Bharatha Natyam -
of the Ancient Tamils
What is Bharatanatyam?
N.Pattabhi Raman, Editor in Chief, Sruti
Historically, Bharatanatyam is the dance-form christened as such by the Music
Academy of Madras in the early nineteen thirties. It was known earlier as
Dasiattam, Sadir or Karnatakam.
It thrived in the south of India. Then it spread to other parts of the country.
Now it is a world art and heritage, flourishing particularly in the Indian
Its grammar and aesthetics are today traced by many to Natya Sastra and to later
works like Abhinaya Darpana. However, while we do not properly know what the
dance was like before early nineteenth century, what we know today as
Bharatanatyam has developed from the shape it was given by the Tanjavur Quartet.
And this legacy was preserved in practice mostly by the guru-s and performers
belonging to the Isai Velalar community of Tamil Nadu.
The sacred & the secular
During the period of the Quartet and for many decades afterwards, the dance
was performed both in the temple and outside it in the courts of kings, princes
and landed gentry. Apart from being offered as upachara or ritual, the dance was
performed even in the temple and in temple-related processionals as art, to
attract believers to the presence of god. Outside the temple, it was indeed an
art form, though sometimes it was presented as cheap entertainment.
Bharatanatyam as performed today on the proscenium stage- even in some temple
complexes as in Chidambaram- belongs to the category of art dance, even if a
given performance is mediocre or worse.
The margam or the linear format of a traditional secular Bharatanatyam
recital consists of alarippu, jatiswaram, sabdam, varnam, padam/javali, tillana
and sloka. As described by the late T. Balasaraswati, the format reflects a
marvellous scheme of aesthetic progression, as well as a unique architectural
In a lecture delivered at the Tamil Isai Sangam, Madras, translated from Tamil
by the late S. Guhan and reproduced in Bala on Bharatanatyam, a monograph
published by the Sruti Foundation (now out of print), the legendary exponent of
"I believe that the traditional order of the Bharatanatyam recital... is the
correct sequence in the practice of this art, for revealing the spiritual
through the corporeal.
The greatness of this traditional recital-pattern will be apparent even from a
purely aesthetic point of view. In the beginning, alarippu, which is based on
rhythm alone, brings out the special charm of pure dance. The movements of
alarippu relax the dancer's body and thereby her mind, loosen and coordinate her
limbs, and prepare her for the rest of the dance. Rhythm has a rare capacity to
concentrate. Alarippu is most valuable in freeing the dancer from distraction
and making her single-minded.
The joy of pure rhythm in alarippu is followed by jatiswaram where there is the
added joy of melody. Melody, without word or syllable, has a special power to
unite us with our being.
In jatiswaram, melody and movement come together. Then comes the sabdam. It
is here that compositions, with words and meanings, which enable the expression
of the myriad moods of Bharatanatyam, are introduced.
The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a Great Temple: we enter through
the gopuram (outer hall) of alarippu, cross the ardhamandapam (half-way hall) of
jatiswaram, then the mandapam (great hall) of sabdam and enter the holy precinct
of the deity in the varnam. This is the space which gives the dancer expansive
scope to revel in the music, rhythm and moods of the dance. The varnam is the
continuum which gives ever expanding room to the dancer to delight in her
self-fulfillment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well
as to the tradition of the art.
Pada-s now follow. In dancing to pada-s, one experiences the containment, cool
and quiet of entering the sanctum from its external precinct. The expanse and
brilliance of the outer corridors disappear in the dark inner sanctum; and the
rhythmic virtuosities of the varnam yield to the soul-stirring music and
abhinaya of the padam. Dancing to the padam is akin to the juncture when the
cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the
simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of god. Then, the
tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a
measure of din and bustle. In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the god
he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order
by dancing to a simple devotional verse. "
(As the above passage reveals, Balasaraswati believed Bharatanatyam is grounded
in bhakti and that "it is justified in being called a yoga because it is a
spiritual discipline perfecting the mind to thought-free serenity.")
