Originating from South India, the Bharatanatyam, a classical dance performed by both men and women is widely considered as the oldest dance around. It is a dance known for its grace, purity, tenderness and sculptural poses.

Bharatanatyam being one of the most highly refined systems of dance and recorded as far back as the 9th century, was first known as Sadir, Chinnamelan or Dasi Attam until the early 1900’s.

According to the Hindu mythology the universe is the dance of Lord Shiva (God of dance), the Hindu ascetic yogi and divine purveyor of evil destruction.

The Shiva’s dance is represented by a mannerism called ‘Ananda Tandavam’, which is the embodiment and manifestation of the eternal energy in five activities:

• Srishti - Creation, evolution
• Sthiti - Preservation, support
• Samhara - Destruction, evolution
• Tirobhava - Illusion
• Anugraha - Release, emancipation, grace

Ananda Tandavam is a blissful dance of Lord Shiva when he takes the manifestation of Nadaraja, the king of dance from Chidambaram.

The dancing Nadaraja is depicted with four hands where the upper left holds the drum, the upper right holds fire, lower right shows the Abhaya Hastha and the lower left in the Danda Hastha pose. His left leg holds the Kunchita Pada and right leg stands on the Muyalagan (a demon).
Lord Nadaraja
Lord Nadaraja

The name Bharatanatyam is composed of related words:

• BHAvana (expression)
• RAgam (melody)
• TAlam (rhythm)
• NATYAM (dance)

There is also a myth that the name Bharatanatyam came from a sage named Bharata Muni who wrote the "Natya Shastra" which is the principles of this dance. Bharata is believed to have lived between the 1st and 2nd century AD.

He wrote a detailed story of the art of dance and many people credited his work for the fact that Bharatanatyam remained as it was long time ago.

Another factor in the preservation of the art is the devadasi who in ancient times performed the Bharatanatyam.

Curse of a Devadasi

In the Southern part of India, a devadasi is a girl who is devoted to worship and service a deity or a temple for her whole life. The dedication takes place in a ceremony similar to a marriage.

Dance and music were essential parts of temple worship.

Besides performing rituals and taking care of the temple these women learned the Indian classical dance and maintained a high social status as they were encouraged by public funds to pursue their arts.

A devadasi had to satisfy her own soul while she danced unwatched and offered herself to the Lord. However, the local kings often invited the devadasis to dance in their courts.

Devadasis often married wealthy patrons/kings. Instead of becoming a housewife, they spent their time practising their dance. They had children with their husbands; often their husbands had other wives who served them as housewife. The children are later trained the skills of music or dance by their mother.

This devadasi system had been active for many centuries in India.

The patrons of temples and arts however, became powerless during the British colonisation. Thus, the devadasis were left without their tradition with no support or patronage.

During these colonial times, reformists worked towards outlawing the devadasi tradition on grounds that it supported prostitution.

The British banned Bharatanatyam, confusing it with the devadasis system.

Rukimini Devi, a member of an influential Brahmin family, revived the art and brought it to the stage in early 1900’s.

In 1988, the devadasi system was made illegal.
Art of grace

Many of the ancient sculptures in Hindu temples are based on Bharatanatyam dance postures. Bharatanatyam has three distinct elements to it:

• Nritta (rhythmic dance movements)
• Natya (dance with a dramatic aspect)
• Nritya (combination of Nritta and Natya)

There are four types of Abhinaya (expression) in dance, which are:

• Anghika (physical or body movements)
• Vachika (the song being played, poetry)
• Aaharya (ornamentation of a character/dancer)
• Satvika (involuntary movements)

It is also considered to be a mystic manifestation of the metaphysical element of fire in the human body. It is one of the five major styles that includes:

• Odissi (element of water)
• Kuchipudi (element of earth)
• Mohiniattam(element of air)
• Kathakali (element of sky)

In Bharathanatyam there are about 32 single hand root mudras called as Asamyukta Hasta and 23 double hand mudras called as Samyukta Hasta.
Bramharam Chandrakala Katharimukam

Alapadmam Thirupathakam

Is usually takes many years to master the art of Bharatanatyam. The ‘Salangai pooja’ (dancing bell ceremony) followed by the ‘Arangetram’ (graduation) will be held to show how far a dancer has mastered the art. There are many academic and dance schools across the globe. Many people choose to learn Carnatic music along with Bharatanatyam as they go together.

