Let us talk about the origin

The famous Balasaraswati has aptly defined Bharatanatyam as a variety of artistic yoga that reveals through the physical and emotional body. One of the most ancient dance forms of India considered being almost two thousand years old, Bharatanatyam is a way to connect to god for many dancers who are into it. It is most widely practiced dance forms in our country and is famous among all age groups. It is a type of classical dance that was given the term Bharatanatyam by the famous freedom fighter E. Krishna Iyer. The term is said to have been derived from the combination of four syllables; bhava meaning expression, raga meaning music, tala meaning rhythm and natyam meaning drama. The dance was publicized by Rukminidevi Arundale, the founder of Kalakshetra.

Lord-Shiva-46The dance is said to have a divine origin. An interesting mythological legend is behind its origin. It is said that when the kali yuga was nearing the gods and goddesses of the heaven requested lord Brahma to create a Veda that could be understood by everyone by every kind of person and every common man. So Lord Brahma created the fifth Veda that is the panchamveda also known as the Natya Veda. So the dance form originated this way and was created to sooth the rich or the poor, the educated or the uneducated, the king or the common man, in short to give entertainment to everyone. The dance form expresses expressions of every type and every situation like love or war. Lord Brahma created the fifth Veda combining Pathya meaning words of Rigveda, Abhinaya meaning acting using the body movements of Yajurveda, Geetham meaning music and chant of Samaveda and Rasam meaning emotional sentiments of the Athavaveda. Lord Brahma then handed over the fifth Veda he created to a sage called Bharata so that he would write it and eventually spread it in the world. This sage, who combined Natya Shastra, is said to have then organized a dance performance before Lord Shiva and his wife goddess Parvati that was based on the teachings of the Veda. He guided the apsaras and gandharavas in performing the dance. Legends say that Lord Shiva was very impressed with the performance and asked a sage Thandu to develop it further into a more masculine style of dance that came to be known as Tandava. Tandava was the cosmic dance of Shiva. It is more powerful and brisk in appearance. Classical dance experts believe in existence of about sixteen various types of Tanadavas. A more feminine and soft dance form that is a gentle form of Tandava is said to have been practiced by goddess Parvati is called Lasya. It is also believed that goddess Parvati taught this dance to Usha who was the daughter of Banasura demon. Usha then spread it to the gopis of Dwaraka and Mathura. Natya Shastra went on to become an essential technique in many classical dance forms of India including Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi.

Changes that occurred

Bharatanatyam has undergone many changes since its origin and continues to do so. Though its popularity has been overtaken by new dance forms it is still one of the most favorite dance forms in India. Initially women who took forward the tradition of the dance were known as devadasis. These women were dancers as well as priestesses who were well versed with Sanskrit and other languages so that they could reach a greater audience. They had to live a tough life and dance was their only life as they were not allowed to have families. The tradition and devadasi culture however vanished as time passed by. In the later centuries having dancers perform before the kings and royalties was considered to be part of luxury the dancers came to be known as Rajanartakis. The Tanjore Quartet namely comprising of Chinniah, Sivanandam, Ponniah and Vadivelu greatly restructured the dance style about 150 years ago. These four brothers restructured bharatnatyam into a series of dance movements called adavus and composed music exclusively for this dance form. Further many significant contributions were made by Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer and Krishna Iyer to the dance style.

Know the terms


The graceful movements of the body along with the hand gestures are called adavus. There are various types of adavus namely Nataduvu, Kattaduvu,Tattaduvu, Mandiaduvu, Jati,Mettaduvu, Kudittamettaduvu, Nadai, Ardi and Maiadavu. A set of twelve adavus make up a Jati which ends in Teermana or Muktaya. An average Bharatnatyam dancer may know generally 70 to 80 avadus. The dance classifies the body limbs into parts that are called as Anga, Pratyanga or Upaanga. There are six Angas that include the body parts chest, waist, bottom, hands, head and legs. Further six Pratyangas that comprise of the body parts thighs, shoulders, knees, arms, stomach and wrists. The last category that is the Upaanga that comprises of eyebrows, glance, nose, eyelids, eyeballs, cheeks, gums, lips, teeth, tongue, chin and face. All the three classifications are to be moved rhythmically in the dance movements in unison with each other. In general the eye movements are termed as drushti bhedha, the head movements are called shiro bhedha, the neck movements are named as greeva bhedha and the leg movements are known as the paada bhedha. There are many more terms like a standing posture is a Mandala, leaps that are taken in the dance are Utplavanas and the circles are Bhramari.


