Bharatanatyam or Bharathanatiyam (Tamil: பரதநாட்டியம்) is a major genre of Indian classical dance that originated in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu and neighboring regions. Traditionally, Bharatanatyam has been a solo dance that was performed exclusively by women, and expressed Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, but also of Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
Bharatanatyam's theoretical foundations trace to the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, its existence by 2nd century CE is noted in the ancient Tamil epic Silappatikaram, while temple sculptures of 6th to 9th century CE suggest it was a well refined performance art by mid 1st millennium CE. Bharatanatyam is quite possibly the oldest classical dance tradition of India.
Bharatanatyam style is noted for its fixed upper torso, legs bent or knees flexed out combined with spectacular footwork, a sophisticated vocabulary of sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes and face muscles. The dance is accompanied by music and a singer, and typically her guru is present as the director and conductor of the performance. The dance has traditionally been a form of an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu texts. The performance repertoire of Bharatanatyam, like other classical dances, includes nrita (pure dance), nritya (solo expressive dance) and natya (group dramatic dance).
Bharatanatyam remained exclusive to Hindu temples through the 19th century, was banned by the colonial British government in 1910, the Indian community protested the ban and expanded it outside the temples in the 20th century. Modern stage productions of Bharatanatyam have incorporated technical performances, pure dance based on non-religious ideas and fusion themes.
The term Bharata in Bharatanaytam, in the Hindu tradition, is not named after the famous performance art sage to whom the ancient Natya Shastra is attributed. The tradition states that the word Bharata is a mnemonic, consisting of "bha"–"ra"–"ta". The bha stands for bhava (feelings, emotions), ra stands for raga (melody, framework for musical notes), and ta stands for tala (rhythm). The term Natyam is a Sanskrit word for "dance". The compound word Bharatanatyam thus connotes a dance which harmoniously expresses "bhava, raga and tala".
The theoretical foundations of Bharatanatyam are found in Natya Shastra, the ancient Hindu text of performance arts.
Natya Shastra is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.
More direct historical references to Bharatnatyam is found in the Tamil epics Silappatikaram (~2nd century CE) and Manimegalai (~6th century). The ancient text Silappatikaram, includes a story of a dancing girl named Madhavi; it describes the dance training regimen called Arangatrau Kathai of Madhavi in verses 113 through 159. The carvings in Kanchipuram's Shiva temple that have been dated to 6th to 9th century CE suggest Bharatanatyam was a well developed performance art by about the mid 1st millennium CE.
A famous example of illustrative sculpture is in the southern gateway of the Chidambaram temple (~12th century) dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, where 108 poses of the Bharatnatyam, that are also described as karanas in the Natya Shastra, are carved in stone.
Many of the ancient Shiva sculptures in Hindu temples are same as the Bharata Natyam dance poses. For example, the Cave 1 of Badami cave temples, dated to 7th-century, portrays the Tandava-dancing Shiva as Nataraja. The image, 5 feet (1.5 m) tall, has 18 arms in a form that expresses the dance positions arranged in a geometric pattern. The arms of Shiva express mudras (symbolic hand gestures), that are found in Bharatanatyam.
Devadasis, anti-dance movement, colonial ban and the decline
Some colonial Indologists and modern authors have stated Bharatanatyam is a descendant of an ancient Devadasi (literally, servant girls of Deva temples) culture, suggesting historical origins to 300 BCE to 300 CE. Modern scholarship has questioned this theory for lack of any direct textual or archeological evidence. Historic sculpture and texts do describe and project dancing girls, as well as temple quarters dedicated to women, but they do not state them to be courtesans and prostitutes alleged by early colonial Indologists. According to Davesh Soneji, a critical examination of evidence suggest that the courtesan dancing is a modern era phenomena, which began in late 16th or 17th century of the Nayaka period of Tamil Nadu. According to James Lochtefeld, Bharatanatyam remained exclusive to Hindu temples through the 19th century, and it appeared on stage outside the temples only in the 20th century.
With the arrival of colonial East India Company officials rule in the 18th century, and the establishment of British colonial rule in 19th, many classical Indian dance forms were ridiculed and discouraged, and these performance arts declined. Christian missionaries and British officials presented "nautch girls" of north India (Kathak) and "devadasis" of south India (Bharatanatyam) as evidence of "harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols and priests" tradition, and Christian missionaries demanded that this must be stopped, launching the "anti-dance movement" in 1892. The anti-dance camp accused the dance form as a front for prostitution, while revivalists questioned the constructed histories by the colonial writers.
In 1910, the Madras Presidency of the British Empire altogether banned temple dancing, and with it the Bharatanatyam tradition within Hindu temples.
Post colonial era: revival and rebirth
The 1910 ban triggered powerful protests against the stereotyping and dehumanization of temple dancers. The Tamil people were concerned that a historic and rich dance tradition was being victimized under the excuse of social reform. The classical art revivalists such as E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and someone who had learnt the Bharatanatyam dance, questioned the cultural discrimination and the assumed connection, asking why prostitution needs years of learning and training for performance arts such as the Bharatanatyam, and how can killing performance arts end any evils in a society? Iyer was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges of nationalism, who while serving out his prison term persuaded his fellow political prisoners to support Bharatanatyam.