In most of the Bharatanatyam numbers it involves many split characters that are depicted by one dancer. The dancer will take on several characters by switching roles through a swift turn in circle and creates a story line that can be easily followed. The characters will be understood by the narrative song and the dancer’s expression.

However, in the modern era, Bharatanatyam performances have taken stage as group performances involving drama-musical performances that require many characters depicted by more than one dancer.


Being a very demanding art, Bharatanatyam is known for its sculptural poses, rhythmic footwork, and hand and eye movements.

The costuming is also unique.

The dancers wear bells around their ankles, jewellery around their waist and neck and makeup to enhance the eye and facial expressions. Bharatanatyam dancers wear a unique set of jewellery known as "Temple Jewellery" or ‘Araku’ during the performance.

The origin of Araku dates back to 12th century. Those days the Araku was made of gold with ruby, emerald & pearls which was used by the devadasis. The Araku is admired for its beauty, wonderful artistry and unmatched craftsmanship. These days, Araku is made using a variety of metals like silver and brass as its base.

The Araku jewelleries are consists of 11 different ornaments namely:

• Long chain
• Short necklace
• Sun and Moon (shaped head pieces, placed on the right and left side on a dancer’s head)
• Nethichutti (head piece, placed in the centre of the dancer’s head)
• Mattal (a chain which connects the earrings and hair)
• Jimikki (earrings)
• Oddiyanam (waist belt)
• Vanki (armlets)
• Rakkodi (head piece, placed in the centre of the bun)
• Nath and Bullakku (nose pins)
• Bangles

Araku Jewelleries
Dancers also use kunjalam to decorate their hair. This kunjalam comes in different designs and is tied to the end of the braid to add aesthetics to the hair.

The costumes are designed for freedom of movement and to showcase the signature seated posture, called ‘Araimandi’ or ‘Mulumandi’.

The costumes can either just be a saree or costumes made from the saree.

The most common style of stitched costume consists of three pieces for males, four pieces for children and five pieces for females:

• A pair of pants
• A large pleated fabric that attaches to the pants (creates a fan between the dancer’s legs)
• A sash that goes around the waist
• A ‘choli’ blouse
• A sash that covers the ‘choli’ blouse

A dancer dressed in a complete Bharathanatyam costume seen in a 'Mulumandi' posture - Photo Courtesy universalfancydresses

Dancers wear the Salangai (dancing bell) in the ankles during dance performance which are made of either rope or leather with rows of sleigh-like copper bells attached on the anklet. The dancer's talent is judged by the amount of ringing heard and the number of bells on the anklet.

The less ringing heard from the anklet then the better the dancer, which is seen as having control and fluid movement.
bharatanatyam bharatanatyam
Leather Rope

Sa Ri Ga Ma

Bharatanatyam is performed to traditional South Indian Carnatic music. In addition to a singer, some common instruments are violin, Mridangam, Thambura, Indian cymbals (Manjira), flute and sometimes the Ghatam will accompany the orchestra.
mridangam tambura ghatam manjira
Mridangam Thambura Ghatam Manjira

Bharatanatyam is basically a storytelling dance where most of the stories are from the epics and Hindu mythology.

The intimate association with Hindu custom from its origins as a temple dance has been preserved through the centuries. The dancer uses poses, facial expressions, and hand movements to communicate the story to the audience.

During the Arangetram or any major performances, it is usually about two hours long and the numbers are generally performed in a specific order:

• Pushpanjali (An offering of flowers to the God.)

• Alarippu (A presentation of the Tala punctuated by simple syllables spoken by the dancer. Alarippu is performed in different jatis.)

• Jatiswaram (An abstract dance where the drums set the beat. Here the dancer displays her versatility in elaborate footwork and graceful movements of the body.)

• Shabdam (The piece is accompanied by a poem or song with a devotional or amorous theme.)

• Varnam (The centre piece of the performance. It is the longest section of the dance punctuated with the most complex and difficult movements.)

• Padam (Probably the most lyrical section where the dancer "speaks" of some aspect of love: devotion to the Supreme Being; or of love of mother for child; or the love of lovers separated and reunited.)

• Tillana (The final section is a pure dance when the virtuosity of the music is reflected in the complex footwork and captivating poses of the dancer.)

• Mangalam (A short prayer is offered to the deity of their choice before concluding the recital. This prayer, seeks Divine blessings for the well being of everybody)

Row of dancers performing the Mangalam

NOTE: This is the first article of a four-part series on the ancient Indian art, bharatanatyam. The complete series will be published on Sept 1, 2014