Last Updated on January 8, 2023
What is Bharatanatyam?
Bharathanatyam is a type of classical Indian dance, which is based on very old traditions and it is nowadays performed all over the world mostly by people of Indian heritage, but not only.
So, it has become a truly global dance form. I have never practised Bharatanatyam, but I have seen it performed in Cardiff by dancers trained by Indiadancewales.
Although you need extensive knowledge of Hindu traditions, mythology and literature in order to understand Bharatanatyam fully, I could still appreciate its beauty, grace and expressivity.
The event I attended was community and family-oriented and performers were not professionals, but local girls who were performing for family and friends.
One day I would like to see a professional performance live, but I still appreciated what I saw and it was great to be in such a supportive environment for the dancers.
So, what is Bharatanatyam? Below I will give some background information for those who would like to find out more about it.
History of Bharathanatyam
Bharathanatyam comes from southern India, from the state of Tamil Nadu.
It is one of the seven Indian classical dance forms and it boasts over 2,000 years of lineage.
It was originally called Sadeer Attam or Sadir and it was performed solo by devadasi, who were women dancers and priestess, as a form of prayer connected with the practice of Hinduism. Devadasi used to dance and sing, to propitiate deities.
When the Muslim Mogul invaded India, in the 13th century, many devadasi were taken to mogul harems.
In the south of India, the practice of temple dancing continued but the status of devadasi gradually diminished.
The practice almost totally disappeared following the anti-nautch campaigns of the 1890s (movements aimed at abolishing the tradition of Indian dancing girls).
During that time India was a British colony and the British wanted to eradicate this type of dance in an attempt to repress Indian culture, but also because they saw the dance of the devadiasi as immoral.
The Victorian British associated devadiasi dancers with prostitution. This was a misconception, but it was also due to the fact that in Hinduism sex was not considered sin and eroticism was an element of the dance.
It was only in the early 20th century that sadir was rediscovered and promoted again under the name of Bharatanatyam.
The rediscovery of Bharatanatyam happened following nationalist movements in India and thanks to an increase in dialogue between western and Indian artists.
However, during this process, Bharatanatyam was dissociated from any erotic elements and its image ‘cleaned up’.
Thus, it became not only respectable but also desirable for middle and upper-class Indian women (whether resident in India or of Indian descent) to practice it.
Bharatanatyam became a symbol of Indian identity and the preserve of middle and upper classes.
As Bharatanatyam had almost disappeared by the early 20th century, it was resurrected using ancient manuscripts, sculptures and memories.
It was though taken out of the temples and placed on the stage.
Famous Bharatanatyam Dancers
E. Krisna Lyer
Three figures were key in the redevelopment of Bharathanatyam and in its becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
One was E. Krisna Iyer, an Indian lawyer and artist who tried to make this dance form popular.
He condemned the devadasi system, thus tried to cut the links between this and the dance.
In an attempt to ‘purify’ the dance he also removed any movements that may have had any erotic connotations or meanings.
Rukmini Devi Arundale
Rukmini Devi Arundale was an American-Indian dancer, married to a British man and she belonged to the brahamin caste.
She was active in India and in America in the first half of the 20th century, between 1920 and 1986.
She also contributed to the revival and the reconstitution of Bharatanatyam. She was trained in western classical ballet and in the Tanjore court style of dance, which she learnt from the guru Meenkshi Sundaram Pillai.
This is why she juxtaposed Bharatanatyam and ballet, to create a classical framework and aesthetic for the former. Rukmini Devi then funded her world-famous school, known as Kalakshetra.
Students not only from all regions of India but from all over the world trained in Kalakshetra and they then returned to their places of origin, where they taught Bharatanatyam as they learned it in Rukmini Devi’s school.
Tanjore Balasaraswati lived from 1918 until 1984 and she came from a lineage of devadasi practitioners, going back to the 19th century.
However, she was never a traditional devadasi as she was not a dedicated temple dancer, even though her debut was in a temple.
Her family had practiced in the court of Tanjavur but her mother and grandmother were musicians rather than dancers. Balasaraswati was a key figure in the revival of Bharatanatyam.
She was well known worldwide, she traveled often to the USA to teach and perform and she worked with the Madras Music Academy.
Stylistic Elements in Bharatanatyam
Bharathanatyam is characterized by basic positions, the main of which is the ardhamandali, in which the dancer stands with feet sideways and knees bent sideways, similar to a ballet demi-plie.
Basic steps are called adavus. Bharathanatyam involves many hand gestures, called mudra
The weight of the lower body is very grounded, while the upper body is lifted and relaxed.
The feet are very dynamic and move following staccato phrases, in contrast to the detached and relaxed upper body.
The aesthetic of Bharathanatyam is based on geometry, in particular, the human body is seen as geometric ideal both in its static and moving forms. The main principles are:
- Angasuddha: this refers to the clarity of line and shape, which is connected to the geometric principle.
