Bharathanatyam is a type of classical Indian dance, which is based on very old traditions and it is nowadays performed all over the world mostly by people of Indian heritage, but not only. So, it has become a truly global dance form. I have never practiced bharathanatyam, but I have seen it performed in Cardiff by dancers trained by Indiadancewales. Although you need extensive knowledge of hindu traditions, mythology and literature in order to understand bharathanatyam fully, I could still appreciate its beauty, grace and expressivity.
The event I attended was community and family oriented and performers were not professionals, but local girls who were performing for family and friends. One day I would like to see a professional performance live, but I still appreciated what I saw and it was great to be in such a supportive environment for the dancers. So, what is bharathanatyam? Below I will give some background information for those who would like to find out more about it.
Bharathanatyam comes from southern India, from the state of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the seven Indian classical dance forms and it boasts over 2,000 years of lineage. It was originally called Sadeer Attam or Sadir and it was performed solo by devadasi, who were women dancers and priestess, as a form of prayer connected with the practice of Hinduism. Devadasi used to dance and sing, to propitiate deities.
When the Muslim Mogul invaded India, in the 13th century, many devadasi were taken to mogul harems. In the south of India the practice of temple dancing continued but the status of devadasi gradually diminished. The practice almost totally disappeared following the anti-nautch campaigns of the 1890s (movements aimed at abolishing the tradition of Indian dancing girls). During that time India was a British colony and the British wanted to eradicate this type of dance in attempt to repress Indian culture, but also because they saw the dance of the devadiasi as immoral. The Victorian British associated devadiasi dancers with prostitution. This was a misconception, but it was also due to the fact that in Hinduism sex was not considered sin and eroticism was an element of the dance. It was only in the early 20th century that sadir was rediscovered and promoted again under the name of bharathanatyam.
The rediscovery of bharathanatyam happened following nationalist movements in India and thanks to an increase in dialogue between western and Indian artists. However, during this process, bharathanatyam was dissociated from any erotic elements and its image ‘cleaned up’. Thus, it became not only respectable but also desirable for middle and upper class Indian women (whether resident in India or of Indian descent) to practice it. Bharathanatyam became a symbol of Indian identity and the preserve of middle and upper classes. As bharathanatyam had almost disappeared by the early 20th century, it was resurrected using ancient manuscripts, sculptures and memories. It was though taken out of the temples and placed on the stage.
Three figures were key in the redevelopment of bharathanatyam and in its becoming a worldwide phenomenon. One was E. Krisna Iyer, an Indian lawyer and artist who tried to make this dance form popular. He condemned the devadasi system, thus tried to cut the links between this and the dance. In an attempt to ‘purify’ the dance he also removed any movements that may have had any erotic connotations or meanings.
Rukmini Devi Arundale was an American-Indian dancer, married to a British man and she belonged to the brahamin caste. She was active in India and in America in the first half of the 20th century, between 1920 and 1986. She also contributed to the revival and the reconstitution of bharathanatyam. She was trained in western classical ballet and in the Tanjore court style of dance, which she learnt from the guru Meenkshi Sundaram Pillai. This is why she juxtaposed bharathanatyam and ballet, to create a classical framework and aesthetic for the former. Rukmini Devi then funded her world famous school, known as Kalakshetra. Students not only from all regions of India but from all over the world trained in Kalakshetra and they then returned to their places of origin, where they taught bharathanatyam as they learnt it in Rukmini Devi’s school.
Tanjore Balasaraswati lived from 1918 until 1984 and she came from a lineage of devadasi practitioners, going back to the 19th century. However, she was never a traditional devadasi as she was not a dedicated temple dancer, even though her debut was in a temple. Her family had practiced in the court of Tanjavur but her mother and grandmother were musicians rather than dancers. Balasaraswati was a key figure in the revival of bharathanatyam. She was well known worldwide, she travelled often to the USA to teach and perform and she worked with the Madras Music Academy.
Bharathanatyam is characterised by basic positions, the main of which is the ardhamandali, in which the dancer stands with feet sideways and knees bent sideways, similar to a ballet demi-plie. Basic steps are called adavus. Bharathanatyam involves many hand gestures, called mudra. The weight of the lower body is very grounded, while the upper body is lifted and relaxed. The feet are very dynamic and move following staccato phrases, in contrast to the detached and relaxed upper body.
The aesthetic of Bharathanatyam is based on geometry, in particular the human body seen as geometric ideal both in its static and moving forms. The main principles are:
In addition to the principles above, symmetry, harmony, virtuosity and lack of apparent effort are important for a successful performance.
Bharathanatyam traditionally is a solo female dance, but now it is often performed in groups and by men as well. Originally it was improvised, but improvisation requires a great deal of practice and knowledge of the mythology and texts, as well as a lot of training and performance experience, so many dancers nowadays use choreography. The adoption of choreography is also due to western influences.
In Bharathanatyam there are essentially two aspects of the dance:
Nritta and nritya together form natya, which is dance and drama. A performance normally includes sections of nritta, in which the feet move energetically following the rhytm, alternated to nritya sections, which are more posed and in which articulated hands gestures and facial expressions become the protagonist. Virtuosity is especially expressed during the nritta sections.
Bharathanatyam is a highly technical and codified dance genre, which originally was transmitted from guru to disciples over many years and took a very long time to master. Nowadays people learn it in schools and they learn a variety of styles, while in the past each dancer used to specialise in specific and distinct traditions, each with its own stylistic rules and contents, according to the one followed by her guru.
The music used for bharathanatyam is Carnatic music from southern India, which has fast and syncopated rhythms. Songs often have lyrics, called sahitya, which dancers interpret with their movements. Traditionally, bharathanatyam performances used to follow a specific structure and certain sequences that nowadays are not always adhered to.
Especially when it is performed outside of India, bharathanatyam performances are divided in sections, each followed by a verbal explanation of the lyrics of the song. This format was introduced by Ram Gopal in the 1940s.
Among many of the famous bharathanatyam practitioners, we can list: Urmila Satyanaraya, a modern star of Indian bharathanatyam; Padma Subramania, an Indian classical bhrathanatyam dancer who also includes folkloric elements in her dance; Bissano Ram Gopal, who was alive from 1912 to 2003 and who mixed classical Indian dance with balletic choreography.
In the UK, a contemporary dance artist who started as a bhrathanatyam choreographer and practitioner, is Shobana Jeyasingh. She was born in Chennai and was trained in Valluvoor style of bhrathanatyam. She started performing solo bhrathanatyam but without narrative, as she prefers nritta and pure abstract forms in dance. As her career progressed, she started producing choreographies that were more and more influenced by western contemporary dance. From this tradition she has borrowed elements such as group choreography, floorwork, physical contact between dancers, curving and rotation of the back.
In Chennai, and precisely in the nearby temple town of Chidambra, every year in February takes place the Natyanjali Dance Festival. Chennai is the capital of the Tamil Nadu state, the region of origin of bhrathanatyam.