Dance Forms: Bharata Natyam

views updated

Dance Forms: Bharata Natyam

India's classical Bharata Natyam dance form dates back to the Rig Vedic hymns, and even earlier in visual form to the figurine of a dancing girl from Mohenjo-Daro. Nātyashāstra, the compendium on dance, theater, music, and prosody (2nd century b.c.–2nd century a.d.) refers to Lasya, which includes a solo dance, depicting ten to twelve emotional numbers performed by a dancer. Bharata Natyam is performed today as a solo dance and therefore appears to be a direct derivation of Lasya.

Bharata Natyam was nurtured and developed in South India, where magnificent Hindu temples, built during the reigns of the Pallavas and the Cholas (4th century a.d.–12thcentury a.d.) bear testimony to their love of architecture, sculpture, and paintings, as well as to their devotion to the gods. The Chola kings maintained hundreds of dēvadāsi (servants, or slaves, of the gods) dancers in their temples. That tradition was sustained by successive Pandya, Nayaka, and Maratha rulers until the end of the nineteenth century. The dēvadāsis were female dancers who performed their ritual dances before the temple idols and the Brahmans, who provided for their care.

British Christian missionaries and officials of the British Raj stigmatized the dēvadāsis as "prostitutes" and undermined their position as "servants of the gods," thereby severing the tradition of Hindu classical dance. In 1927 the Devadasi Act banned all dancing in temples in Madras (Tamil Nadu).

The early decades of the twentieth century saw the revival of classical Hindu dance through the pioneering work of dancers such as Rukmini Devi, an upper-class Brahman woman who studied Bharata Natyam at a time when it was considered unworthy of practice. During the session of the Indian National Congress in 1927 in Madras, E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and freedom fighter, organized the first All-India Music conference. The Music Academy was established in 1928, and in defiance of the Anti-Nautch movement (which opposed Indian dances) he presented two dēvadāsi dancers on its platform. Rukmini Devi performed before an international gathering at the Theosophical Society in Madras in 1935. She established her Kalakshetra Academy in 1936, institutionalizing training in Bharata Natyam. Since then, the stigma against it diminished, and within a few years Bharata Natyam gained unprecedented popularity. Today it is India's most popular dance form.

According to the Nātyashāstra treatises, the art of classical dance has three major divisions: nritta, which is pure dance; nritya, expressional dance; and natya, the drama. Nritta consists of bodily movements and patterns of dance that are purely decorative. In nritya, meaning is conveyed through the hastas, stylized hand gestures and facial expressions, and abhinaya, mime and actions that heighten emotions and sentiments, conveyed by the dancer in a code language.

The basic dance unit is called adavu, a combination of steps and gestures. The basic dance position of Bharata Natyam is ardhamandali, similar to the demi-plié position in ballet. Movements in Bharata Natyam are geometrical, creating a series of triangles and other forms and patterns with straight lines, diagonals, and cartwheel movements over the head.

Natya, the drama, is seen in dance-drama form known as Bhagavata Mela Nataka, staged traditionally during religious festivals in Tanjore and its environs. The repertoire consists of numbers of pure dances like alarippu, varnam, and tillana. In sabdam, varnam, padam javali, and sloka, expressional dances are enacted to a song. A nayika, a heroine pining for her lover, symbolizes the desire of the soul to merge with the "super soul" of Brahman.

The most famous dancers were Balasarasvati, Rukmini Devi, and their contemporaries Ram Gopal, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Shanta Rao, and Kamala. The next generation included Yamini Krishnamurty, Sonal Mansingh, Padma Subrahmanyam, as well as the younger generation of Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai, who have contributed much to the tradition. Chandralekha introduced martial art to her dance, rejecting sentimental themes and creating a new contemporary form.

Sunil Kothari


Khokar, Mohan. Traditions of Indian Classical Dance. Delhi: Clarion, 1979.

Kothari, Sunil. Bharata Natyam. Rev. ed. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2000.

Nātyashāstra. Part 1. Gaekwad Oriental series. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1956.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1974.