- Lasya: grace which adds life and quality to technique. Bharathanatyam is very graceful, especially the movements of the hands and head.
- Tandava: this refers to the vigour of footwork, which needs to be strong and quick. Bharathanatyam is danced barefooted, wearing anklets with belts. As the dancer stamps her feet rhythmically, the bells add their own sound to the music. This is why footwork must be exactly on the beat.
- Tala Suddha: precision shown in a strong rhythmic relationship with the music. Rhythmic sequences are called tinmanams.
In addition to the principles above, symmetry, harmony, virtuosity and lack of apparent effort are important for a successful performance.
Bharathanatyam traditionally is a solo female dance, but now it is often performed in groups and by men as well.
Originally it was improvised, but improvisation requires a great deal of practice and knowledge of the mythology and texts, as well as a lot of training and performance experience, so many dancers nowadays use choreography.
The adoption of choreography is also due to western influences.
In Bharathanatyam there are essentially two aspects of the dance:
- Nritta – pure abstract movement performed with music.
- Nritya or abhinaya – narrative dance, which includes subtle facial expressions and intricate hand gestures. It tells stories but also conveys emotions. Stories are traditionally based on Hindu mythology and poetry, but nowadays they can be around general religious or literary themes, or even about present-day non-religious issues.
Nritta and nritya together form natya, which is dance and drama.
A performance normally includes sections of nritta, in which the feet move energetically following the rhytm, alternated to nritya sections, which are more posed and in which articulated hands gestures and facial expressions become the protagonist.
Virtuosity is especially expressed during the nritta sections.
Bharathanatyam is a highly technical and codified dance genre, which originally was transmitted from guru to disciples over many years and took a very long time to master.
Nowadays people learn it in schools and they learn a variety of styles, while in the past each dancer used to specialise in specific and distinct traditions, each with its own stylistic rules and contents, according to the one followed by her guru.
The music used for Bharatanatyam is Carnatic music from southern India, which has fast and syncopated rhythms.
Songs often have lyrics, called sahitya, which dancers interpret with their movements.
Traditionally, Bharatanatyam performances used to follow a specific structure and certain sequences that nowadays are not always adhered to.
Especially when it is performed outside of India, Bharatanatyam performances are divided in sections, each followed by a verbal explanation of the lyrics of the song. This format was introduced by Ram Gopal in the 1940s.
Famous Dancers in Bharatanatyam History
Among many of the famous Bharatanatyam practitioners, we can list:
- Urmila Satyanaraya, a modern star of Indian Bharatanatyam
- Padma Subramania, an Indian classical Bharatanatyam dancer who also includes folkloric elements in her dance.
- Bissano Ram Gopal, who was alive from 1912 to 2003 and who mixed classical Indian dance with balletic choreography.
In the UK, a contemporary dance artist who started as a Bharatanatyam choreographer and practitioner is Shobana Jeyasingh. She was born in Chennai and was trained in Valluvoor style of Bharatanatyam.
She started performing solo Bharatanatyam but without narrative, as she prefers nritta and pure abstract forms in dance.
As her career progressed, she started producing choreographies that were more and more influenced by western contemporary dance.
From this tradition, she has borrowed elements such as group choreography, floor work, physical contact between dancers, curving and rotation of the back.
In Chennai, and precisely in the nearby temple town of Chidambra, every year in February takes place the Natyanjali Dance Festival. Chennai is the capital of the Tamil Nadu state, the region of origin of Bhratanatyam.
- David, A. R. (2012) ‘Embodied Migration: Performance Practices of Diasporic Sri Lankan Tamil Communities in London’, Journal of Intercultural Studies, 33(4), pp. 375-394.
- Meduri, A. (2004) ‘Bharatanatyam as a Global Dance: Some Issues in Research, Teaching, and Practice’, Dance Research Journal, 36(2), pp. 11-29.
- O’Shea, J. (2003) ‘At Home in the World?: The Bharatanatyam Dancer As Transnational Interpreter’, TDR, 47(1), pp. 176-186.
- Pillai, S. (2002) ‘Rethinking Global Indian Dance through Local Eyes: The Contemporary Bharatanatyam Scene in Chennai’, Dance Research Journal, 34(2), pp. 14-29.
- Jeyasingh, S. (1990) ‘Getting off the Orient Express’, Dance Theatre Journal, 8(2), pp. 34-37.
- Jeyasingh, S. (1994) ‘Making Maps: Education Resource Pack’. Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company.
- Jeyasingh, S. (1995). Imaginary Homelands: creating a new dance language. In Border Tensions: conference proceedings. Guildford: University of Surrey, pp 191-7.
- Meduri, A. (1988) ‘Bharatha Natyam- What are You?’, Asian Theatre Journal, 5(1), pp. 1-22
Books on Bharatanatyam
Hi – I’m Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.