Bharatnatyam

Bharatanatyam is a classical dance form originating from Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India. This popular South Indian dance form is a 20th century reconstruction of Cathir, the art of temple dancers. Cathir in turn, is derived from ancient dance forms. The word Bharata, some believe, signifies the author of the famous Sanskrit treatise on stagecraft, called NatyaShastra, and the word Bharatanatyam is sometimes given a folk etymology as follows: Bha for Bhava or abhinaya and expression, Ra for raga or melody, and Ta for tala or rhythm.

Bharata refers to the author of the Natya Shastra, and natya is Sanskrit for the art of sacred dance-drama brought to the stage at the beginning of the 20th century.

Traditional Roots

Bharatanatyam traces its origins to the Natya Shastra written by Bharata Muni, a Hindu sage. In ancient times it was performed as dasiattam by temple Devadasis. Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharata Natyam dance postures karanas. In fact, it is the celestial dancers, apsaras, who are depicted in many scriptures dancing the heavenly version of what is known on earth as Bharatanatyam. In the most essential sense, a Hindu deity is a revered royal guest in his temple/abode, to be offered a standard set of religious services called Sodasa Upacharas (“sixteen hospitalities”) among which are music and dance, pleasing to the senses. Thus, many Hindu temples traditionally maintained complements of trained musicians and dancers, as did Indian rulers.

Bharata Natyam as a dance form and carnatic music set to it are deeply grounded in Bhakti. Bharata Natyam, it is said, is the embodiment of music in visual form, a ceremony, and an act of devotion. Dance and music are inseparable forms; only with Sangeetam (words or syllables set to raga or melody) can dance be conceptualized.

Essential Ideas

Bharatnatyam

Bharatnatyam

Bharatanatyam is considered to be a fire-dance — the mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body. It is one of the five major styles (one for each element) that include Odissi (element of water), and Mohiniattam (element of air). The movements of an authentic Bharatanatyam dancer resemble the movements of a dancing flame. Contemporary Bharatanatyam is rarely practiced as Natya Yoga, a sacred meditational tradition, except by a few orthodox schools (see Yoga and Dance).

Spiritual symbolism

Bharatanatyam is the manifestation of the ancient idea of the celebration of the eternal universe through the celebration of the beauty of the material body. Some Bharatanatyam techniques can be traced back to the Kaisiki style. Natya Shastra (I.44) reads, “… I have seen the Kaisiki style during the dance of the blue-throated lord (Shiva). It consists of elaborate gestures (Mridu Angaharas, movements of limbs), sentiments (Rasas), emotional states (Bhavas). Actions (Kriyas) are its soul. The costume should be charmingly beautiful and love (Sringara) is its foundation. It cannot be adequately portrayed by men. Except for women, none can practise it properly”.

Bharat Natyam

Bharat Natyam

Apart from the Kaisiki style, Bharatanatyam imbibed some others. These reflect other yogis spiritual revelations, such as the vision of two sages, Vyagrapada and Pathanjali in Chidambaram. In Hindu mythology the whole universe is the dance of the Supreme Dancer, Nataraja, a name for Lord Shiva, the Hindu ascetic yogi and divine purveyor of destruction of evil. The symbolism of the dance of Shiva (in the form of Nataraja) is represented by the attitude called “Ananda Tandavam”. Also known as the cosmic dancer, he is here the embodiment and manifestation of the eternal energy in five activities (panca-kriya): creation, pouring forth, unfolding; maintenance or duration (sthiti); destruction or taking back (smhara); concealing, veiling, hiding the transcendental essence behind the garb of apparations (tirobhava); and favoring, bestowing grace through a manifestation that accepts the devotee (anugraha). Shiva is depicted dancing on the dwarfish body of the demon Apasmara purusa, “forgetfulness, loss of memory” called in Tamil Muyalaka — who represents ignorance, the destruction of which brings enlightenment, true wisdom, and release from the bondage of existences.

