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).
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 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
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
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.
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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