Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form of South India, said to be originated in Thanjavoor of Tamil Nadu. It was known as "Daasiyattam" since performed by Devadasies in temples of Tamil Nadu long ago. The name 'Bharatanatyam' is derived from three basic concepts of Bhava, Raga and Thaala. The modern Bharatanatyam was systematically regularized by well known 'Thanjavoor Brothers', Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Sivanandam and Vativelu.
The dance is performed in the stage as Nritham, Nrithyam and Natyam. Bharatanatyam is based on the theories of the books 'Natyasaasthram' and 'Abhinaya Darpanam'. The dance form is based on 'Adavu' (steps) and 'Hasthamudra' (hand gestures). There are 64 basic 'Adavu' and they are divided into 9 parts, on which 'Thattadavu', 'Naatadavu', 'Kuthithumettadavu', 'Mandiadavu', 'Sarikkal' and 'Thattumettu' are very important. Communication is done through 'bhavabhinaya' (facial expression) and 'hasthamudra' (hand gestures). The performance starts with the prayers to God Ganapathi and worship of Nataraja Moorthi.
The sequence of the dance performance is 'Alarippu', 'Jathiswaram', 'Sabdam', 'Varnam', 'Padam' and 'Thillana'. After 'Thillana', with a 'Mangala Slokam' the dance program ends. Normally the performance lasts for two to two and half hours.
The costume is paijama and jacket of Kanchipuram silk and Banaras silk. The dancer wears a lot of ornaments of shining stones on neck, ears, hands, and head, jasmin garland in the hair and foot trinklet with small bells.
The music of Bharatanatyam is based on Carnatic classical music. The instruments used are Veena, Flute, Mridangam and Violin. The dance direction is done by 'Nattuvanar' giving the Thaalam using hand symbols and singing 'Vaaythari'. There will be two singers also.
Some of the famous Bharatanatyam performers are Bala Saraswathi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Rugmini Arundel, Kamala Laxman, Padma Subrahmaniam and Chithra Visweswaran. Panthanalloor Meenakshi Sundaram Pilla, Panthanalloor Chokkalingam Pilla, Padmasree Vazhoor Ramayyan Pilla and Adayar Laxman are some of the famous 'Nattuvar'.
Bharatanatyam: the origins
Bharatanatyam, as Balasaraswati puts it, is an artistic yoga (natya yoga), for revealing the spiritual through the corporeal. It is the most widely practised of Indian classical dances in South India. It is the most ancient of all the classical dance forms in India, which are based on Natya Shastra, the Bible of the classical Indian dance. The term "Bharatanatyam" was used by Purandara Dasa (1484-1564). Later, Ghanam Krishnayyar's songs speak about a devadasi as an expert at Bharatanatyam. Subramania Bharathi also speaks about Bharatanatyam.
The legend and the inspiration
Gods and Godesses pleaded with Lord Brahma for another Veda to be created that would be simple for the common man to understand, which is particularly important in Kali Yuga. Granting their wish, Lord Brahma created the Panchamaveda, the Fifth Veda, or NatyaVeda, a quintessence of the main four Vedas. Brahma took pathya (words) form the Rigveda, abhinaya (communicative elements of the body movements, cf. mime) from the Yajurveda, geeth (music and chant) from Samaveda, and rasa (vital sentiment and emotional element) from Atharvaveda to form the fifth Veda, NatyaVeda. After creating this Veda, Lord Brahma handed it to sage Bharata and asked him to propagate it on earth. Obeying the fiat of Lord Brahma, sage Bharata wrote down Natyashastra. Bharata together with groups of the Gandharavas and Apsaras performed natya, nrtta and nrtya before Siva. It became the most authoritative text on the artistic technique of classical Indian dances, especially Bharatanatyam and Odissi. It is also possible that the term "Bharatanatyam" partly owes its name to sage Bharata.
