Bharatanatyam, also previously called Sadhir Attam, is a major form of Indian classical dance that originated in Tamil Nadu. Bharatanatyam is one of the oldest classical dance traditions in India. It has been nurtured in the temples and courts of southern India since the ancient era. It is one of eight forms of dance recognized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (the others being Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Manipuri and Sattriya) and it expresses South Indian religious themes and spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
Description of Bharatanatyam by 2nd century CE is noted in the ancient Tamil epic Silappatikaram, while temple sculptures of 6th to 9th century CE suggest it was a well refined performance art by the mid-1st millennium CE. Bharatanatyam is the oldest classical dance tradition in India. The dance form was prevalent in ancient Tamil Nadu, and several books have coded them such as Natya Shastra. Natya Shastra is just a codification by an unknown author of the forms of dance existing in Tamil Nadu.
Bharatanatyam content some types of banis. Bani, or tradition, is a term used to describe the dance technique and style specific to the guru/school. These are named according to the village of the guru (with the exception of some banis). Bharatanatyam style is noted for its fixed upper torso, bent legs and knees flexed (Aramandi) combined with spectacular footwork, and a sophisticated vocabulary of sign language based on gestures of hands, eyes, and face muscles. The dance is accompanied by music and a singer, and typically the dancer's guru is present as the Nattuvanar, director, and conductor of the performance and art. The dance has traditionally been a form of an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas from the Hindu texts. The performance repertoire of Bharatanatyam, like other classical dances, includes nrita (pure dance), nritya (solo expressive dance) and natya (group dramatic dance).
Bharatanatyam remained exclusive to Hindu temples through the 19th century. It was banned by the colonial British government in 1910, but the Indian community protested against the ban and expanded it outside the temples in the 20th century. Modern stage productions of Bharatanatyam has been spread out and popular throughout India that has been done in different ways and have incorporated technical performances, pure dance based on non-religious ideas and fusion themes.
Originally known as Sadiraattam or Thevarattam (Tamil: சதிராட்டம்), the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam is the modification of sadir by E Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale, who were instrumental in modifying mainly the Pandanallur style of dance. The word Bharata is a mnemonic, consisting of "bha"–"ra"–"ta". According to this belief, bha stands for bhava (feelings, emotions), ra stands for raga (melody, framework for musical notes), and ta stands for tala (rhythm). The term Natya is a Sanskrit word for "dance". The compound word Bharatanatyam thus connotes a dance that harmoniously expresses bhava, raga, tala.
The theoretical foundations of Bharatanatyam are found in Natya Shastra, the ancient Hindu text of performance arts.
Natya Shastra is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures—all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures.
More direct historical references to Bharatnatyam is found in the Tamil epics Silappatikaram (c. 2nd century CE) and Manimegalai (c. 6th century). The ancient text Silappatikaram, includes a story of a dancing girl named Madhavi; it describes the dance training regimen called Arangatrau Kathai of Madhavi in verses 113 through 159. The carvings in Kanchipuram's Shiva temple that have been dated to 6th to 9th century CE suggest Bharatanatyam was a well developed performance art by about the mid 1st millennium CE.
A famous example of illustrative sculpture is in the southern gateway of the Chidambaram temple (≈12th century) dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, where 108 poses of the Bharatnatyam, that are also described as karanas in the Natya Shastra, are carved in stone.
Many of the ancient Shiva sculptures in Hindu temples are the same as the Bharatanatyam dance poses. For example, the Cave 1 of Badami cave temples, dated to 7th-century, portrays the Tandava-dancing Shiva as Nataraja. The image, 5 feet (1.5 m) tall, has 18 arms in a form that expresses the dance positions arranged in a geometric pattern. The arms of Shiva express mudras (symbolic hand gestures), that are found in Bharatanatyam.
