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What is Bharatanatyam?

Updated: Apr 18, 2019

1. What is Bharatanatyam?

Bharata Natyam is one of the oldest dance forms of India. It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since ancient times. Later it was codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century by four brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet whose musical compositions for dance form the bulk of the Bharata Natyam repertoire even today. The art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians forming part of the elaborate rituals. These highly talented artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repository of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India's cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to discover its beauty. The philosophy behind the dance is to search the human soul and unite with the Supreme Being. In the dance form of Bharatanatyam, the artists make use of beautiful hand and eye movements to convey the message. It is more of personification of the music in a visual form.

2. History of Bharatanatyam: Origin and Significance

Bharatnatyam is an artistic yoga that involves the movement of the body parts in a very artistic and elegant manner. It is the most widely practiced of Indian classical dances in south India, and has it's origin in Tamil Nadu. The term Bharatnatyam was introduced in the mid thirties by S. Krishna Iyer and later spread by Rukminidevi Arundale. It comprises of Bhava,Raga, Tala, and Natya put together as Bharatanatyam.

Natyashastra is often reffered to as the Bible of Indian classical dance. It is said that the Gods and Godesses pleaded Brahma [the creator, as per Hindu Mythology] for the creation of another Veda, that was understandable by common man. So,Brahma created the fifth Veda, which is a combination of the existing four vedas [ Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Veda]. He propogated this veda on earth through Sage Bharatha, who wrote it down as Natyashastra. Brahma took pathya [ words ] from the Rig veda, Abhinaya [ communicative elements of the body movements] from the Yajur Veda, Geeth [ music and chant] from the Sama Veda, and Rasa [vital sentiment, an emotional element] from Atharva veda, to form the fifth veda - the Natya Veda. Bharatha, together with groups of Gandharvas and Apsaras performed Natya, Nrtta, and Nrtya before Lord Shiva [the Lord of Devine Dance]. Thus Natyabecame the authoritative form of classical Indian dances. The term "Bharatnatyam" partly owes it's name to Sage Bharatha.

The Natyashastra reads, "when the world had become steeped in greed and desire, in jelousy and anger, in pleasure and pain, the Supreme one (Brahma) was asked by the people to create an entertainment which could be seen and heard by all, for the scriptures were not enjoyed by the masses, being too learned and ambiguous." The creation of Natyashastra is very important in the kaliyuga (the age of destruction of the world, as per Hindu mythology).

Centuries ago, there were many dancers - priestesses in the Hindu temples in south India, called Devadasis. They would sing, dance and play many musical instruments. They were well versed in Sanskrit and other languages. Since these dancers were called Devadasis, Bharatnatyam was originally called Dasi Attam.

Four related but distinct forms conforming to the system of Bharatanatyam are:

· Sadir Natyam – a solo dance form performed for centuries by devadasis in temples and eventually in the royal courts of South India, especially in Tamil Nadu

· Bhagavata Melam – a group form of dance drama from Tamil Nadu, with all roles performed by men, and themes based on mythology

· Kuravanji – a group dance by women, interpreting literary or poetic


compositions typically on the theme of fulfillment of the love of a girl for her beloved

· Kuchipudi – a group form of dance drama from Andhra Pradesh, with all roles performed by men, and themes based on mythology.

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