But the traditional margam is no longer considered de rigueur. In other words,
what was once considered the format of Bharatanatyam has lately been modified
many a time by all and sundry. It has yielded place to many variations, as well
as to dance-dramas and miscellanies presented by groups of dancers trained in
Thus, while the margam can be considered most suited to unfold the major
dimensions of the dance, it cannot be held that, unless it is used, a
Bharatanatyam recital ceases to be one.
Bharatanatyam & religion
Bharatanatyam is misperceived by many as inevitably bound to the Hindu faith.
Perhaps the first person in modern times to put this perception across
forcefully as a philosophy was the late
Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy. (See Dance of Shiva).
Coomaraswamy's position was that,
in India, religion and art are inextricably bound together and that art, in
fact, is an expression of religion. But it is not, despite its one-time
association with the Hindu temple.
Bharatanatyam is a dance of India, not a Hindu dance, even though its
performance corpus has historically been focussed on persona and narratives
enveloped by Hindu faith. As in yoga, its technique is value neutral. The
technique and vocabulary of this dance-form can be used to depict a variety of
themes and artistic conceptions. Not surprisingly they have been used to convey
not only themes and conceptions associated with the Hindu faith and way of life,
but also Christian and Buddhist themes. Additionally, they have been utilised at
least once to project perceptions of Islam. Of course, choreographers and
dancers have as well used them in recent times to present abstract ideas like
nationalism, feminine power (Sakti) and the sanctity of the environment.
Purpose of Bharatanatyam
Since a long time ago, many have perceived Bharatanatyam as a medium of worship,
a vehicle for bhakti. But it is a misconception of art to believe its purpose is
to express devotion to god, notwithstanding instances of artists offering music
and dance ostensibly as anjali. If we would adapt Ashok D. Ranade's broad
categorisation of music- as primitive, folk, devotional, art and popular-
similarly to categorise dance also, we would see that what we call classical
dance belongs to the art category. Indeed, it lends itself admirably to artistic
interpretation of various subjects- ideally, in consonance with the Indian
conception of aesthetics. Thus, Bharatanatyam performed on the proscenium stage,
even if badly, should be recognised as an art-form, and its purpose as the
elicitation of rasanubhava or rasanubhooti or aesthetic relish. Its purpose must
be seen as going beyond mere entertainment, to encompass the elevation of the
empathetic onlooker to another, higher level of experience beyond the mundane.
In this sense, it can be said to have a spiritual thrust, even as the
non-religious, non-verbalised symphonies of Beethoven do.
Depending on individual perceptions, this subjective experience may yet
transcend the aesthetic and may seem religious to some, or spiritual to some
others. At least one rasika of music- Peggy Holroyde, an admirer of sitar
maestro Ravi Shankar's music making has said, in her book titled The Music of
India that her experience of one of Panditji's recitals resulted in an orgasm.
Yes, the perceptions of individuals may vary, but this does not alter the fact
that, within the framework of Indian aesthetics, the purpose of Bharatanatyam,
like that of other secular dance-forms, is to pave the way to an aesthetic
Not gender specific
Bharatanatyam is not gender specific. It has space both for the male and the
female; and it accommodates tandava as well as lasya without reference to
gender. We believe the greatest of all dancers is Siva-Nataraja, a purusha.
Historically, the dancers were almost all females, but during the last seven
decades, many outstanding male dancers have emerged. It is notable, in this
context, that the dance has essentially remained ekaharya, that is, a dancer in
a single costume portraying indirectly or directly more characters than one,
regardless of their gender. It has been a different case in dance-dramas
presented in the idiom of Bharatanatyam.
Since, however, virtually all of the other classical dances of India are also
not gender specific, Bharatanatyam does not stand alone in this aspect.
Bharatanatyam has two aspects to it, namely:
* nritta, or the purely rhythmic, which is confined to footwork and the
movements of the body
and the hands; and in which, absent emotion, there is no portrayal of
sentiments, scenes or
* abhinaya or mime, which is conveyed through gestures and facial expressions,
or as Balasaraswati has put it, "the suggestive language of imagination."
These two aspects are, however, not unique to this dance-form alone.