Some colonial Indologists and modern authors have argued that Bharatanatyam is a descendant of an ancient Devadasi (literally, servant girls of Deva temples) culture, suggesting a historical origin back to between 300 BCE and 300 CE. Modern scholarship has questioned this theory for lack of any direct textual or archeological evidence. Historic sculpture and texts do describe and project dancing girls, as well as temple quarters dedicated to women, but they do not state them to be courtesans and prostitutes as alleged by early colonial Indologists. According to Davesh Soneji, a critical examination of evidence suggests that courtesan dancing is a phenomenon of the modern era, beginning in the late 16th or the 17th century of the Nayaka period of Tamil Nadu. According to James Lochtefeld, Bharatanatyam remained exclusive to Hindu temples through the 19th century, only in the 20th century appearing on stage outside the temples. Further, the Maratha rulers of Tanjore patronized and contributed towards Bharatanatyam.
With the arrival of the East India Company in the 18th century, and British colonial rule in the 19th, many classical Indian dance forms were ridiculed and discouraged, and these performance arts declined. Christian missionaries and British officials presented "nautch girls" of north India (Kathak) and "devadasis" of south India (Bharatanatyam) as evidence of "harlots, debased erotic culture, slavery to idols and priests" tradition, and Christian missionaries demanded that this must be stopped, launching the "anti-dance movement" in 1892. The anti-dance camp accused the dance form as a front for prostitution, while revivalists questioned the constructed colonial histories.
In 1910, the Madras Presidency of the British Empire altogether banned temple dancing, and with it the Bharatanatyam tradition within Hindu temples.
The 1910 ban triggered powerful protests against the stereotyping and dehumanization of temple dancers. The Tamil people were concerned that a historic and rich dance tradition was being victimized under the excuse of social reform. The classical art revivalists such as E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer and someone who had learnt the Bharatanatyam dance, questioned the cultural discrimination and the assumed connection, asking why prostitution needs years of learning and training for performance arts such as the Bharatanatyam, and how can killing performance arts end any evils in a society? Iyer was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges of nationalism, who while serving out his prison term persuaded his fellow political prisoners to support Bharatanatyam.
While the British colonial government enforced laws to suppress Bharatanatyam and all Hindu temple dances, some from the West such as the American dancer Esther Sherman moved to India in 1930, learnt Indian classical dances, changed her name to Ragini Devi, and joined the movement to save and revive Bharatanatyam and other ancient dance arts.
The Indian independence movement in early 20th century, already in progress, became a period of cultural ferment and initiated an effort by its people to reclaim their culture and rediscover history. In this period of cultural and political turmoil, instead of Bharatnatyam becoming extinct, it expanded out of Hindu temples and was revived as a mainstream dance by Bharatnatyam artists such as Rukmini Devi Arundale, Balasaraswati and Yamini Krishnamurti They championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) and Thanjavur styles of Bharatanatyam, respectively.
In late 20th century, Tamil Hindu migrants reintroduced the Bharatanatyam traditions of temple dancing in British Tamil temples.
Bharatanatyam is traditionally a team performance art that consists of a solo dancer, accompanied by musicians and one or more singers. The theory behind the musical notes, vocal performance and the dance movement trace back to the ancient Natya Shastra, and many Sanskrit and Tamil texts such as the Abhinaya Darpana.
The solo artist (ekaharya) in Bharatanatyam is dressed in a colorful sari, adorned with jewelry who presents a dance synchronized with Indian classical music. Their hand and facial gestures are codified sign language that recite a legend, spiritual ideas or a religious prayer derived from Hindu Vedic scriptures, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Puranas and historic drama texts. The dancer deploys turns or specific body movements to mark punctuations in the story or the entry of a different character in the play or legend being acted out through dance (Abhinaya). The footwork, body language, postures, musical notes, the tones of the vocalist, aesthetics and costumes integrate to express and communicate the underlying text.
In modern adaptations, Bharata Natyam dance troupes may involve many dancers who play specific characters in a story, creatively choreographed to ease the interpretation and expand the experience by the audience.
