Bharatanatyam, a pre-eminent Indian classical dance form presumably the oldest classical dance heritage of India is regarded as mother of many other Indian classical dance forms. Conventionally a solo dance performed only by women, it initiated in the Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu and eventually flourished in South India. Theoretical base of this form traces back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts. A form of illustrative anecdote of Hindu religious themes and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer with excellent footwork and impressive gestures its performance repertoire includes nrita, nritya and natya. Accompanists include a singer, music and particularly the guru who directs and conducts the performance. It also continues to inspire several art forms including paintings and sculptures starting from the spectacular 6th to 9th century CE temple sculptures.
According to the Hindu tradition the name of the dance form was derived by joining two words, ‘Bharata’ and Natyam’ where ‘Natyam in Sanskrit means dance and ‘Bharata’ is a mnemonic comprising ‘bha’, ‘ra’ and ‘ta’ which respectively means ‘bhava’ that is emotion and feelings; ‘raga’ that is melody; and ‘tala’ that is rhythm. Thus, traditionally the word refers to a dance form where bhava, raga and tala are expressed. The theoretical base of this dance form, which is also referred as Sadir, trace back to ancient Indian theatrologist and musicologist, Bharata Muni’s Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts called ‘Natya Shastra’. The text’s first complete version was presumably completed between 200 BCE to 200 CE, however such timeframe also varies between 500 BCE and 500 CE. According to legends Lord Brahma revealed Bharatanatyam to the sage Bharata who then encoded this holy dance form in Natya Shastra. The text that consists of thousands of verses structured in different chapters divides dance in two specific forms, namely ‘nrita’ that is pure dance comprising of finesse of hand movements and gestures, and ‘nritya’ that is solo expressive dance that comprises of expressions. According to Russian scholar Natalia Lidova, ‘Natya Shastra’ elucidates several theories of Indian classical dances including that of Tandava dance, standing postures, basic steps, bhava, rasa, methods of acting and gestures.
One of the five great epics of Tamil Literature, ‘Silappatikaram’ (~2nd century CE) has a direct reference to this dance form. The Shiva temple of Kanchipuram that is decorated with carvings dating back to a period between 6th to 9th centuries CE manifests the development of this dance form by around the mid first millennium CE. Many ancient Hindu temples are embellished with sculptures of Lord Shiva in Bharatanatyam dance poses. The eastern gopuram of the 12th century Thillai Natarajar Temple, Chidambaram, of Tamil Nadu dedicated to Lord Shiva bears sculptures depicting 108 poses of Bharatanatyam, referred as karanas in ‘Natya Shastra’, that are intricately carved in small rectangular panels. Another notable sculpture can be seen in the Cave 1 of Karnataka’s Badami cave temples dating back to the 7th century where a 5 feet tall sculpture of Lord Shiva is depicted as Nataraja doing Tandava dance. The 18 arms of the Shiva sculpture expresses mudras or hand gestures that are part of Bharatanatyam.
The Bharatnatyam dancer is accompanied by a nattuvanar (or taladhari) that is a vocalist who generally conducts the whole performance, a part often executed by the guru. The person can also play the cymbals or any other instrument. The music associated with Bharatanatyam is in South India’s Carnatic style and instruments played comprise of cymbals, the flute, a long pipe horn called nagaswaram, a drum called mridangam and veena. The verses recited during performance are in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu.
The four Nattuvanars namely Ponaiyah, Vadivelu, Sivanandam and Chinnaiya who are renowned as Tanjaore Bandhu and who thrived in the Durbar of Maratha ruler, Sarfoji-II from 1798 to 1832 shaped up the modern day Bharatanatyam. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a dance guru from the village of Pandanallur was a noted exponent of Bharatanatyam who is predominantly known for his style referred as the Pandanallur school of Bharatanatyam. One of his students Rukmini Devi championed and performed the Pandanallur (Kalakshetra) style and also remained one of the leading proponents of the classical dance revival movement. Balasarswati who was regarded as child prodigy by Vidhwans and Pandits also joined hands in reviving the dance form. She was a virtuoso of the Thanjavur style of Bharatanatyam. Other imminent Bharatanatyam artists include Mrinalini Sarabhai, her daughter Mallika Sarabhai, Padma Subramanyam, Alarmel Valli, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Anita Ratnam among others.