In its literal terms, Bharatnatyam means the dance of Bharata (India) and has hence, originated from the three fundamental concepts, namely Bhava (expression), Raga (melody) and Tala (rhythm). The Daasiyattam dance traditions of Tamil Nadu in South India are the traced roots of Bharatnatyam. For centuries, the dance received patronage of the royal courts in South India and was nurtured in the temples. It is believed that Lord Brahma revealed Bharatnatyam to Bharata, a famous sage who then codified it in a Sanskrit text called the Natyashastra. Originating in Thanjavoor of Tamil Nadu, Bharatnatyam was performed by the devdasis in ancient temples. These devdasis were women who lived their life as dancers and were married to the Gods. This tradition was passed from one generation to another, gradually entering into the royal courts where the dancers were called Rajanartakis. However, with the advent of the British rule, further downfall has been noticed in the dance as well as these dancing girls. In order to stop further degradation of the dance, some dance enthusiasts and many families of the devdasis preserved it by making it a family tradition. Today, with collective efforts, the lost glory of Bharatnatyam is regained and has received a platform of a highly specialized classical dance form.
Bharatnatyam is unique and dynamic because every movement has its own originality. The dance features the dancer making beautiful straight lines or triangles like geometrical angles. Bharatnatyam is usually performed in bent knees making the movements of his/her body in the form of triangles. The dance form conveys different types of emotions to the spectator by emphasizing on various hand movements. Basic steps of the dance are based on a balanced distribution of body weight and firm positions of the lower limbs, allowing the hands to cut into a line, to flow around the body or to take positions that enhance the steps. Also, another special feature of the dance is the movement of the eyes which harmonize and accentuates the body movements. Hence, considering all these elements of the dance, the dancer should be knowledgeable about the all subtle features of the dance style.
There are three aspects of Bharatnatyam at its functional level:
- Nritta: This is a pure form of dance in which the dancer interprets the rhythm. There is no technical background to the dance as the viewers get easily connected to understand the dance.
- Natya: This is a dramatic aspect of a stage performance which may involve spoken dialogue and mime, movements, expressions and gestures. The dancer conveys the meaning of a poem and makes everything appear as a part of the story. A solo dancer is sometimes seen impersonating up to 3–4 characters.
- Nritya: It is a balanced combination of Nritta and Natya where the dancer needs to be very cautious and interpretative in the use of facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements to portray emotions and express themes.
Its four important techniques include:
- Karanas: The Natyashastra describes it as the 108 key transitional movements. It is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘doing’. This technique predominantly includes the leg, hip, body and arm movements and is complimented by hasta mudras.
- Hastas: As the name suggests, it is the hand symbols used by the performer. One of its highlighting features is the use of expressive hand gestures. They are divided into two types namely the Asamyukta and Samyukta. One such gesture is Anjali (symbol of salutation).
- Adavus: These are a series of steps with about 108 principals, the execution of which differs from style-to-style.
- Bhedas, Eye and Neck Movements: It forms an important element of Bharatnatyam and the dance is considered incomplete without the bhedas and the expressive eye movements. The head movements (shiro bheda) include Sama, Udhvahita, Adhomukha, Alolita, Dhutam, Kampitam, Paravruttam, Utkshiptam and Parivahitam.
Bharatnatyam is performed with the accompaniment of its specialized music form, the Carnatic Music. The music has such an expressive power that often it alone can move the audience. Mridangam and a pair of crymbals are the chief musical instruments used in Bharatnatyam. The former provides fractional measures of the broad beats whereas the latter provides with the timing. In addition to these, the tambura is used to provide the scale for the refrain. Other musical instruments include veena, flute and violin. The ‘nattuvanar’ or the conductor of the recital gives the ‘talam’ using hand symbols and singing ‘vaaythari’.
Costume for women resemble Indian saris customized specially for the dance. They are not single pieces of cloth but a combination of a number of specially stitched pieces. Most of the costumes include pleated pieces at the waist which fans out attractively during various movements. An important item for the costume is the pair of anklets or ankle bells, also called as salangai in Tamil. The dancers adorn themselves with bangles, rings, earrings, nose rings and special ornaments for the arms and head. The makeup is also very distinct for Bharatnatyam. Extending outwards past the eyes, heavy lines are drawn around the eyes. The purpose is to accentuate the movements of the eyes as well as the eyebrows. The dancer applies a red dye to the soles of the feet, the tips of the toes and to the fingertips. This highlights the movements of the hands and the feet. Men, on the other hand have a simple costume including a dhoti covering the lower body and no upper garment. They also wear salangai and apply some makeup to the eyes.