As Bharathanatya is one of the oldest forms of classical Indian dance judging by the ample literary sculptural and historical evidence available, it is but natural that it should be dealt with first, in the series planned by the editors on the classical styles of dance of our country.

There is a great deal of discussion amongst dance historians about the name itself. Some say that since the dance belongs to Bharatha Desa it was known as Bharatha Natya. Others maintain that Natya or Dance was composed by Bharatha, the sage who is supposed to have been the author of the Natya Sastra, a comprehensive treatise on Indian dramaturgy, and hence the art came to be known as Bharathanatya. Some others are of the opinion that Dance or Natya was a part of the rituals performed during yagnas by a community of dancers, both men and women, called the Bharatas’ and hence the dance they did, began to be known as Bharathanatya. On the other hand certain rationalistic scholars insist that the word Bharatha is an acronym of Bha (Bhava or Emotion), Ra (Raga or Melody) and Ta (Tala or Rhythm), the three main constituents of the Dance! Discussions apart, the fact remains that Bharathanatya is not only beautiful, but also aesthetic, rhythmic and highly spiritual. To me, Bharathanatya has always signified the union of the devotee, the Nayika with God, the Nayaka, for though the songs that the dancers interpret deal with human love, they are symbolising through their art “the immortal essence of all beings” which ultimately leads them to Ananda or supreme bliss. The dancers interpret the two worlds that we see around us, the tangible one, and the one that we can perceive only through intense devotion and total surrender. The image of the dancing Shiva for instance, is a clear representation of man’s desire to attain Divine Grace through dance.

In the Ekharya Lasya mentioned in the Natya Sastra, a single actor-dancer plays many roles through the four types of Abhinaya (Angika, Vachika, Aharya and Satwika) with a particular Sthayi Bhava dominating the thematic content of the song. Present-day Bharathanatya originates from this form, which goes back to the 4th century A.D.

After about the 10th century A.D., Bharathanatya seems to have developed mainly in South India with its plethora of magnificent temples, which became the focal points of the cultural life of the community. It is not surprising that in such a magnificent setting, Bharathanatya became a highly aesthetic and an intensely spiritual art form. The Chola and Pallava kings of the South were scholars and patrons of the fine arts and it has been recorded that Rajaraja Chola, the greatest of them, maintained a number of Devadasis or Temple dancers and was a great connoisseur of music and dance.

Incidentally the Devadasis (we do not know when exactly this institution came into being) provided entertainment for the lord of the temple and rendered Him routine service. We find the earliest reference to these “servants of God” in the Puranas where we are told that “they danced at fixed times before the image in the temple”. Their dance was a supplication and was governed by strict rules. It is also mentioned that Bharathanatya began with the earliest period of Tamil history, namely, the Sangam age (1500 B.C. to 500 A.D.)

The great Tamil literary works Silappadikaram and the Manimekhalai, both dealing with the life of a dancing girl, have a great deal to say about technique and presentation of the art of dance. In the beginning, Tamil literature was not influenced by the Natya Sastra, but later on Tamil writers began to draw extensively from the Natya Sastra and from the Sanskrit commentaries on it.

The Pallavas and the Cholas as we have already seen were great patrons of dance and music and encouraged sculptors to carve the dance Karanas described in the Natya Sastra on the walls of various temples they had built like the Brihadeswara Natya Sastra on the walls of various temples they had build like the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore, the Chidambaram Temple, and the temples of Madurai, Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram, etc. From a study of the creative literature of this period in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, it is apparent that the poets and musicians of this period began to infuse Bhakti or Devotion into dance traditions through their poetry and song leading to what is called Sringara Bhakti or Madura Bhakti (our greatest contribution to dance) which used the emotion of human love symbolically to express the yearning of the human being for union with Divine Spirit. The Sadir or Solo Recital is the direct offshoot of this tradition.

The Bharatham as it was popularly known and the Devdasi system spread to Andhra and Karnataka. Bharatham also came to be known as Dasi Attam and became a sacred offering to the Lord and a part of daily religious ritual in the temple. When these dances were performed at the royal courts and community gatherings they gave rise to, two additional types of Dasis, namely, the Rajadasis and the Alankaradasis. The only difference between the court dancer and the temple dancer was one of “Attitude” and also in most of the pieces performed by the Rajadasis, the kings were ‘Adored’ in the place of God. But the technique and the rules they followed were the same.