While the British colonial government enforced laws to suppress Bharatanatyam and all Hindu temple dances, some from the West such as the American dancer Esther Sherman moved to India in 1930, learnt Indian classical dances, changed her name to Ragini Devi, and joined the movement to save and revive Bharatanatyam and other ancient dance arts.
The Indian independence movement in early 20th century, already in progress, became a period of cultural ferment and initiated an effort by its people to reclaim their culture and rediscover history. In this period of cultural and political turmoil, instead of Bharatnatyam becoming extinct, it expanded out of Hindu temples and was revived as a mainstream dance by Bharatnatyam artists such as Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati. They championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) and Thanjavur styles of Bharatanatyam respectively.
Bharata Natyam is traditionally a team performance art that consists of a female solo dancer, accompanied by musicians and one or more singers. The theory behind the musical notes, vocal performance and the dance movement trace back to the ancient Natya Shastra, and many Sanskrit and Tamil texts such as the Abhinaya Darpana.
The solo artist (ekaharya) in Bharatanatyam is dressed in a colorful Sari, adorned with jewelry who presents a dance synchronized with Indian classical music. Her hand and facial gestures are codified sign language that recite a legend, spiritual ideas or a religious prayer derived from Hindu Vedic scriptures, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Puranas and historic drama texts. The dancer deploys turns or specific body movements to mark punctuations in the story or the entry of a different character in the play or legend being acted out through dance (Abhinaya). The footwork, body language, postures, musical notes, the tones of the vocalist, aesthetics and costumes integrate to express and communicate the underlying text.
In modern adaptations, Bharata Natyam dance troupes may involve many dancers which play specific characters of a story, creatively choreographed to ease the interpretation and expand the experience by the audience.
The repertoire of Bharatanatyam, like all major classical Indian dance forms, follows the three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra. These are Nritta (Nirutham), Nritya (Niruthiyam) and Natya (Natyam).
- The Nritta performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The viewer is presented with pure movement in Bharatanatyam, wherein the emphasis is the beauty in motion, form, speed, range and pattern. This part of the repertoire has no interpretative aspect, no telling of story. It is a technical performance, and aims to engage the senses (prakriti) of the audience.
- The Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes in Hindu dance traditions. In a nritya, the dance-acting expands to include silent expression of words through gestures and body motion set to musical notes. The actor articulates a legend or a spiritual message. This part of a Bharatanatyam repertoire is more than sensory enjoyment, it aims to engage the emotions and mind of the viewer.
- The Natyam is a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story. A Natya incorporates the elements of a Nritya.
The presentation begins with a rhythmic invocation (vandana) called the Alaripu. It is a pure dance, which combines a thank you and benediction for blessings from the gods and goddesses, the guru and the gathered performance team. It also serves as a prelim warm up dance, without melody, to enable to dancer to loosen her body, journey away from distractions and towards single-minded focus.
The next stage of the performance adds melody to the movement of Alarippu, and this is called Jatiswaram. The dance remains a prelim technical performance (nritta), pure in form and without any expressed words. The drums set the beat, of any Carnatic music raga (melody). She performs a sequence (Korvai) to the rhythm of the beat, presenting to the audience the unity of music, rhythm and movements.
The performance sequence then adds Shabdam (expressed words). The solo dancer, the vocalist(s) and the musical team, in this stage of the production, present short compositions, with words and meaning, in a spectrum of moods.
The performance thereafter evolves into the Varnam stage. This marks the arrival into the sanctum sanctorum core of the performance. It is the longest section and the nritya. She presents the play or the main composition, reveling in all her movements, silently communicating the text through codified gestures and footwork, harmoniously with the music, rhythmically punctuated. The dancer performs complicated moves, such as expressing a verse at two speeds. Her hands and body tell a story, whether of love and longing, or of a battle between the good and the evil, as the musicians envelop her with musical notes and tones that set the appropriate mood.
The Padam follows next in the sequence of the performance. This is the stage of reverence, of simplicity, of abhinaya (expression) of the solemn spiritual message or devotional religious prayer (bhakti). The music is lighter, the chant intimate, the dance emotional. The choreography attempts to express rasa (emotional taste) and a mood, while the recital may include items such as a keertanam (expressing devotion), a javali (expressing divine love) or something else.
The performance sequence ends with a Tillana, the climax. It closes out the nritya portion, the movements exit the temple of expressive dance, returning to the nritta style, where a series of pure movement and music are rhythmically performed. Therewith the performance ends.
The overall sequence of Bharatanatyam, states Balasaraswati, thus moves from "mere meter; then melody and meter; continuing with music, meaning and meter; its expansion in the centerpiece of the varnam; thereafter, music and meaning without meter; (...) a non-metrical song at the end. We see a most wonderful completeness and symmetry in this art".