Primacy of music
An important feature of Bharatanatyam is that it does not exist separately from
music. Balasaraswati has said: "Bharatanatyam, in its highest moment, is the
embodiment of music in its visual form.... For more than thousand years, the
sastra-s have confirmed that an individual dedicated to dance must be equally
dedicated to music and must receive thorough training in both the arts." She has
also disclosed: "In demonstrating the art of Bharatanatyam abroad, I have made a
special point of showing audiences how delicately linked is the realisation of
movement to raga expression in abhinaya, including the subtle expression of
gamaka-s, intonation of sruti, and the unfolding of improvisation in niraval. In
the same way that we look for perfect blending of raga and tala and of raga and
bhava in abhinaya, so also it is essential that the raga and the sahitya be
perfectly matched and in accordance with the necessities of expression in the
Balasaraswati's observation confirms that music is an integral part of dance and
incidental to it.
Song-texts or lyrics are essential for the interpretation of songs in
Bharatanatyam. For this reason, the song repertoire of Bharatanatyam is for
singing, with the mridanga as the main instrument in the orchestra which
supports the singer.
Recent history has, however, shown that Bharatanatyam is not wedded to a
particular kind of music, that is, Carnatic music alone. It is therefore
difficult to identify an item as Bharatanatyam by its music alone.
Content & changes in it
Bharatanatyam has a vast song repertoire, accommodating varying content.
The lyrics of a substantial portion of traditional items seek to convey sringara
bhakti- devotion through expression of love between man/woman and god; or only
sringara- romance between man and woman, though even this last-mentioned
relationship has been perceived by many as the yearning of the jeevatma (human
soul) for the paramatma (universal soul), obscuring very real romantic liaison
between the nayika and nayaka, as in Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam and Kshetrayya's
The traditional repertoire has been enriched, particularly in recent times, by
the addition of numerous items, which, in practice, reflect bhakti alone, as
well as items interpreting classical music compositions and folk or popular
dances. The repertoire has also been expanded lately to include contemporary
Furthermore, the repertoire has been expanded to include compositions in
non-traditional languages, like Hindi and its dialects, Marathi and Bengali.
Thus, the dance-form has been anything but static in regard to its repertoire;
indeed, it has shown a remarkable capacity for absorbing innovations. At the
same time, its traditional sringara-focussed items have retained their relevance
because they reflect timeless, universal human yearnings. Some present-day
dancers may feel they are passe or archaic, but those who are able to perceive
and appreciate the inner core and the subtexts of the contents of the
traditional repertoire would not disinherit them. They are museum pieces only if
the dancers present them mechanically like robots, without contextualising them,
without interpreting them creatively and without expanding and further enriching
the vocabulary of the dance.
Aharya: costume & ornamentation
Aharya- costume and ornamentation- has also undergone change. Rukmini Devi was
the pioneer in introducing the costume that replaced those sported by the
devadasi dancers earlier. Although this costume, as well as the ornamentation
used with it, may seem to be distinctive enough to be identified with
Bharatanatyam, clearly it is also subject to change within the framework of the
ethos that envelopes the dance. It is relevant to mention the ethos because,
while technically it may be alright for a Bharatanatyam dancer to perform
wearing a churidar-pyjama suit or even a pair of jeans and a shirt, such a
costume would be out of character. Like it would be out of character for a
Western ballet dancer to wear a churidar-pyjama suit or a saree.
If Bharatanatyam shares the same purpose with other art dances and if the
format, content and costume, as well as the idiom of music, are variable
although integral parts of the dance, what can be considered the core or
defining characteristics of Bharatanatyam?
By definition, the defining characteristics must be those which set
Bharatanatyam apart from other Indian dance-forms- set it apart not momentarily
By the process of elimination, this has to be the technique of Bharatanatyam
given expression through the basic stance, the basic postures, the movements,
the movement combinations (adavu-s) and gestures (mudra-s). Different guru-s and
performers have given stylistic emphases of their own in using the technique,
and some have also extended the technique, but there is a corpus which may be
said to be unique to Bharatanatyam and which, therefore, taken as a whole, gives
it its distinctive identity.
