Bharatanatyam: History, Sequences, Dress

By : Neha Dhyani

Updated : May 27, 2023, 7:13

Bharatanatyam is one of India's most prominent and extensively performed classical dance genres. It originated in Tamil Nadu around 2000 years ago and is known for its complicated forms and expressions. Bharatanatyam is a preeminent Indian classical dance style that is recognized as the mother of many other Indian classical dance forms.

This dance form often expresses many spiritual ideas and religious themes related to Hinduism and Shaivism. In this article, we have shared more information on Bharatnatyam, its history, significance, sequences, etc.

About Bharatnatyam

One of the oldest Indian classical dances, Bharatnatyam is known for its unparalleled grace. It is also one of the toughest classical dances in the world. A Bharatnatyam dancer not only learns the dance steps but also the rituals associated with the dance, some of which are as follows.

  • Lighting incense sticks or cones
  • Praying to god before the performance
  • Sprinkling holy water

There are many aspects to the Bharatnatyam dance, including facial expressions, hand, and foot gestures, and a deep understanding of musical rhythm. All in all, perfecting this dance form requires years of training and practice.

Bharatnatyam Meaning

The dance form of Bharatnatyam combines various elements of the ancient Indian Natya Shastra. Here is what the word ‘Bharatnatyam’ means and refers to:

  • Bha is for Bhava, which means emotion
  • Ra refers to Raaga, which means music
  • Ta means Taal or rhythm
  • Natyam means dance.

Bharatanatyam History

Bharatanatyam, a devotional and spiritual dance style, has its origins in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu in South India. Find some important details of the history of Bharatnatyam here.

  • Although there is little proof of Bharatanatyam's linear progression over the previous 2,000 years, Tamil and Sanskrit manuscripts claim to its ancient origins.
  • Bharatanatyam's theoretical framework is called 'Sadir'. It is believed that Sage Bharata recorded the dance style in the Natya Shastra (2BC-2AD) in Sanskrit.
  • The Bharatanatyam style of dance was mainly performed by Devadasis (dancers who dedicated their lives to serving the Lord as servants) from 300 BCE to 300 CE.
  • The invaders of the British colonial rule viewed the Devadasi custom as disgraceful and therefore in 1910, the British Empire's Madras Presidency officially forbade temple dances within the Hindu temples.
  • In the 20th century, E. Krishna Iyer, a lawyer, activist, and classical artist, revived the Bharatanatyam dance form along with theosophist and choreographer Rukmini Devi Arundale.

Bharatnatyam Dress

The attire that Bharatnatyam dancers wear is quite exquisite. It generally consists of a sari in vivid colors with zari embroidery on its borders. For the bottom, the dancers wear either a skirt or salwar-like pants. The Bharatnatyam dress resembles a traditional Tamil bridal dress.

The costume for male Bharatnatyam dancers differs from female dancers. For male dancers, the Bharatnatyam attire consists only of bottoms, with the upper body left bare. For the bottoms, male dancers wear a fabric resembling a dhoti.

Bharatnatyam Dance

The Bharatanatyam dance can be defined in two parts: one part is entirely technical when the feet are utilized to stamp distinct complex rhythms while the hands and eyes make adorning gestures. The other part of Bharatnatyam is when these hands and facial expressions, as well as body movements, depict stories from Hindu mythology.

Bharatanatyam Stages

The portrayal of Bharatanatyam adheres to Natya Shastra's three categories of performance. These are:

  • Nritta (Nirutham): It is an introductory and technical performance that tries to engage the audience's senses. It has no interpretive significance, and it does not convey a story.
  • Nritya (Niruthiyam): This section of Bharatanatyam tries to captivate the viewer's emotions and thoughts by articulating a legend or a spiritual message. The dance-acting, in this case, expands to incorporate the silent articulation of words through gestures and body movement set to musical notes.
  • Natya (Natyam): It is a fusion of Nritta and Natya dance sequences. The Natya in Bharatnatyam is a dramatic portrayal in which rhythmic movement and dramatic expression of emotion are presented uniquely.