The costumes of a Bharatanatyam dancer resembles a Tamil Hindu's bridal dress. It consists of a tailor fitted brilliantly colored Sari, with a special pleated cloth stitched that falls in front and opens like a hand fan when she flexes her knees or performs footwork. The Sari is worn in a special way, wrapping the back and body contour tightly, past one shoulder and its end then held by a jewelry belt at the waist.
She is typically adorned with jewelry, outlining her head or hair, on ear, nose and neck. Her face has appropriate makeup, eyes lined and ringed by collyrium which help viewers see her eye expressions. To her ankles, she wraps one or more leather straps of jingling bells [ Ghungroos ]. Her hair is tied up in the traditional way, often braided in with fragrant flowers (veni or gajra).
Vocalist and Musical instruments
The accompanying music to Bharatanatyam is in the Carnatic style of South India, as is the recitation and chanting. The vocalist is called the nattuvanar (or taladhari), typically also the conductor of the entire performance, who may be the guru of the dancer and may also be playing cymbals or one of the musical instruments. The recited verses and text in Bharatanatyam are in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit.
Bharatanatyam, like all classical dances of India, is steeped in symbolism both in its abhinaya (acting) and its goals. The roots of abhinaya are found in the Natyashastra text which defines drama in verse 6.10 as that which aesthetically arouses joy in the spectator, through the medium of actor's art of communication, that helps connect and transport the individual into a super sensual inner state of being. A performance art, asserts Natyashastra, connects the artists and the audience through abhinaya (literally, "carrying to the spectators"), that is applying body-speech-mind and scene, wherein the actors communicate to the audience, through song and music. Drama in this ancient Sanskrit text, thus is an art to engage every aspect of life, in order to glorify and gift a state of joyful consciousness.
The communication through symbols is in the form of expressive gestures and pantomime set to music. The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras (sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story. In the Hindu texts on dance, the dancer successfully expresses the spiritual ideas by paying attention to four aspects of a performance: Angika (gestures and body language), Vachika (song, recitation, music and rhythm), Aharya (stage setting, costume, make up, jewelry), and Sattvika (artist's mental disposition and emotional connection with the story and audience, wherein the artist's inner and outer state resonates). Abhinaya draws out the bhava (mood, psychological states).
The gestures used in Bharatanatyam are called Hasta (or mudras). These symbols are of three types: asamyuta hastas (single hand gestures), samyuta hastas (two hand gestures) and nrtta hastas (dance hand gestures). Like words in a glossary, these gestures are presented in the nritta as a list or embellishment to a prelim performance. In nritya stage of Bharatanatyam, these symbols set in a certain sequence become sentences with meaning, with emotions expressed through facial expressions and other aspects of abhinaya.
Modern revival: schools and training centers
Bharatanatyam rapidly expanded after India gained freedom from the colonial rule in 1947. It is now the most popular classical Indian dance style in India, enjoys high degree of support in expatriate Indian communities, and is considered to be synonymous with Indian dance by many foreigners unaware of the diversity of dances and performance arts in Indian culture. In the second half of the 20th century, Bharatanatyam has been to Indian dance tradition what ballet has been in the West.
During the colonial era attempts to kill Bharatanatyam traditions, it survived and revived by moving outside the Hindu temple and religious ideas. However, post-independence, with rising interest in its history, the ancient traditions, the invocation rituals and the spiritual expressive part of the dance has returned. Many innovations and developments in modern Bharatanatyam, states Anne-Marie Geston, are of a quasi-religious type. Major cities in India now have numerous schools that offer lessons in Bharatanatyam, and these cities host hundreds of shows every year.
Outside India, Bharatanatyam is a sought after and studied dance, states Meduri, in academic institutes in the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. For expat Indian and Tamil communities in many countries, it is a source and means for social life and community bonding. Contemporary Bharatanatyam choreographies include both male and female dancers.
- Paattum Bharathamum (Tamil)
- Thillaanaa Mohanambal (Tamil)
- Salangai Oli (Tamil)
- Senthamarai (Tamil; 1962)
- Mayuri (Telugu)
- Manichitrathazhu (Malayalam; 1993)
- kamaladalam (Malayalam )
- Bhangra – Folk dance of Punjab
- Chhau dance – folk dance of West Bengal
- Garba – Folk dance of Gujarat
- Kathak – classical dance of Northern India
- Kathakali – classical dance of Kerala
- Kuchipudi – classical dance of Andhra Pradesh
- Manipuri – classical dance from Manipur
- Mohiniaattam – performance art of Kerala
- Odissi – classical dance of Orissa
- Satriya – classical dance of Assam
- Yakshagana – performance art of Karnataka
- After the Tillana, the dancer may continue on to the seventh part, called Shloka. It is a reverential greeting, a thank you or a prayer to one or more gods, goddesses or to one's teacher. This is a post-performance, where a Sanskrit verse (Shloka) is danced out in a form of nritya. An example Shloka: "The Guru (teacher) is the Brahma, the Guru is the Vishnu, the Guru is the Maheshvara (Shiva). The Guru is the pathway to Supreme Brahman (supreme soul), to you the auspicious, I reverentially bow." Original: गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुर्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः । गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः ।।
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