In the early 19th century, Bharathanatya which had taken centuries to evolve took on its present format under the Tanjore Brothers. The four brothers, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Shivanandam and Vadivelu were the sons of Subbaraya Nattuvanar, disciples of the great Muthuswami Dikshitar, and were composers, musicians and dancers and served in the royal courts of Tanjore. They systematized and codified the art of Bharathanatya and framed its reprtoire. They are popularly known as the Tanjore Quartet.

Some temple rites connected with Bharathanatya like Melaprapti, a recitation of Jathis by the Nattuvanar and the musicians at the beginning of the dance, and another ritual, the Navasandhi (certain privileged Devadasis offered oblations and sang and danced to placate the deities presiding over the nine quarters of the temple) have been given up, or used as special items in a theatre presentation of the art.

The same Sadir Katchari meaning a ‘solo recital’ was replaced by the word Bharatha natya in the first quarter of the 20th century, which also included two other forms of dance – the Bhagavata Mela Nataka (a dance drama based on Bharathanatya technique) and the Kuravanji (a sort of dance opera).

The Bharathanatya technique is highly stylised and consists of Nritta (pure dance) and Abhinaya or mimetic representation. Nritta is pure dance movement and utilises the major limbs (the Angas) and the minor limbs (the Upangas), starting with the Samabhanga (the balanced, straight position). The body of the dancer bends, flexes, and deflects in straight lines or triangles. Footwork has also to be clear and precise and can be done in three speeds, with jumps, and pirouettes. The Ara Mandi or Triangular position of the legs is very important and so is the placing of the feet, which have to be stamped in accordance with the Tala or the rhythm of the Shollakattu or Song.

The basic unit which emerges out of all these movments of the body, the feet, and the hands is called the Adavu. These units are classified into groups. The Adavu (the old Karana) consists of Sthanaka (pose), Chari (movement) and Nritta Mudras (or hand gestures), which have no meaning. Some traditions, depending upon the teacher and his inherited oral traditions, have nine groups of Adavus, some have twelve and some have fifteen groups. The Teermanam Adavus provide the climax to dance sequences and are a very important group of Adavus.

The repertoire in Bharathanatya is an extensive one. In the Bhagavata Mela tradition, dance is conceived as both solo and group whereas in the solo tradition the entire dance repertoire is done by a single dancer.

The repertoire as is done today was (as mentioned before) evolved by the Tanjore Quartet and is more or less adhered to though sometimes different families of teachers have their own variations of Sampradaya or tradition.

The recital begins with Alarippu, which means ‘flowering forth’, and is an invocatory dance performed to the beats of the drum (mridanga), with the rhythmic cadences or Shollukattu recited by the Nattuvanar or the teacher. The Alarippu is a good example of pure dance or Nritta executed through a number of concentrated rhythmic patterns. Beginning with the pose of perfect repose, the body flowers forth with the help of the hands, the neck, and the eyes. The body of the dancer gets into the Ardhamandali and the full Mandali.

The dancer invokes the aid of God, salutes the Guru, or the teacher, and pays obeisance to the learned audience and to Mother Earth on whom she stamps. This item has been identified by some as the Rangapuja (worship of the stage) mentioned in the Natya Sastra. Thus it not only is a general obeisance but also gives a foretaste of Bharathanatya technique to the audience.

The next item is the Jathiswaram – a pure dance or Nritta piece in which the dancer weaves several dance Jathis to a musical combination of melodic patterns consisting of PallaviAnupallavi, and Charanam. It is set to pure music and Tala and has no Sahitya or thematic content. The Tala is the time measure of Indian music and in rhythm each having five Jathis – Tisram (3 beats), Chatusram (4 beats), Khandam (5 beats) Misram (7 beats) and Sankirnam (9 beats). The Laya (tempo) is determined in each dance by the mood of the composition. Each dance interpretation of a Jathi concludes with a Teermanam or a sequence of “termination” Adavus. The Jathiswaram is followed by the Sabdam wherein for the first time in a Bharatanatya programme, Abhinaya or mimetic representation of an elementary nature is introduced with short Nritta sequences in between. The dancer tells a story through mime using a mixture of prayer, love and laughter and after teasing God who is her Nayaka or Lord, she gets into a state of divine ecstasy in the last stanza of the song. In Abhinaya the hands and the face ‘speak’ to the audience.

