohiniaattam - classical dance of Kerala, largely performed by women
  • Odissi - classical dance of Orissa
  • Yakshagana - Kannada theatre
  • Dance - An art form
  • Garba - Folk dance of Gujarat
  • Satriya - classical dance form of Assam.


  1. ^ International Tamil Language Foundation (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritiage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation. p. 1201. 
  2. ^ bharata-natya Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007
  3. ^ Samson, Leela (1987). Rhythm in Joy: Classical Indian Dance Traditions. New Delhi: Lustre Press Pvt. Ltd. p. 29. 
  4. ^ Banerjee, tProjesh (1983). Indian Ballet Dancing. New Jersey: Abhinav Publications. p. 43. 
  5. ^ Bowers, Faubion (1967). The Dance in India. New York: AMS Press, Inc. pp. 13 & 15. 
  6. ^ Bharata Natyam gaining popularity in China, The Hindu
  7. ^ Lynton, Harriet Ronken. Born to Dance. p. 7. 
  8. ^ Kilger, George (1993). Bharata Natyam in Cultural Perspective. New Delhi: Manohar American Institute of Indian Studies. p. 2. 
  9. ^ Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House. pp. 120–121. 
  10. ^ Ghosh, Manomohan (2002). Natyasastra. India: Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy.  
  • Natarajan, Srividya. Another Stage in the Life of the Nation: Sadir, Bharatanatyam, Feminist Theory. Unpublished Ph.D Thesis, Dept of English, University of Hyderabad, 1997.
  • "Revealing the Art of Natyasastra" by Narayanan Chittoor Namboodiripad ISBN 9788121512183

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