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You are here : home > Indian Culture > Indian Folk and Classical Dances > Bharatanatyam

Bharatanatyam

The history

Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest dance forms in India. Its roots can be traced back to the Dasiattam dance traditions of Tamil Nadu in South India. This style of dance, as an art form, was nurtured in the temples and received the patronage of the royal courts in South India for centuries. 

The name "Bharatanatyam" has two distinct roots. One is its reference to Bharata, the author of the Natyashatra, the ancient Sanskrit text that serves as a guidebook to classical dancers even to the present day. Broken up into three syllables, 'bha', 'ra', 'ta', it also refers to three important aspects of the form: bhava (mood), rasa (sentiment), and tala (rhythm or cadence).
 

The devdasis

This dance was traditionally performed by the devdasis, a community of temple dancers, who handed down the knowledge of this art form from generation to generation. Similar to the geishas of Japan, the devdasis were trained in music, dance, literature, and the art of love. The devdasis were women who dedicated their lives to serving the temple deity as dancers and musicians and their performances were an inherent part of the elaborate temple and court rituals. These talented artistes and their male gurus (nattuvanars) carried the torch of this art down the centuries. However, the colonization of India saw a sea change in the country's social values. The Victorian values of the British gained the upper hand and the devdasis lost the patronage of the court as they were unacceptable in 'polite society' according to the prevalent social values. As a result, the devdasis were often treated as common prostitutes by the end of the 19th century. This community of artistes fell into disrepute and there was a danger that this wonderful dance form would have been lost to modern India. 
 

The revival

The 1930s saw a movement to revive this dance form when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to rediscover its beauty. Consequently, some surviving devdasis, such as the legendary Balasaraswati, were invited to perform on stage. 

The present form of Bharatanatyam as we know it has been codified and documented in the early 19th century by four brothers - Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam - who were also known as the Tanjore Quartet. Their dance compositions form the bulk of the Bharatanatyam repertoire even today. 

Rukmini Devi was the first woman from the educated elite to learn this dance form and give it social acceptability. It is thanks to pioneers like her and E. Krishna Iyer that this dying art form was revived and taken out of its sheltered existence within temple walls and given a platform in the public eye. However, bharatanatyam still retains its essentially devotional character. 
 

A typical bharatanatyam performance

A bharatanatyam performance today would comprise of a combination of pieces emphasizing nritta (abstract dance) and/or nritya (narrative or expressive dance using enactment or abhinaya).This dance form is distinguished by a strong basic position, ardhamandala, with feet and knees turned out in a plie position. The spine is held erect, and movement is initiated from the central area between the solar plexus and the navel. Hand gestures, called mudras, are used to emphasize the basic lines. They are also the means through which a dancer 'speaks' as the mudras constitute a language code in abhinaya or narrative dance

The dance usually has devotional love as its theme. The dancer plays the part of a woman devotee awaiting an erotic union with the god, her beloved. The dancer is either dressed in a sari worn in the Tamil style or cut and sewn as loose trousers with long pleats attached in front. In keeping with tradition, the dancers wear bridal jewellery, as the devdasis  were supposed to 'brides of god.' Originally, a dance meant to be performed solo by a woman, it is now also performed by men and by groups of dancers.
 

Learning bharatanatyam

Today, Degree and PostGraduate courses covering the practice and theory of Bharatanatyam as well as the languages associated with its development are available at major universities of India. Rukmini Devi has also established a school called Kalakshetra that teaches this dance form. 

Some of the famous exponents of this art form are: Shanta Rao, Indrani, Yamini Krishnamurti, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kalanidhi Narayanan, U.S. Krishna Rao, and C.V.Chandrashekhar.

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