Bharatanatyam is the most popular of Indian dances and belongs to the South Indian state of Tamilnadu. Its antiquity is well established. In the past it was practised ad performed in the temples by a class of dancers known as the devadasis. It was a part of the religious rituals and has a long and hoary past. The kings and the princely courts patronised the temples, as well as the various traditions sustaining the dance form.
The salient features of Bharatanatyam are movements conceived in space mostly either along straight lines or triangles. In terms of geometrical designs, the dancer appears to weave a series of triangles besides several geometrical patterns.
Bharatnatyam is one of the most popular classical Indian dances. Bharatnatyam is more popular in South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Bharatnatyam dance is almost 2,000 years old. It is believed that Bharatnatyam was revealed by Lord Brahma to Bharata, a famous sage who then codified this sacred dance in a Sanskrit text called the Natya Shastra. The Natya Shastra is one of the fundamental treatises on Indian drama and aesthetics. Natya Shastra divides dance into two distinct forms- nritta, and nritya. In nritta, focus is on mastery of abstract hand gestures and movements, whereas the dancer employs a complex system of hand signals and body language to depict emotional expressions in nritya.
The Bharatnatyam dance flourished in the Hindu temples of South India. The temple dancers (Called Devadasis or servants of god) flourished under royal patronage and religious devotion. The Devadasi system became an integral part of South Indian temple ritual. Slowly and gradually the Devadasi system went into disrepute due to economic and social conditions attached to it. The credit of reviving and popularizing the Bharatnatyam in its present form goes to Rukmini Devi, who gave it new life and respectability. Bala Saraswati, the queen of Bharatnatyam also deserves accolades for her work and efforts to popularize Bharatnatyam.
At present Bharatnatyam is an immensely popular classical dance form of India. The present form of Bharatnatyam dance was evolved by Poniah Pillai of Tanjore and his brothers. Formats of Bharatnatyam consist of Alarippu (invocation), Jathi Swaram (note combinations) Shabdam (notes and lyrics), Varnam (a combination of pure dance and abhinaya) lighter items like Padams and Javalis (all erotic) and finally the thillana (again pure dance). Bharatnatyam is considered the mother art of most of the other classical dances of India and inspires many art forms like sculpture, painting, and icon-making.
In nritta (pure dance) to the chosen time cycle and a raga (melody), a dancer executes patterns that reveal the architectonic beauty of the form with a series of dance units called jathis or teermanams. The torso is used as a unit, the legs are in a semi-plie form and the stance achieves the basic posture called araimandi. The nritta numbers include Alarippu, Jatiswaram and Tillana, which are abstract items not conveying and specific meaning except that of joyous abandon with the dancer creating variegated forms of staggering visual beauty.
In nritya, a dancer performs to a poem, creating a parallel kinetic poetry in movement, registering subtle expressions on the face and the entire body reacts to the emotions, evoking sentiments in the spectator for relish - the rasa. The numbers are varnam, which has expressions as well as pure dance; padams, javalis and shlokas. The accompanying music is classical Carnatic. The themes are from Indian mythology, the epics and the Puranas.
The credit of bringing Bharatnatyam to its present form goes to the famous quartet of Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court. The various forms of the dance, like Alarippu, Jathiswaram, Sabdham, Varnam and Tillana, were also introduced by them. Even the first dance teachers of Bharatanatyam in Tanjore were the descendants of these four brothers only.
Decline of the Dance Form
With time, the devadasis of the temple turned into narthakis of the royal court and prostitution started replacing the devotion of the women. The original technique and themes of Bharatnatyam were modified to suit the new demands. The sacred connotation of the dance form was sacrificed to make it amenable to the entertainment needs of the kings.
The person responsible for once again raising the social status of Bharatanatyam is Krishna Iyer. He also contributed positively to the popularity of the dance form throughout the world. Another name that comes in mind in connection with this is that of Rukmini Devi Arundale. She modified the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and popularized it in the West. Rukmini founded the Kalakshetra School in 1936, outside the city of Madras, in order to teach the dance form as well as to promote it. Today, Bharatnatyam has become an integral part of a girl's upbringing in Tamil Nadu.
The major techniques of the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam include
Abhinaya (The art of story-telling)
Nritta (Pure dance movements, usually performed as an opening)
Nritya (Combination of Abhinaya and Nritta)
A typical Bharatnatyam performance includes:
Ganapati Vandana (Opening prayer to the Lord Ganesha)
Alarippu (A presentation of the Tala with simple syllables by the dancer)
Jatiswaram (An abstract dance with drumbeats)
Shabdam (Dance accompanied by a devotional poem or song)
Varnam (Main performance in which dance is punctuated with complex and difficult movements. A story is told through movements)
Padam (Lyrical section where the dancer speaks)
Thillana (Pure dance with complex footwork and captivating poses)