This distinctive identity exists, I should note, despite common terminology
traceable to Natya Sastra, because in practice the different dance-forms have
addressed the subject covered by each of the common technical terms in
This corpus includes the following:
* Saushtavam, the basic aesthetic posture. In this posture of Bharatanatyam, the
back is held erect, the torso is bent forward a fraction from the waist and,
correspondingly, the fundament is pushed back ever so slightly. The body is held
taut and yet relaxed.
* Ardhamandali or the basic half-sitting posture. This posture, in which feet
and knees are turned outwards, is the leit-motif of Bharatanatyam. This
recurring motif gives rise to the distinctive geometrical nature of the
movements of Bharatanatyam.
* Muzhu mandi or poorna mandali, in which the dancer sits down till the
fundament rests on the heels, with the feet and knees turned outwards.
* The adavu system, consisting of many different adavu-s which form the basis of
the nritta technique of Bharatanatyam. Each adavu comprises a coordinated
pattern of movement of feet, knees, torso, arms and hands. Though there are
stylistic variations of the adavu-s, the hard core remains the same. A number of
adavu-s are used to present a dance sequence, known as teermanam. The adavu-s
and the teermanam-s are set to the beats of a tala.
* The hasta mudra-s. Each mudra is distinct and can convey different meanings
depending on how it is used.
The above-mentioned technique-based components of the corpus carrying a distinct
Bharatanatyam stamp may be said to be the dance-formís core or defining
characteristics. It will be proper to consider as Bharatanatyam only that
choreography or performance which retains or uses these core or defining
The sum and substance of the above analysis is that choreographies and
performers who utilise these core characteristics of Bharatanatyam and yet add
on extraneous elements like martial arts, or aspects typical of other Indian
dance-forms, or Modern dance of the West are free to do so, so long as they do
not claim their works as Bharatanatyam. The same goes for those who water down
the technique in favour of mere movement that falls short of the larger
aesthetic purpose of Indian dance.
Packaging of a performance is a different matter- and a number of options may be
utilised to suit personal preferences or performance contexts. The presentation
may be long or short; it may or may not follow the traditional margam; it may
vary the content; it may use different stage arrangements; it may or may not use
special lighting; it may have the dancer wearing non-specific or non-descriptive
costume; or it may include in its orchestra instruments not used traditionally.
These are among the variables available to a Bharatanatyam dancer in India as
well as abroad.
But, to qualify as Bharatanatyam, I believe a performance must employ the
technique unique to it- without trashing it or watering it down. The dancer has
a responsibility to fulfill the expectations of the discerning members of an
audience in India, and of the interested innocenti abroad, that what is on offer
is the Real McCoy.
A central conception
In Indian dance, the human body has been conceived of as a mass, which can be
equally divided among the central median. Further movement is determined by the
nature of deflections from this median....
What is distinctive in Bharatanatyam is the fact that it conceives of movement
in space mostly along either straight lines or triangles.
The head forms the first unit and lateral movements of the head are common. The
torso is seen as another unit and is hardly ever broken up into the upper or the
lower torso. The lower limbs are seen as either straight lines or two sides of
an imaginary triangle in space. The upper limbs either follow the lower limbs or
weave circular patterns along space which is governed by the lower limbs. It is
the latter aspect, along with the use of the torso as a single unit that gives
Bharatanatyam its particularity.
-Kapila Vatsyayan in Indian Classical Dance, 1974.
The adavu is the basic unit of [Bharatanatyam] composition.... A cadence of the
hands combined with a rhythmic movement of the feet and a harmonious flexion of
the body in precise coordination is called adavu. Each adavu is identified by a
syllabary or rhythmic phrase- e.g., ta tai tam - dhit tai tam. Adavu-s are the
basic vocabulary of dance composition... there are ten different classes of
adavu-s- and in each class twelve varieties- a total of 120 fundamental dance
motifs which may be combined in endless variations of choreographic design.... A
series of adavu-s strung together in a section of timing (tala avarta) forms a
dance pattern (teermanam or adavu jati). While the feet articulate the rhythm,
formalised gestures of the hands and arms combined with stylised movements of
the body create beautiful plastic designs in space.
