Bharatanatyam: Origin, Evolution, Dress, Elements and Famous Artists

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One of the eight dance styles accepted by Sangeet Natak Academy, a National Level Academy for Performing Arts established by the Indian government, is Bharatanatyam. It conveys spiritual concepts related to Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. This page describes its history, development, and key characteristics.

Origin and Evolution of Bharatnatyam

The earliest classical dance style in India, Bharatanatyam is thought to be the mother of many other Indian dance styles. It started in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. First, it began in Tamil Nadu’s Hindu temples and eventually spread throughout South India.

  • In India, Bharatanatyam is a significant classical dance style. It started in South Indian temples, especially those in Tamil Nadu. It was also called as Dasiattam since Devadasis used to perform it.
  • Bharatanatyam is thought to be approximately 2000 years old, and references to it may be found in numerous antique manuscripts, such as Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra.
  • The primary source of study for the body movement skills used in this dance style is Nandikesvara’s Abhinaya Darpana (4th – 5th century BCE).
  • The stones and pillars of historic temples provide abundant visual proof of Bharatanatyam’s existence.
    • There are numerous Bharatanatyam poses in the Gopurams of the Chidambaram temple.
  • Sadir is the name of the dance form that preceded Bharatanatyam.
  • There are historical depictions of this dance in Sangam writings such as Manimekalai and Silappatikaram.
  • The Devadasis, girls who were devoted to temples, preserved Bharatanatyam dancing.
  • Since the year 1000 CE, the Brihadeeswara Temple located in Thanjavur has served as a hub for Bharatanatyam.
  • Devadasi families produced many of the significant early practitioners and gurus of this dance style.
  • Many colonialists claimed that temple dance was a cover for prostitution during the British Raj.
  • Indian traditional dances were outlawed, and Christian missionaries—who had their own agendas—launched an anti-dance campaign.
  • E Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and freedom fighter, opposed the British government’s bigotry against Indian culture and campaigned for the resuscitation of Bharatanatyam. Nationalism-related allegations led to his detention.
  • In 1910, the government outlawed dancing at Hindu temples.
  • But because of the unwavering efforts of numerous artists and activists, the dance form was revitalised rather than going extinct.
  • Artists like Rukmini Devi Arunadale, Bala Saraswati, and others brought it back to life and beyond the temple.
  • Their efforts elevated the art form and extended it beyond the realm of traditional dancing.
    • It is important to remember that courtesans were not historically associated with this art form; rather, it was highly respected in ancient India. This association dates back to the 16th century.
    • The attitude of the colonial authority also contributed to its decline in reputation.

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Bharatnatyam Principles and Techniques

Nritta, Nritya, and Natya are the three extremely wide sections of Bharatanatyam dance.

Nritta: The technical portion of the performance, where the dancer uses only pure Bharata Natyam movements, paying close attention to form, speed, range, and rhythm without adding any types of interpretation.

Nritya: The part of the dance where the performer uses expressive gestures, feelings, and spiritual concepts. The body language and gestures used to express the Nritya are usually slower and more in tune with the musical notes of the composition.

Natya: Performed by the dancers, who use interpretive dance to convey specific characters by keeping certain body gestures.

Bharatnatyam Dress

Traditionally, robes composed of finely tailored saris are worn as embellishments on the Bharatanatyam dancers’ attire. A particularly pleated cloth adorns the front of the sari, and when the dancer bends her knees or exhibits more complex footwork, the fabric opens out into a fan-like pattern. Additionally, the performer usually has leather straps (called ghunghru) around her ankles so that the audience may hear her foot motions in addition to seeing them.

The dancer wears jewellery on her head, nose, ear, and neck to accentuate her facial expressions and head movements. A dancer’s hair is typically styled in a tidy plait and adorned with flowers or jewellery, and her face is heavily covered in makeup to guarantee that the audience can see all of her expressions. Finally, red henna is applied to the fingers and toes to accentuate the hand gestures.

Bharatnatyam Elements

Some important elements related to Bharatnatyam dance are mentioned here:

Bhava (Expressions): Performers of Bharatanatya must become proficient in executing a range of facial expressions as required by the song or tale. During a performance, emotions such as happiness, surprise, rage, grief, love, etc. can help convey the message.

Hasthamudra (Hand gestures): An essential component of Bharatanatyam performances are hand gestures and the creation of various shapes using finger movements.

Thala: Soulful Carnatic music is played in time with Bharatanatyam performances. Thalas stand for eight different rhythmic intervals.

Dance: The Bharatanatya dance performance features a well planned and practiced dance performance that makes full use of the stage area. It features intricate body movements and dance steps that precisely synchronise with the music, hand gestures, and facial emotions.

Nataraja Statue: The majority of Bharatanatya dances are performed in front of the statue of Lord Nataraja. Every performance starts with a salutation to Lord Nataraja and a prayer.

Dress: Silk sarees, appropriate jewellery, and metallic bells (gejje) around the wrists and ankles are worn by female Bharatanatyam artists. The sarees are uniquely styled and meant to show off artistic patterns while dancers execute a variety of routines. Male performers dress minimally in jewellery, shalya, and silk dhoti.

Performers: Both male and female dancers do Bharatanatyam. Still, women make up the bulk of the artists. Little girls start learning Bharatanatyam in school and, after years of practice under a skilled Guru (coach), acquire the necessary expertise and self-assurance to perform on major stages.

Individual/Team: You can perform Bharatanatyam solo or in a small group.

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Top Famous Bharatanatyam Dancers

Let’s see some of the famous Bharatanatyam dancers:

  • Alarmel Valli
  • Anita Ratnam
  • Balasarswati
  • Dr. Rekha Raju
  • Dr. Preeti (From Vijayalakshmi Academy of Arts) 
  • Greeshma Rajan 
  • Mala Prashanna (From Vijayalakshmi Academy of Arts) 
  • Mallika Sarabhai
  • Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai
  • Mrinalini Sarabhai
  • Padma Subramanyam
  • Parijat Naik 
  • Rukmini Devi
  • Veena Chikkanahalli Seshadri
  • Yamini Krishnamurthy
  • Vijayalakshmi Academy of Arts 

Where To Witness Bharatnatyam?

Performances of Bharatanatya are frequently featured in festivals, competitions, and school/college activities. Numerous dance schools host student performances in addition to “Rangapravesha” festivals, which honour the graduation of skilled dancers. Bharatanatyam performances are frequently featured at government-sponsored festivals like the Pattadakal Dance Festival, Bengaluru Habba, and Hampi Utsava. 

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Where did Bharatnatyam originate?

One of the most well-known and ancient styles of classical dance, Bharatanatyam has its roots in the Tanjore area of Tamil Nadu, South India. This dance’s roots can be found in the Natyasastra of the sage Bharata Muni.

What was Bharatanatyam’s previous name?

The Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam, formerly called Sadiraattam or Thevarattam, was modified from sadir by E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale. They were primarily responsible for changing the Pandanallur style of dance.

What are the important features of Bharatnatyam?

A few of the features of Bharatnatyam are:
Hastas, also known as mudras, are the gestures used by Bharatanatyam.
This dance style is full of symbolism.
Numerous yoga asanas can also be found in the dance.
Bharatanatyam poses are referred to as karanas.

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