Introduction to BHARATA NATYAM, the popular classical dance style of India

Pic of performer and courtesy Namita Bodaji
  • A brief background on the origin, development of about Bharatanatyam dance form of India.

Classical dance as we know them today, may be said to have evolved from the folk dances prevalent that are even today part of our rural and tribal dances. Folk dances are performed with joyous abandon on occasions such as a harvest, festival or marriage. Tribal dances are part of the community.


Also read Folk dance forms of Odisha


However, classical dance is a highly sophisticated, complex and complete art form i.e. different from folk or tribal dance. Let alone understanding it fully, even to enjoy and appreciate it, requires a certain level of understanding and refinement.


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Folk dances of Assam


Our country is unique, as we have eight distinct classical dance styles, like Bharata Natyam from Tamil Nadu, Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Odissi from Orissa, Sattriya from Assam, Manipuri from Manipur and Kathak from north India. Undoubtedly Bharata natyam holds the supreme position of being the most popular classical dance, enjoying international recognition, particularly in European countries.


Also read About Sitara Devi, noted Kathak dancer

Bharata Natyam is the oldest classical dance of style, with a history i.e. more than five thousand years old. This dance form is internationally acclaimed too. It is a pleasure to watch young children learn it in New York, London or Zurich.

Youth in New York getting ready to perform on Diwali. Pic Hinduism Today.

Also read Bharatya Natyam in Canada  and A Shining Peruvian Bharatanatyam Dancer    

Architectural and sculptural evidence prove that Bharata Natyam and some other classical dance styles like Odissi and Manipuri originated from temples. The earliest reference is in the second century Tamil classic Silappadikaram. The temples that developed during the sixth to ninth century signify and define dance as a well refined art form.


Also read Bharata’s Natya Sastra


Varied aspects of music and dance was derived from the four Vedas namely Rig, Yajur, Atharva and Sam. The fifth Veda known as Natya Veda was created by Lord Brahma.


Lord Nataraja (Shiva) is the king of dance and all classical dance styles portray stories from Indian tradition. Unfortunately, stories from the Holy Bible are also recreated in the dance format.


The eight types of classical dance styles are based on texts like Bharatas Natya Sastra, Nandikesvaroa's Abhinaya Darpana, Sangita Ratnakara etc. Stories are revealed through the medium of varied intricate movements, body language and expressional dancing in order to establish the inter-relationship between the human and divine soul.   
Devadasis or servants of the Lord

During the eighteen and nineteen centuries when the devadasi system prevailed, young teenage girls were married to the Lord as part of the temple ritual. The girls were trained in classical music and dance and performed on religious and social occasions.


Then, Bharata Natyam then was also known as devadasi attam or sadir. The degradation of classical dance started when devadasis moved on from the temple courtyards to dance for elite chieftains and zamindars and ultimately for kings, thus enjoyed royal patronage.


While the dancers were blamed and ostracized by society the society is equally responsible for the shift of focus from the spirit to the body. The British banned the devadasi system and the described the dancers as nautch girls. There were protests since the sanctity of classical dance was disturbed and dances were witnessed only in closed quarters.


Classical dances went through varied stages of progression and regression due to varied social and political changes over the centuries. During the 20th century, American dancer Esther Sherman changed her name to Ragini Devi in order to learn classical dance. So also, lawyer and critic E Krishna Iyer donned female attire to attract children from respectable families to learn classical dance.

Theosophist and founder of the Kalashetra School in Chennai, Dr Rukmini Devi Arundale (awarded Padma Bhushan in 1956) and the legendary dancer from the devadasi community, Balasaraswati, are considered pioneers of the dance movement in India.

Geeta Chandran, founder President Natya Vriksha, at Khajuraho Dance Festival 2014. 

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How a gritty girl from TN took Bharatanatyam to the world   
Ram Gopal and Uday Shankar placed classical dances on the international platform. Great poets like Tagore and Vallthol promoted classical dance that helped regain its respectability.