Medieval decline

Local kings often invited temple dancers (devadasi) to dance in their courts, the occurrence of which created a new category of dancers — rajanarthakis — and modified the technique and themes of the recitals. A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself (surrendered) to the Lord, but the rajanarthaki’s dance was meant to be an entertainment.

Although most of the Tamil contemporary Bharatanatyam ballets are popularly viewed as a form of entertainment, the Natya Shastra-based dance styles were sacred Hindu ceremonies originally conceived in order to spiritually elevate the spectators. Bharatanatyam proper is a solo dance, with two aspects, lasya, the graceful feminine lines and movements, and tandava(Sanskrit) Ananda Thandavam (Tamil) (the dance of Shiva), masculine aspect, which is identical to the Yin and Yang in the Chinese culture.

The quartet of Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court, during the rule of Maratha King Saraboji II (1798- 1832), made a rich contribution to music and Bharatanatyam and also completed the process of re-editing the Bharathanatyam programme into its present shape with its various items. The descendants of these four brothers formed the original stock of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharatanatyam in Tanjore. Originally, they formed a community by themselves and most of them were Shaivite non-brahmins.

Modern rebirth

E.Krishna Iyer was one of those who raised the social status of Bharatanatyam and greatly popularized it. Rukmini Devi Arundale was also instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of Bharatanatyam and bringing it to the attention of the West. According to Shri Sankara Menon, Rukmini Devi raised Bharatanatyam to a puritan art form, divorced from its recently controversial past by “removing objectionable elements” (mostly, the Sringar, certain emotional elements evocative of the erotic) from the Pandanallur style, which was publicly criticized by Balasaraswati and other representatives of the traditional devadasi culture. Not all love was portrayed, at least outside parameters considered “chaste”. Balasaraswati said that “the effort to purify Bharatanatyam through the introduction of novel ideas is like putting a gloss on burnished gold or painting the lotus”.

While the Pandanallur style, Tanjore or Thanjavur, Vazhuvoor, Mysore, Kancheepuram were based on the art of rajadasis and are exoteric in nature, some others, like the Melattur style and Balasaraswati’s style grew out of the devadasis’ distinctly different esoteric art.

The development of the Bharatnatyam dance form has therefore been surrounded by controversy as some including Ashish Khokar the Indian dance historian have seen it as a means by which many women, often Brahmin women, have appropriated certain Devadasi traditions while disassociating themselves with other aspects of the contemporary devadasis’ practices.

Having studied Bharatanatyam for three years, in 1936 Rukmini Devi Arundale founded the school Kalakshetra outside the city of Madras to teach it and to promote other studies in Indian music and art. She was one of first teachers to instruct a few men to perform the dance. The dance, at that time, was exclusively performed by women, while men, called Nattuvanars, had only been teaching Bharatanatyam without actually performing it. It is worth noticing that most of the contemporary Bharatanatyam dancers do not satisfy the criteria for a professional danceuse stated in the scriptures.

At present, Bharatanatyam recitals are usually not performed inside the temple shrine but outside it, and even outside the temple compounds at various festivals. Most contemporary performances are given on the stage with a live ensemble. In popular culture, the adapted, or “semi-classical”, Bharatanatyam has been exposed largely through depiction in popular movies and TV programs.

Learning Bharatanatyam normally takes many years before the arangetram (debut). There are academic and commercialized dance institutes in many countries. Many people choose to learn Carnatic music along with Bharatanatyam as they go together, since both Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam are of purely Tamilians origins, while Hindustani music and Kathak are a mix of Persian and Indian art.

At present, not only the Hindus but many Christians and Muslims learn it, bringing it beyond the rigid forms of religious boundaries.

Orissi was the most recently revived and established form of all, as a late as in the 1960s, at the hands of Ritha Devi, a pioneering figure, whose example led both Yamini Krishnamurthi and Indrani Rahman to take to the form. While Ritha concentrated equally on all other forms she knew and Yamini took to Kuchipudi in addition to Bharatanatyam, Indrani stuck to it and made Orissi her own, followed by Sanjukta Panigrahi.

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