The Varnam which comes next is the most dynamic of the dances, and is combination of pure dance (Nritta), expressional dance (Nritya) and Abhinaya (mimetic dance) of the highest order. It is a bold affirmation of the Nayika’s love of God, the longing for Him, the sadness of separation and finally the total surrender to Him. For instance, a girl (the heroine or Nayika) requests her friend the ‘sakhi‘ to bring the Lord to her. He is cruel, she says, and indifferent to her and is continually flirting with other women. Her sorrow or Viraham at separation from the Lord is further described through the poetry of literature. The moon burns her, fragrances are repugnant and the God of Love has become inimical to her. Sunsets and breezes torture her. In short, nature is conspiring to make her unhappy. In a Varnam therefore the Nayika or dancer describes the “life experiences” of joys, sorrows, changes and reactions and the perpetual quest of the soul for enlightenment. Within the framework of the Rasus, namely, Sringara (love), Hasya (laughter), Karuna (compassion), Raudra (wrath),. Bhibatsa (disgust), Bhayanaka (fear), Adbhuta (surprise) and Veera (heroism), the situations she faces are expressed by the Nayika.

As Bharatha, the author of the Natya Sastra, points out, “By clearly expressing the universal and abstract Rasas and enabling men to relish the sentiments, the art of dance gives mankind the wisdom of Brahman so that they understand how every affair in life is transitory, from which thought, indifference to such works arise, and the knowledge that the highest virtues of serenity and fortitude may be found in ultimate bliss” is established.

The theme of the Varnam is communicated through Bhava or emotion by the dancer who can create her own images and produce Rasa or flavours in the spectator, which in turn augment her emotions! The whole piece is interspersed with Jathis which to say the least are very exciting. The literary content of the piece consists of a description of Vishnu or Shiva. The crescendo is reached when the Varnam is able to communicate faith, supreme adoration, and the yearning of the human for the divine. In the Abhinaya portions of the Varnam, the dancer has tremendous scope for what is called Manobhava or creativity depending, of course, upon her knowledge of the technique, her literary background, etc. With the Sthayibhava (dominant state) as her base, she can present a variety of relevant Sanchari Bhavas (transitory states).

She can do the same with Nritta sequences but since she has to coordinate them with her musicians, the sequences have to be practiced with them before the performance. A new dimension is added to this intricate composition by using Tattumettu and endings or Arudi’s.

After the Varnam which can last for about an hour, follows a period of relaxation wherein the dancer presents short numbers called Padams “interpretative dances of lyrical passages set to music”. The thematic content usually deals with a lady in love either looking for her lover or in a state of sorrow caused by separation from the beloved. According to the Bhakti cult, the Nayika is the human being or Jeevatma looking for union with the Nayaka or Parmatma. Since some of the greatest song writers or saints have composed these Padams, the dancer requires maturity and experience to be able to interpret them suitably. Sometimes a Keertana or a Javali are included by the dancer.

The concluding piece is a pure dance item, known as the Tillana. It is full of complex rhythms, statuesque poses and exciting conclusions or Teermanams, and concludes with a short dedicatory stanza to the Lord which is expressed through Abhinaya. The whole piece ends with Adavus in a fast tempo. After the fifties of the 20th century, a number of changes and innovations have been introduced as a Temple Art was converted into a Theatre Art.

Throughout the recita, ” the spiritual vision is described in human terms, the souls longing for surrender”……. and the ultimate “hope for complete union with God” until “the dancer becomes one with God”.

The Devadasi costume of close-fitting pajamas, with a sari worn over it, one end of which was taken from the front, between the legs and tucked in at the back and the other end draped over the shoulder in the usual way and wound tightly round the waist. Nowadays dancers wear tailored ‘costumes’ or sarees with a ‘fan’ of pleats in the front. The face is made up the usual way but the eyes and the eyebrow are emphasised with ‘kohl’ or eye black. Ornaments consist of the Rakudi (Jade Samanu), head ornaments, bangles, waist belt, armlets and flowers in the hair and ankle bells – 50 to 100 ankle bells on each leg, an integral part of a dancer’s ensemble, for these bells are indispensable for sounding out the rhythm.

In conclusion, it must be remembered that Bharathanatya is not a dance style but a dance technique which has three forms the Sadir, the Bhagawata Mela and the Koravanji. We have dealt herewith the Sadir or the solo Bharathanatyam recital which is what is taught to the dancer for seven to eight years before she has her debut or Rangapravesa which establishes her as a solo dancer and a performer in her own right!

As a great critic points out “the process of revitalising the tradition by either reviving older forms or by introducing new forms has kept the art of Bharathanatya vital and healthy. The art has become popular but let us hope that in the process it will not be diluted or lose its unique quality and its spirituality.” Amen.

Bharatnatya finds its origin in the confluence of its essence Bhava – Raga – Tala

– Natyashastra

“Education in the art of dance is education of the whole man – his physical, mental and emotional natures are disciplined and nourished simultaneously in dance.”

– Ted Shawn