Bharatanatyam Sequence

The traditional Bharatanatyam performance is divided into seven or eight sequences. Together, this sequence is referred to as Margam. The eight sequences of Bharatnatyam are as follows.

  1. Pushpanjali: It is the first sequence of Bharatnatyam and is a symbol of respect. The performer in this dance presents flowers and salutations to the Hindu deities, the master, and the audience.
  2. Alarippu: It is a preparatory warm-up to the Bharatnatyam dance without music, allowing the dancer to release their energy and move while avoiding distractions and with single-minded attention.
  3. Jatiswaram: In this section, the Bharatnatyam steps get increasingly intricate. While not yet transmitting any message, the dancers execute extremely skillful and trained postures.
  4. Shabdam: In this part of the Bharatnatyam performance, the solo dancer, vocalists, and musical team offer brief compositions with words and meanings in a variety of moods.
  5. Varnam: It is the longest section of Bharatnatyam that typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour. It is the core sequence of the performance where the dancer performs complicated moves depicting beauty and brilliance in a spiritual context.
  6. Padam: This Bharatnatyam sequence focuses on the abhinaya, where a spiritual message or devotional religious prayer is expressed.
  7. Tillana: It is a part of Nritta that combines beautiful moves with sculpture-like poses. This section of Bharatnatyam usually concludes with a fast-paced beat that charms the audience.
  8. Shlokam or Mangalam: The seventh and final piece of the Bharatnatyam sequence is called a Shlokam or a Mangalam. The performers wish for blessings for everyone in the room.

Bharatanatyam Dancers

Bharatanatyam evolved from temples to theatres over time, but its religious component, representation of human emotions, and artistic storytelling continued to exist. Some of the most brilliant and well-known Bharatanatyam dancers are listed below:

  • Rukmini Devi
  • Padma Subrahmanyam
  • Alarmel Valli
  • Yamini Krishnamurthy
  • Mallika Sarabhai

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FAQs on Bharatanatyam

Q1. What is Bharatnatyam?

Bharatnatyam is a classical Indian dance form that is believed to be over 2000 years old. This dance form originated in Tamil Nadu and is known for its striking sequences, involving complicated hand gestures and beautiful facial expressions.

Q2. Bharatanatyam originated in which Indian state?

Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu (South India). It is believed to have originated in the Hindu Temples in Tamil Nadu. In theory, this dance form is explained in the ‘Natya Shastra’, an ancient text describing performance arts such as Bharatnatyam.

Q3. Is Bharatnatyam the hardest dance?

Bharatnatyam is one of the hardest dance forms in the world. It requires rigorous training and practice to become a Bharatnatyam dancer. Moreover, this dance also involves certain rituals such as lighting incense, dedicating a short prayer to the lord, and sprinkling holy water.

Q4. What is the history of Bharatnatyam?

The history of Bharatnatyam can be traced back to the ‘Natya Shastra’, an ancient Sanskrit text of performance arts. It is believed to be dating between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Some Indologists believe that Bharatnatyam originated during the time of the Devadasi system but this belief is disputed.

Q5. What are the seven styles of Bharatnatyam?

The seven styles of Bharatnatyam are Pushpanjali, Alarippu, Jatiswaram, Shabdam, Varnam, Padam, and Tillana. These seven styles of Bharatnatyam refer to the order of the performance. The entire set of the Bharatnatyam dance is called the Margam.

Q6. Who are some of the popular Bharatanatyam dancers?

The names of some of the popular Bharatnatyam dancers are shared as follows.

  • Rukmini Devi
  • Padma Subrahmanyam.
  • Alarmel Valli
  • Yamini Krishnamurthy
  • Mallika Sarabhai

Q7. Is Bharatanatyam a religious dance?

Bharatanatyam is a dance of Tamil Nadu in southern India. While it is not essentially a religious dance, Bharatanatyam often is used to express Hindu religious stories and devotions. It is also believed to have originated in Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu.

Q8. Who revived Bharatanatyam?

Krishna Iyer and Rukmini Devi Arundale revived Bharatanatyam. Now, it is again one of the most popular dance forms in the world. At the same time, Bharatnatyam is also one of the most complicated dance forms as it requires extensive practice.