The repertoire of Bharatanatyam, like all major classical Indian dance forms, follows the three categories of performance in the Natya Shastra. These are Nritta (Nirutham), Nritya (Niruthiyam) and Natya (Natyam).
—T Balasaraswati, a Bharatanatyam devadasi
The traditional Bharatanatyam performance follows a seven-part order of presentation. This set is called margam.
The presentation begins with a rhythmic invocation (vandana) called the Alaripu. It is a pure dance, which combines a thank you and benediction for blessings from the gods and goddesses, the guru and the gathered performance team. It also serves as a preliminary warm up dance, without melody, to enable the dancer to loosen their body, journey away from distractions and towards single-minded focus.
The next stage of the performance adds melody to the movement of Alarippu, and this is called Jatiswaram. The dance remains a prelim technical performance (nritta), pure in form and without any expressed words. The drums set the beat, of any Carnatic music raga (melody). They perform a sequence (Korvai) to the rhythm of the beat, presenting to the audience the unity of music, rhythm and movements.
The performance sequence then adds Shabdam (expressed words). This is the first item of margam where expressions are introduced. The solo dancer, the vocalist(s) and the musical team, in this stage of the production, present short compositions, with words and meaning, in a spectrum of moods.
The performance thereafter evolves into the Varnam stage. This marks the arrival into the sanctum sanctorum core of the performance. It is the longest section and the nritya. A traditional Varnam may be as long as 30–45 minutes or sometimes an hour. Varnam offer huge scope for improvisation and an experienced dancer can stretch the Varnam to a desirable length. The artist presents the play or the main composition, reveling in all their movements, silently communicating the text through codified gestures and footwork, harmoniously with the music, rhythmically punctuated. The dancer performs complicated moves, such as expressing a verse at two speeds. Their hands and body tell a story, whether of love and longing, or of a battle between the good and the evil, as the musicians envelop them with musical notes and tones that set the appropriate mood.
The Padam is next. This is the stage of reverence, of simplicity, of abhinaya (expression) of the solemn spiritual message or devotional religious prayer (bhakti). The music is lighter, the chant intimate, the dance emotional. The choreography attempts to express rasa (emotional taste) and a mood, while the recital may include items such as a keertanam (expressing devotion), a javali (expressing divine love) or something else.
The performance sequence ends with a Tillana, the climax. It closes out the nritya portion, the movements exit the temple of expressive dance, returning to the nritta style, where a series of pure movement and music are rhythmically performed. Therewith the performance ends.
The seventh and final item in the sequence can be either a Shlokam or a Mangalam. The dancer calls for blessings on the people all around.
The overall sequence of Bharatanatyam, states Balasaraswati, thus moves from "mere meter; then melody and meter; continuing with music, meaning and meter; its expansion in the centerpiece of the varnam; thereafter, music and meaning without meter; (...) a non-metrical song at the end. We see a most wonderful completeness and symmetry in this art".
The attire of a Bharatanatyam dancer resembles a Tamil Hindu's bridal dress. It consists of a fitted, brilliantly colored Sari which is mainly of warm colors with mirrors on them. The Sari is made of a specially stitched pleated cloth which falls in front and opens like a hand fan when she flexes her knees or performs footwork. The Sari is worn in a special way, wrapped upwards along the back and tightly to the body contour, past one shoulder, with its end held at the waist by a jeweled belt.
The dancer is typically adorned with jewelry on her ear, nose, and neck that outlines her head or hair. Her face has conventional makeup, eyes lined and ringed by collyrium, which help viewers see her eye expressions. Her hair is tied up in the traditional way, often braided in with fragrant flowers (veni or gajra). She wears one or more leather anklets (ghungroos).
The outlines of the dancer's fingers and feet may be partially colored red with kumkum powder or alta, a costume tradition that helps the audience more easily view her hand and foot gestures.
