Bharata Natyam or Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form originating in Tamil Nadu, nowadays practiced throughout South India by predominantly young females and women. It is held as the national dance of India. The dance is accompanied by the classical Carnatic music. It has its inspirations from the sculptures of the ancient temple of Chidambaram.
Surviving texts of the golden age of Tamil literature and poetry known during the Sangam Age such as the Tolkappiyam, as well as the later Silappadikaram, testify to a variety of dance traditions which flourished in these times. The latter work is of particular importance, since one of its main characters, the courtesan Madhavi, is a highly accomplished dancer. The Silappadikaram is a mine of information of ancient Tamil culture and society, in which the arts of music and dance were highly developed and played a major role.
In ancient times Bharatanatyam was performed as “dasiattam” by mandir (Hindu temple) Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharata Natyam dance postures karanas. In fact, it is the celestial dancers, apsara’s, who are depicted in many scriptures dancing the heavenly version of what is known on earth as Bharata Natyam. In the most essential sense, a Hindu deity is a revered royal guest in his temple/abode, to be offered the “sixteen hospitalities” – among which are music and dance, pleasing to the senses. Thus, many Hindu temples traditionally maintained complements of trained musicians and dancers, as did Indian rulers.
In Kali Yuga, the center of most arts in India is Bhakti (devotion) and therefore, Bharatanatyam as a dance form and carnatic music set to it are deeply grounded in Bhakti. Bharata Natyam, it is said, is the embodiment of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Dance and music are inseparable forms; only with Sangeetam (words or syllables set to raga or melody) can dance be conceptualized. Bharatanatyam has three distinct elements to it: Nritta (rhythmic dance movements), Natya (mime, or dance with a dramatic aspect), and Nritya (combination of Nritta and Natya).
The Tamil country especially Tanjore, has always been the seat and centre of learning and culture. It was the famous Tanjore quartet of Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court during the Marathi King Sarabojiï¿½s time (1798ï¿½1824) which made a rich contribution to music and Bharatanatyam and also completed the process of re-editing the Bharathanatyam programme into its present shape with its various forms like the Alaripu, Jathi-Svaram, Varanam, Sadanam, Padam and Tillana. The descendants of these four brothers formed the original stock of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharata Natyam in Tanjore. Originally, they formed a community by themselves and most of them were Saivite non-brahmins.
It is believed that Bharata Natyam is mainly a renewal of Cathir, the ancient art of temple dancers.This dance form denotes various 19th and 20th century reconstructions of Cathir, the art of temple dancers from ancient dance forms.
A Bharatanatyam performance lasts about two hours, and includes six or more of the following parts:
- Allarippu – A presentation of the Tala punctuated by simple syllables spoken by the dancer. This really is sort of an invocation to the gods to bless the performance.
- Kautuvam– Ancient temple dance item performed in the beginning of the recital, containing rhythmic syllables sung for jathis.
- Ganapati Vandana – A traditional opening prayer to the Hindu god Ganesh, who removes obstacles. See also Pushpanjali
- Jatiswaram – An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body.
- Shabdam – The dancing is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme.
- Varnam – The center piece of the performance. It is the longest section of the dance punctuated with the most complex and difficult movements. Positions of the hands and body tell a story, usually of love and the longing for the lover.
- Padam – Probably the most lyrical section where the dancer “speaks” of some aspect of love: devotion to the Supreme Being; or of love of mother for child; or the love of lovers separated and reunited.
- Stuti – Hymn in praise of a deity that may contain a feigned mockery, etc. See also Stotra
- Koothu – Item containing a lot of dramatic elements.
- Javali – Javalis are relatively new, pure abhinaya types of compositions of light and pleasing nature. Like Padams the underlying theme of Javalis is Sringara Rasa depicting the Nayaka-Nayaki bhava.
- Thillana – The final section is a pure dance (nritta) when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.
Apart from these items, there are items such as Shlokam, Swarajathi, Krithi etc. The performance concludes with the chanting of a few religious verses as a form of benediction. Certain styles include more advanced items, such as Tharanga Nritham and Suddha Nritham. When a dancer has mastered all the elements of dance, as a coming out performance, he or she generally performs an Arangetram (debut).
- Jewelry – Bharata Natyam dancers wear a unique set of jewelry known as “Temple Jewelry” during the performance.
- Costume – From the ancient texts and sculptures, one can see that the original costume did not cover most of the dancers’ bodies. The medieval times, with the puritanistic drive, caused the devadasis to wear a special, heavy saree that severely restricted the dance movements. There are several varieties of Bharata Natyam costumes, some of which do not restrict the dancer’s movements, while the others do. The modern costumes are deeply symbolic, as their purpose is to project the dancer’s sukshma sharira (cf.aura), in the material world.
- Ankle bells – also known as ghungroo.
- Music – The accompanying music is in the Carnatic style of South India.
- Ensemble – Mostly, South Indian instruments are used in the ensemble. These include, the mridangam (drum), nadaswaram (long pipe horn made from a black wood), the flute, violin and veena (stringed instrument traditionally associated with Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of the arts and learning).
- Languages – Tamil, Telugu and Kannada are traditionally used in Bharata Natyam.