Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest dance forms of India. Called ‘Sadir’ in ancient times, its origin goes back nearly 2000 years. It was nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India and later codified and documented as a performing art in the 19th century. The art was handed down as a living tradition from generation to generation under the Devadasi system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity, as dancers and musicians forming part of elaborate rituals.
These highly talented artists and the male gurus (nattuvanars) were the sole repository of the art until the early 20th century when a renewal of interest in India’s cultural heritage prompted the educated elite to discover its beauty. The revival of Bharata Natyam by pioneers such as E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale, brought the dance out of the temple precincts and onto the proscenium stage, to its present day glory.
Today, Bharatanatyam is one of the most popular and widely performed dance styles and is practiced by male and female dancers all over India and the world. Due to its wide range of movements, postures and balanced mélange of rhythms, the style easily lends itself well to experimental and fusion choreography. Today, dance recitals and repertoires are evolving into more stylised and sophisticated productions.
While the word ‘Bharata’ is derived from the three syllables meaning BHAva (expression), Raga (music), TAla (rhythm), ‘Natyam’ means dramatic art. The blend of Nritta (abstract and decorative movements), Nrithya (combination of rhythmic dance with gestures to interpret lyrics) and Natya form the basis of Bharata Natyam. Movements in Bharata Natyam are conceived in space, mostly along straight lines or triangles. Hence, the dancer appears to weave an exquisite series of intricate geometrical patterns involving complex footwork in rhythmic patterns with facial expressions and sculpture like poses.
The principals and techniques of Bharatanatyam are systematised and compiled in Bharata’s Natya Sastra. It is believed that Lord Brahma created the Panchamaveda (or fifth veda), the ‘Natyaveda’- an essence of the four vedas. He took pathya (words) from the Rigveda, abhinaya (gestures) from the Yajurveda, sangita (melody, music and chant) from Samaveda and rasa (enjoyment or emotional element) from Atharvaveda, to create this beautiful classical art form.