The Natya Shastra reads, "When the world had become steeped in greed and desire, in jealousy 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." "This art is not merely for your pleasure, but exhibits cosmic expression (bhava) for all the worlds. This art has been created following the movements of the world in work and play, profit, peace, laughter, battle and slaughter, yielding the fruit of righteousness to those who follow the moral law, a restraint for the unruly, and a discipline for the followers of the rule; to create wisdom in the ignorant, learning in scholars, afford sport to kings, and endurance to the sorrow-stricken; it is replete with the diverse moods, informed with varying passions of the soul, and linked to the deeds of mankind — the best, the middling and the low — affording excellent counsel pastime and all else."
Another version of the origin of Bharatanatyam is that Goddess Parvathi taught this dance art to Usha, daughter of demon Banasura. Usha handed it down to the Gopikas of the city of Dwaraka, Lord Krishna's birth place. Lord Shiva is himself the Supreme Dancer, and the whole Universe is His Divine Dance. Goddess Parvathi dances with Him.One can imagine that the Gods and the Goddesses, being dancers themselves, have been passing the art of the heavenly dance through many other human channels, whose aptitude, understanding, and personal idiosyncrasies naturally varied from person to person, and created a number of styles ranging from Odissi to Bharatanatyam.Bharatanatyam has been undergoing a lot of change over the centuries (click here to read more). It used to be and is still mostly performed by women dancers. Centuries ago the Hindu temples in South India had dancers-priestesses called devadasis who would sing, dance Dasi Attam (old version of Bharatanatyam), play many musical instruments. They were well-versed in Sanskrit and other languages as they had to adapt compositions to suit the audience. The devadasi tradition gradually degraded. Initially, devadasis lead a very strict and celibate life and were not allowed to have a family. As the dance entered the royal courts, the dancers were called Rajanartakis, who performed in the royal courts and gradually became royal concubines. The British colonial rule has completely corrupted the devadasi tradition.
In the first half of the 19th century much of Bharatanatyam was redefined by the contributions of four talented brothers known today as the Tanjore Quartet: Chinniah, Sivanandam, Ponniah and Vadivelu. Styles of Bharatanatyam were preserved in practice mostly by the guru's and performers of the Isai Velalar community of Tamil Nadu. The Tanjore Quartet organized all the basic Bharatanatyam movements of pure dance into a progressive series, adavus.
Each adavu is a basic unit taught in systematic order and then combined with others to produce choreographed Bharatanatyam sequences based upon the rhythmic pattern of a musical composition. The brothers composed new music specifically for Bharatanatyam, and introduced a different sequence of items which integrated various aspects of dance and music into a carefully coordinated, aesthetically sound progression. This infusion of creative energy marks the early 19th century as one of the most innovative periods in the history of Bharatanatyam. In the 20th century, such prominent personalities as Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer and Krishna Iyer made their significant contributions. The social status and image of Bharatanatyam was restored by Rukminidevi Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra, who started teaching a simplified, Kalakshetra style invented by her after having learnt some of the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam in a record 3 years' time. Bharatanatyam has undergone much change but is still deeply rooted in the spiritual Hindu heritage. Contemporary classical Indian dancers are both male and female artists. While most learn it as a hobby, very few make it their career and a lifestyle, as it is extremely demanding and complex in terms of dedication and daily practice. While most university degree courses offer the theoretical base in Bharatanatyam, there are institutions that offer certificate and diploma courses with the focus on the practical skills.
Most of the contemporary choreographers and dancers may use some of the formal Bharatanatyam technique or its elements to stage ballets presenting various themes such as nationalism, unity of religions, the sanctity of the environment, the animal rights activism, the greatness of a king or a political party, or even the delightfulness of Coca-Cola. In Vande Mataram, a dance festival organised under the auspices of Natyarangam, a project of Narada Gana Sabha in 1997 in Chennai, there was a host of topics: 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, the greed for riches, the Chinese aggression, the Dandi March, literacy, agriculture, mechanisation, industrialisation. Most recently, some dancers of Nrityanjali Academy (Andhra Pradesh) managed to draw their divine inspiration even from Condom Songs.
The true Bharatanatyam, it has to be stated clearly, is not a vulgar form of entertainment but a sacred ritual that is supposed to bring the rasanubhava (catharsis, or spiritual upliftment) to the rasika (audience) and the dancer.