The accompanying music to Bharatanatyam is in the Carnatic style of South India, as is the recitation and chanting. The vocalist is called the nattuvanar, typically also the conductor of the entire performance, who may be the guru of the dancer and may also be playing cymbals or one of the musical instruments. The recited verses and text in Bharatanatyam are in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Sanskrit.
The instruments used include the mridangam (double-sided drum), nadaswaram (long type of oboe made from a black wood), nattuvangam (cymbals), the flute, violin and veena.
Bharatanatyam, like all classical dances of India, is steeped in symbolism, both in its abhinaya (acting) and its goals. The roots of abhinaya appear in the Natyashastra text, which defines drama in verse 6.10 as something that aesthetically arouses joy in the spectator, through the medium of actor's art of communication, that helps connect and transport the individual into a sensual inner state of being. A performance art, asserts Natyashastra, connects the artists and the audience through abhinaya (literally, "carrying to the spectators"), that is applying body-speech-mind and scene, wherein the actors communicate to the audience, through song and music. Drama in this ancient Sanskrit text, thus is an art that engages every aspect of life to glorify and give a state of joyful consciousness.
The communication through symbols is in the form of expressive gestures and pantomime set to music. The gestures and facial expressions convey the ras (sentiment, emotional taste) and bhava (mood) of the underlying story. In the Hindu texts on dance, the dancer successfully expresses the spiritual ideas by paying attention to four aspects of a performance: Angika (gestures and body language), Vachika (song, recitation, music and rhythm), Aharya (stage setting, costume, make up, jewelry), and Sattvika (artist's mental disposition and emotional connection with the story and audience, wherein the artist's inner and outer state resonates). Abhinaya draws out the bhava (mood, psychological states).
The gestures used in Bharatanatyam are called Hasta (or mudras). These symbols are of three types: asamyuta hastas (single hand gestures), samyuta hastas (two hand gestures) and nrtta hastas (dance hand gestures). Like words in a glossary, these gestures are presented in the nritta as a list or embellishment to a prelim performance. In nritya stage of Bharatanatyam, these symbols set in a certain sequence become sentences with meaning, with emotions expressed through facial expressions and other aspects of abhinaya.
Bharatanatyam contains at least 20 asanas found in modern yoga, including Dhanurasana (the bow, a back-arch); Chakrasana (the wheel, a standing back-arch); Vrikshasana (the tree, a standing pose); and Natarajasana, the pose of dancing Shiva. 108 karanas of classical temple dance are represented in temple statuary; they depict the devadasi temple dancers who made use of yoga asanas in their dancing. Bharatanatyam is also considered a form of Bhakti Yoga. However, Natarajasana is not found in any medieval hatha yoga text; it was among the many asanas introduced into modern yoga by Krishnamacharya in the early 20th century.
Bharatanatyam rapidly expanded after India gained freedom from the British rule in 1947. It is now the most popular classical Indian dance style in India, enjoys high degree of support in expatriate Indian communities, and is considered to be synonymous with Indian dance by many foreigners unaware of the diversity of dances and performance arts in Indian culture. In the second half of the 20th century, Bharatanatyam has been to Indian dance tradition what ballet has been in the West.
When the British tried to attempt to banish Bharatanatyam traditions, it went on and revived by moving outside the Hindu temple and religious ideas. However, post-independence, with rising interest in its history, the ancient traditions, the invocation rituals and the spiritual expressive part of the dance has returned. Many innovations and developments in modern Bharatanatyam, states Anne-Marie Geston, are of a quasi-religious type. Major cities in India now have numerous schools that offer lessons in Bharatanatyam, and these cities host hundreds of shows every year.
Outside India, Bharatanatyam is a sought after and studied dance, states Meduri, in academic institutes in the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, Gulf States, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. For expat Indian and Tamil communities in many countries, it is a source and means for social life and community bonding. Contemporary Bharatanatyam choreographies include both male and female dancers.
In 2020, an estimated 10,000 dancers got together in Chennai, India, to break the world record for the largest Bharatanatyam performance. The previous record of 7,190 dancers was set in Chidambaram in 2019.