Mudra is a term used for hand movements in classical dance. Some of the various mudras that are used to depict various things during the dance are Asamyuta, Samyuta, Hasta, Nritti Hasta and Jaati. A lot of practice is required to skill in the dance as these mudras form an essential part of Bharatanatyam.


What I get out of the term is acting. Yes Abhinaya is the acting part in Bharatanatyam. In this the dancer uses facial expressions and gestures to communicate with the audience. It is due to abhinaya that the dancer is able to convey the real message or the story to the audience along with the dance movements. Some forms of Bharatanatyam have dramatic expressions while some have subtle expressions. The emerging trends have often witnessed the use of Bollywood inspired expressions and gestures in the dance form. The abhinaya is of 4 types that are Angikabhinaya, Vachikabhinaya, Aharyabhinaya and Satvikabhinaya. Angikabhinaya is communicating the message through dance movements, Vachikabhinaya is the story recital verbally, Aharyabhinaya refers to the use of jewelry, costumes and makeup and Satvikabhinaya is the communication through eyes or glance. The dance movements in Bharatanatyam are symbols of yoga and bhakti. It is a divine connection between the dancer and the audience that are linked through the holy message in being conveyed through the dance form.

The Nayak and Nayika

I have watched some performances of the Bharatanatyam where the male dancers called as the Nayaka who amazingly perform this dance maintaining the masculinity required to play their part in the style that is most suited to feminine grace. The female dancer called the Nayika epresses her moods in eight different types that are Abhisarika, Kalahantarika, Khandita, Proshitapathika, Swadheenapathika, Vasakasajjika,Virahotkantita and Vipralabda. Each of these expressions depicts various moods like boldness, quarrel, anger, frustration, suffering, love, yearning, pain and disappointment. There are other terms used for various types of women. There may be companions of the Nayika called the sakhis.

The male dancer who plays the hero or the Nayak in the dance has different emotions to depict. These are Dheerodaatta like Lord Rama, Dheeroddhata like Demon Ravana, Dheeralalita and Dheerashastra like Lord Buddha. Different terms are used to describe the character of the male dancer.

The various forms of Bharatanatyam and its essentialshema-

The famous Bharatanatyam styles are –

  • Pandanallur
  • Vazhuvoor (or Vizhuvur)
  • Thanjavoor (or Tanjore)
  • Mysore
  • Kanchipuram

There are two main formats of the Bharatanatyam dance that is the Thanjor-Quartet format and the devadasi format. The debut or the first performance of a dancer is called Arangetram meaning to enter the stage. This is an introductory performance where the teacher or the dance guru introduces his/her student to the audience. A training of five to seven years is required to be able to perform the Arangetram that may last up to a stretch of three hours.

The Bharatanatyam dancer is accompanied by a vocalist, a drum player, a veena, a flute and cymbals. The orchestra that accompanies the dancer usually sits on the left side of the stage. Tailor made bright, colorful and rich costumes are adorned by the dancers or the artists with heavy makeup of the eyes as the eyes that are lined with thick eyeliners and kohl. Eyes are the most expressive part of the performance. The female dancers wear a blouse and a kind of pyajama with pleats in the front. The costume is made of banaras or kanchipuram silk. Jewelry forms an essential part too with flowers in the hair for female dancers. With that kind of getup the dancers look mesmerizing. Recitals used in the dance performances are often devotional items, mythological stories written by great mystics. Many of these are easily understood by everyone.

Bharatanatyam was created by the gods and thus is regarded as the means for spiritual elevation. It is a dance form that implements grace and discipline in the dancer. Now parents have started sending their kids for a proper training in classical dance forms including Bharatanatyam. Kids who are as small as five years of age are learning Bharatanatyam with great enthusiasm. Some learn it as a hobby and some take it as a profession. We have many great dancers in the Indian film industry who are trained classical dancers and have proved their dancing talent and gained popularity in Bollywood. Actresses like Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi are all trained classical dancers who have been a part of many great dance numbers that we all have imitated in our home and school functions. I am sure you too have loved the thumkas and jhatkas of the Bollywood heroines and the grace that you see is a result of training in the Indian classical forms of dance. it requires a lot of practice and dedication to become a skilled Bharatanatyam dancer besides dedication and discipline. 

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