-Ragini Devi in Dance Dialects of India, 1990.
Sringara stands supreme in the range of emotions. [It] is the cardinal emotion
which gives the fullest scope for artistic improvisation, branching off
continuously, as it does, into the portrayal of innumerable moods full of
newness and nuances....
The sringara we experience in Bharatanatyam is never carnal, never, never. For
those who have yielded themselves to its discipline with total dedication,
dance, like music, is the practice of the Presence; it cannot be merely the
[Bharatanatyam] is primarily a woman's art. By the very fact of the lover being
god, the union longed for is not of the physical but of the spiritual plane. It
is the yearning of the individual soul for merger with the cosmic soul that is
figuratively expressed in the erotic idiom. Yet the spiritual quality of
Bharatanatyam is not achieved through the elimination of the sensual but through
the seemingly sensual itself, thereby sublimating it.
-T. Balasaraswati, in Bala on Bharatanatyam, 1991.
Sringara means love, but this is not confined to rati sringara. There is bhakti
sringara and vatsalya sringara besides rati sringara....
Even in rati sringara, the erotic element must be refined. In India, even in
ideal life, a certain discipline is exercised in showing our love for another.
We don't generally do it in public, although some people do it everywhere. Same
with art. If the act of kissing is to be depicted, it should be done with
subtlety, artistically. Someone or other may present this act without beauty,
but this should not be construed to mean eroticism is unacceptable.
- Kalanidhi Narayanan, in an interview, Sruti 171.
Varnam is the most complex, interesting, challenging item- the piece de
resistance in a recital to prove the virtuosity and stamina of a Bharatanatyam
dancer. [It comprises] the most complicated dance sequences.
-Susheela Misra in Invitation to Indian Dance, 1987.
The varnam provides the fullest scope to the dancer to improvise on a given
In terms of technique, the dancer has freedom to improvise on the musical note
as well as on the literary word. In the abhinaya portions, the dancer presents
either a word-for-word interpretation or renders through gesture the meaning of
a complete line. She can also present through gestures other images related to
but not contained in the word. In this respect, the varnam calls for all the
imaginative faculties at the command of the dancer, who must possess a rich
literary background. Without this, the dancer would be at a loss to present the
words through the gestures in a variety of ways....
-Kapila Vatsyayan, op. cit.
Varna is the most elaborate composition of the dance which calls forth the
versatility of the danseuse in pure dance and mime....
The most fascinating element of the varna is the exposition of the transient
moods of love (sanchari bhava) in mimetic dance. The dancer thus creates a
gesture poem of her own to enlarge the poetic theme of the song.
-Ragini Devi, in Dance Dialects of India, 1990.
Is Bharatanatyam archaic?
Excerpts from a review of Vande Mataram- a Bharatanatyam festival- by Jan Vasan,
published in Sruti 158 (November 1997).
Bharatanatyam has been under attack from those who consider it archaic. Some of
the criticisms are:
- It has an outdated repertoire.
- It is boring to watch again and again the nayika pining for the nayaka.
- It is like attempting to drive forward looking into the rearview mirror.
Such notions got a battering in Vande Mataram, a dance festival organised under
the auspices of Natyarangam, a project of Narada Gana Sabha, 1-8 September
 in Chennai....
The festival threw up a host of interesting topics for classical Bharatanatyam:
male chauvinism, eve teasing, dowry, evils of the current education system, the
caste and reservation systems, threat of nuclear weapons, AIDS, the population
explosion, corruption in politics, bribery, religious fanaticism, secularism,
fraudulent godmen, the greed for riches, the Chinese aggression, the Dandi
March, literacy, agriculture, mechanisation, industrialisation, environmental
degradation, universal brotherhood, abstract lines and forms, etc.
To depict the above, some new hasta viniyoga-s were introduced by the
dancers.... The dancers proved that they could depict virtually anything in the