Bharata Natyam






It's a form of artistic yoga that seeks to enliven the spirit via the body.

Balasaraswati, last devadasi


Bharata natyam is a classical and sacred dance form from the south of India with origins going back to the first century AD.
Before the term of Bharata Natyam was used during the twentieth century the dance would have been known by the names Kuthu, Dakshinaya, Dasiyattam, Sadir, Nautch and many others. Bharata Natyam means “Dance of Bharata” or “Dance of India”. It is believed to be an acronym of three words: Bha, bhava (emotion) ; Ra, raga (musical mode) ; and Ta, tala (rhythm). It is also likely that the name is associated with that of Bharata, author of the “Natyashstra” (around the second century AD). In fact all the forms of Indian dramatic art are intertwined with the “Natyashastra”, an historic work, known as “The Fifth Veda”, which touches Indian theater, poetry, music and dance.

This sacred art was initially practiced by the devadasis (maidservants of the gods) in the temples and in the royal courts. During the reign of the Pallavas (fourth to twelfth  century AD), music and dance flourished as can be seen from the sculptures of the karanas on the walls of the temples built during this period. Thereafter the Kings of the Chola dynasty kept hundreds of dancers in the temples. This was followed by the dynasties of Pandya, Nayaka and Maratha who continued the tradition until the nineteenth century.

The modern form of bharata natyam as we know it today comes from four brothers, who were musicians and dancers, known as the Tanjore Quartette, during the reign of the king Sarfoji II (1798-1832). Sons of a nattuvanar (master of dance, composer and choreographer), they developed the traditional margam (recital), which starts with the alarippu, and is then followed by the jatiswaram, varnam, padams before ending with the thillana.

At the end of the nineteenth century due to the political instability and economic hardship that resulted in a lack of patronage the Indians became distanced from  their culture. The dance was forbidden in temples by the British, who considered it improper. In Tamil Nadu, cradle of the bharata natyam, the dance almost disappeared. As the devadasis became associated with prostitutes, several cities give up the dance and everything associated with it was discredited. Finally a law ended up abolishing the devadasis status and the very survival of bharata natyam was threatened.

During the twentieth century a complete reorganization and renaissance took place and the dancers, descendants of the devadasis, started to dance in public, in theatres. Most of them came from Brahmin high society and the bharata natyam became recognized as an artistic and academic discipline. There was a revival and the old teachers and masrers who continued to practice their skill in the villages were sought out.

In the 1920's, the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova discovered a young dancer named Uday Shankar in London. She was fascinated by classical Indian dancing and advised him to go back and explore its roots. She did the same thing a little later with Rukmini Devi,to  whom she also taught ballet.

A conference on the Indian music was organised in Madras by E. Krishna Iyer, who dedicated his life to the renaissance of bharata natyam. It was such a success that it lead to the creation of the Music Academy in 1928.
The arrival of Rukmini Devi opened a new chapter in the history of the bharata natyam in that she simplified it and gave its name as bharata natyam. In 1936 Rukmini established the Kalakshetra School, with the help of scholars, musicians and famous teachers.
After Indian independence bharata natyam received a further boost to such and extent that there are now countless schools dedicated to the art of bharata natyam.


Glossary :

  • Abhinaya: a way of communicating an idea or an emotion, without the use of the words, by using the hands gestures (mudras), the face and the body.
  • Adavu: a basic component of bharata natyam. It involves a combination of movements of the whole body.
  • Alarippu: literally “blossoming forth”. It is the first dance of a recital, it is devoted to its four cardinal points: the head first starts to move, then the shoulders, the arms, the chest, legs and then the whole body.
  • Aramundi: a basic position, half-seated with legs turned out.
  • Arangetram: Traditionally a dancers first or maiden performance, when a dancer wears for the first time, the bells around the ankles, following their blessing.
  • Bhakti: devotion.
  • Jatiswaram: the second item It is purely technical. It alternates between the jetis (sequences of adavus on syllables) and the swaras (sequences of notes sung).
  • Karana: they are 108 karanas. Smt. Padma Subrahmanyam describes them as an association of “…dance movements of the hands, dance posture of the body and dance movements of the legs”. According to U.S. Krishna Rao, the karanas form the basis of adavus.
  • Lasya: A delicate and feminine dance
  • Nattuvangam: the art of playing the cymbals whilst singing (sollukatus) which correspond with the movements of the feet of the dancer. This leads the whole direction of the dance.
  • Natya: covers everything including the singing, expression and movements
  • Nritta: technical aspect of dance with no specific theme. Contains adavus, rhythm patterns, poses, jetis such as jatiswarms, alarippus or thillanas.
  • Nritya: a combination of the abhinaya and nritta of the body and narration.
  • Padam: a dance that is narrative and expressive par excellence. It is often devotional and is not technical. The padam often develops the feeling of love (sringara rasa) in all its forms.
  • Rasa: the emotions the dancer invokes in the spectators
  • Shabdam: it is the first danse to use the abhinaya. Poem of four verses, it is traditionally in praise of Shiva, Krishna, Murugan or a patron king. It starts with a technical piece then alternates with the narrative parts.
  • Tandava: a powerful male dance representing Shiva, god of the dance with which he created the world.
  • Thillana: this finishes the recital. It is a very technical item combining the beauty of the movements, speed, joy and physical stamina.
  • Varnam: the most important and longest part of a recital. It means “color”. It uses all the skills, technical and expressive, of the dancer. It involves parts of pure dance that become increasingly fast and mixes jetis and swaras, and narrations; and in so doing a story is therefore told throughout the dance.


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