Bharatnatyam is an Indian classical dance. The fundamentals of Bharatnatyam were prescribed in the renowned Sanskrit text called “Natya Shastra”. Bharatnatyam is performed mostly by women and first originated in the southern state of Tamil Nadu from Hindu temples. Apparently, this dance style is said to be a form of expression for ‘Hindu spiritual and religious themes’ such as Vaishnavisim, Shaivisim, and Shaktism. In addition, this elegant dance form is said to have been in existence since the 2nd century in India, and hence is considered to be “one of the oldest dance styles in the Indian culture”.

a. History and Origin of Bharatanatyam dance

This dance form is said to have been first prescribed in a popular Sanskrit text called “Natya Shastra” written by a Sanskrit scholar, Bharata Muni. This sacred text describes a few essential features of Indian classical dancing (that includes Bharatanatyam) such as the theory of tandava, rasa, and bhava, use of facial expression, acting techniques, and standing postures. Therefore, in other words it is this book that actually serves as an ideal guide to anyone interested in learning this dance form. However, unfortunately it was during the 18th century with the arrival of the East India Company that many classical dances (including Bharatanatyam) began getting prohibited. This “anti-dance” movement was carried out by the British establishment and a few Catholic missionaries, as they considered dance forms such as Bharatanatyam a form of “prostitution”. It was then in 1910 that the Madras Presidency, under colonial rule rather harshly enforced a complete ban on this dance style. It was eventually then during the advent of “India’s Independence Movement” that Indian classical dances, such as Bharatanatyam, slowly began to make its presence felt via live performances on public platforms. A few renowned Bharatanatyam artists during this period included the likes of Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati. Eventually though it was only post-independence that this dance form reacquired the respect it deserved, and which it had lost completely pre-independence.

b. Costumes used during a Bharatanatyam performance

The Bharatanatyam costume is very beautiful and colourful. In the olden days, the dance was performed on special occasions, at the king’s courts and in the temples during the festival days.  According to ancient texts and sculptures, the original costumes of the dance do not cover most of the dancer’s body. 

There are several varieties of Bharatanatyam dance costumes, worn according to the theme of the dance and comfort for the dancer’s movements.

Since this dance style essentially involves only a female dancer, the main costume used during a performance is an extremely bright-coloured “Sari” (popular Indian female attire). In addition, to the sari, the dancer is also accompanied by beautiful jewellery that adorns the head, ears, nose, and neck.

Furthermore, the dancer also uses makeup that enhances the eyes since in this form of dance “facial and eye expression” play a crucial role. The border of the costumes is prepared with various pieces of sari and stitched it with various patterns to decorate the dancer’s form. The ‘choli’ seems very tight and the same colour as the ‘dhoti’. A leather anklet (also known locally as Ghungroos) is also used by the dancer during the performance. The hair of the dancer is braided in a manner, normally used with sweet-smelling flowers, locally referred to as “Gajra”. On the other hand, the fingers and feet of the dancer are decorated using kumkum powder (used mainly during social and religious events in India), so as to enable the members of the audience to observe more clearly the gestures made by the hand and feet of the performer during the performance.

d. Music used during a Bharatanatyam performance

Bharatanatyam music is essentially traditional South Indian in nature, which is commonly referred to as “Carnatic”.  The singer/vocalist used during a performance is known as “Nattuvanar or Taladhari”, who may sometimes turn out to be the teacher/guru of the performer. Furthermore, the musical instruments used to produce this Carnatic music mainly include the mridangam (double sided drum), nadaswaram (a long type of oboe made from black wood), and nattuvangam (cymbals). In addition, instruments such as the flute, violin, and veena may also be used during the performance.

e. Dancing Techniques and training related to Bharatanatyam dance

The technique involved in this dance form, can best be described as a fusion of great footwork (in rhythm with the music) and appropriate hand gestures and facial expressions. It also requires the performer to have a good posture while dancing. The Bhratnatyam dance begins with the sampada position, which is the basic position with the feet facing forward.The Bharatanatyam dance begins with the sampada position, which is the basic position with the feet facing forward. The techniques include Abhinaya, Nritta, and Nritya. Weight is divided completely with a balanced position that emerges, which is known as samabhanga. The slightly imbalanced position is called abhanga. The typical feature of Bharatnatyam is the movement in space along straight lines or in triangles.

As for training, this dance form can definitely be learnt, with many dance institutes having mushroomed throughout the country post-independence. There are also a number of institutes in countries (which possess a large Indian population) like the United States of America, Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore that provide training in Bharatanatyam.

Here are some of the best Bharatnatyam Dance Videos: 

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