Music and technique

The music is in the classical Carnatic music style and trinity of Carnatic music namely Tygaraja, Shyama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar are the composers whose compositions form the main repertoire of any Bharata Natyam performance. Compositions of saint poets  like Sankaracharya, Meerabai and Tulsidas amongst others are also being used in Bharatnatyam, particularly by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur. 


Also read Thyagaraja, musician par excellence &Thyagaraja Temple, Tirvuvarur

The technique of Bharata Natyam is quite intricate and complex.


Bha is Bhavam (expressions), Ra is Ragam (musical melody) musical melody, Ta is Talam (time measure or rhythm) and Natyam is dramatic quality. Furthermore, Bharata Natyam is a beautiful and divine art form that combines music, melody, histrionics, philosophy, psychology, mythology, varied movements etc. Students start learning at the  tender age of five and the minimum learning is of at least ten years. During learning period various movements and steps (adavus) are taught that becomes quite intricate. Later all the movements and gestures are used in a particular item or number. 


On completion of training the student performs the Arangetram (ascending of the stage). The performance begins with invocations and prayers to the gods Todaya mangalam, pushpanjali, alarippujatiswaram, sabdam varnam, padam and the finale thillana(Todaya Mangalam is a dance of invocation, presented at the beginning of the performance, in praise of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, the trinity of Indian classical dance and other gods for the blessings and success of the performance).

Pic by Nilesh Singha.  

The celebrated Tanjavur brothers designed the repertoire for the margam of Bharata natyam. Their contribution becomes relevant from the point of view of history.


The dance Compositions of the Tanjore Quartet edited by Sivanandam, reveals the years of these famous brothers i.e. Chinnaya, Ponnaiyya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu. They were responsible for reshaping the art of Bharata Natyam into a stylized concert format and also helped in classifying the basic Adavus (steps) for teaching purposes. The present patterns for presentation are aesthetically pleasing as it starts with slight body movements to the difficult Jathi Korvais, then Abhinaya numbers. It ultimately culminating into the joyous finale Thillana.


One must have the literary value of life in order to present the dance form as a poem as it would run through the pages. A poem has to be analysed from all angles and so also the poet's time of birth and death, as that would throw light on the cultural, political and social background of the place. 

Pic by Nilesh Singha. 

Keeping this view in mind, one cannot reject different styles or schools of Bharata natyam like Pandanallur, Thanjavur, Kancheepuram or Vazhuvoor as sub styles. Of course one cannot claim authenticity or superiority of any style except that few styles came into vogue during the revivalistic period. (The revival period commenced with poet Vallathol as he established Kerala Kalamandalam in Kerala in 1930. Simultaneously, Rabindranath Tagore established Shanti Niketan in Kolkata, which is considered the abode of both arts and literature. Further, fine arts received a new impetus from other personalities, like sage Siddhendra Yogi, promoting and propagating classical dance and music).

Vaibhav Arekar & troupe. Khajuraho Dance Festival 2014. 

Top Dancers and Conclusion 

Some of the top dancers are Mrinalini Sarabhai, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Visweswaran,Sudharani Raghupathy, Malvika Sarukkai, Deepak Mazumdar, Alarmel Valli, Padmaja Suresh, Mamatha Karanth, Srekala Bharath and young dancers like. Vaibhav Arekar, Parshvanath Upadhye,Nilesh Singha, Pavitra Bhat, Namita Bodaji ,etc.


To pursue a career in classical dance and become a fine performer is not easy. One needs lots of patience, determination, will power and hard work. It is a consistent process of growth, mentally, physically and spiritually.


Classical dance is the expression of the soul, far beyond the physical and tangible world.


Guru Vijay Shanker is a professional Kuchipudi, Kathakali exponent, dance teacher, choreographer, actor and arts critic for over four decades, contributing for national and international publications. He is particularly credited for his lecture-demonstrations on Indian classical dancing which is a fine combination of both education and entertainment. 


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