India - Bharathanatyam

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

Bharathanatyam Dance Form of India

The Indian classical dance of Bharatanatyam is the most popular of Indian dances with its origin in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Being the most ancient of all the classical dance styles in India, its antiquity is well established. It is based strictly on the Natya Shastra, the Bible of the classical Indian dance. The recital of Bharatanatyam resembles the structure of a Hindu temple.

Beginning with the alarippu resembling the gopuram (outer gate) of temple, it transcends to the jatiswaram resembling the ardhamandapam (midway hall), then covers the sabdam resembling the mandapam (great hall of worship) and finally flows to the Varnam, resembling the heart of the temple.

The Bharatnatyam, has undergone several major transformations in its 2,000 year old history. Tracing its roots back to the 2nd century BC, the Bharatnatyam is said to have been revealed by the god Brahma to the sage Bharata. Then the sage codified this sacred dance in a Sanskrit text called the Natya Shastra.

During the medieval period, the Bharatnatyam prospered in the Hindu temples of South India. The temple dancers were called the Devadasis, or the servants of god. The kings and the princely courts patronised the temples, as well as the various traditions sustaining the dance form.

During the colonial period, the British took the relationship between devadasis and patrons to be one of prostitution and the Bharatnatyam dancers were eventually outlawed from performing at temples. Today, the Bharatnatyam is an immensely popular form of cultural expression and source of pride among Indians in various communities around the world.


The main features of the Bharatanatyam are the movements conceived in space mostly either along straight lines or triangles. The dancer appears to weave a series of triangles besides several geometrical patterns. There are two distinct forms, the nritta or the pure dance and the nritya or the dramatic interpretive dance.

In nritta or the pure dance, the dancer focuses on a mastery of abstract hand gestures and movements to the chosen time cycle and a raga (melody). The dancer executes patterns that reveal the architectonic beauty of the form with a series of dance units called jathis or teermanams. The torso is used as a unit, the legs are in a semi-plies form and the stance achieves the basic posture called the Araimandi. The nritta numbers include the Alarippu, the Jatiswaram and the Tillana, which are abstract items creating variegated forms of staggering visual beauty.

In nritya, the dancer employs a complex system of hand signals and body language and performs to a poem, creating a parallel kinetic poetry in movement, registering subtle expressions on the face and the entire body reacts to the emotions, evoking sentiments in the spectator for relish - the rasa. The numbers are mainly the varnam, which has expressions as well as pure dance such as the padams, the javalis and the shlokas. The themes are from Indian mythology, the epics and the Puranas. The dance of the Bharatanatyam is accompanied by the Carnatic classical music.

The Nritta is broadly divided into the Chari, the Karana, the Angahara and the Mandala. The Chari is one-leg movement and the Karana is two-leg movements. A Khanda is formed by three Karanas and a Mandala is formed by three to four Khandas. A Angahara is formed by four to nine Karanas. There are 108 Karanas and 32 Angaharas defined in the Natyashastra. The rythmic body movements along with hand gestures are called Aduvus. A number of aduvus constitute a Jati. Jati will generally end with a Muktaya or Teermana. The different types of Aduvus are the Tattaduvu, the Mettaduvu, the Nataduvu, the Kattaduvu, the Kudittamettaduvu, the Maiaduvu, the Mandiaduvu, the Jati, the Nadai, and the Ardi.

The entire body is divided into the Anga, the Pratyanga and the Upaanga. The Head, the Hands, the Chest, the Waist, the Bottom, and the Legs form the Six Angas. The Shoulders, the Arms, the Stomach, the Thighs, and the Knees are the Six Pratyangas. The Sight, the Eyebrow, the Eyelids, the Eyeballs, the Cheeks, the Nose, the Gums, the Lower lip, the Teeth, the Tongue, the Chin and the Face are the twelve Upaangas.

The different Anga Lakshana or the movements of the body parts are as follows.

• Shirobhedha - Head Movement
• Greevabhedha - Neck Movement
• Drushtibhedha - Eye Movement
• Paadabhedha
• Mandala - Standing Posture
• Utplavana - Leaps
• Bhramari - Circling Movement
• Chari - Leg Movement
• Gatibhedha - Charecteristic walks and
• Hastas or Mudras - Hand Movements
• Asamyuta Hasta
• Samyuta Hasta
• Deva Hasta
• Dashavatara Hasta
• Navagraha Hasta
• Jaati Hasta
• Bandhu Hasta
• Nritta Hasta


The word Aranga means the raised stage and Etram means the climbing in Tamil. It is also called as the Rangapravesha in Kannada, where Ranga means Stage and Pravesha means Enter. This is the first public appearance of the classical Indian dancer and an occasion for the guru to present his/her disciple to the public.


The accompaniments to the Bharatanatyam comprise a singer, a mridangam player, a violin player and the Natuvanga. The other instruments such as the Veena and the flute are optional.

Steps of Performance

In the first half of the classical Indian dance of Bharatanatyam, artists generally perform the following items.

• Pushpanjali or Alaripu
• Jatiswara
• Shabda
• Varna

The Second half involves the following items.
• Padam
• Ashtapadi or Devaranama
• Tillana
• Mangala


The Pushpanjali involves the salutation to the god, the guru and the audience.


The word Alar means to bloom. It comprises of set of movements without any meaning or expression. The movements are performed for syllables set for a beat or tala.


In Jatiswaram, the movements will not convey any meaning or theme. The steps are complex with amazing postures and the teermanas or the muktayas (ending of a jati).


The Shabda has both nritta and abinaya. With leisure movements and pace, this form has the theme of the lyrics as praising lord Krishna, or depicting Krishna's childhood.


The Varna item is tough and has many complex steps. It is like a benchmark to judge the talent of the dancer to perform both abinaya and nritta. The dancer requires a lot of stamina and concentration.


The Padam gives importance to the dancer's abhinaya. The theme involves the expression of divine love or the pangs of separation in love. The tempo is slow and the performance is based on a specific mood of love.


The Ashtapadi is the Sanskrit compositions of the poet Jayadeva. It is also referred as the Geetagovinda, an extremely romantic composition. It describes the love of Krishna and Radha in twelve cantos containing 24 songs. Expressions have the highest importance.


The Devaranama is a devotional piece where the lyrics are in praise of god, describing the god etc. The importance is for a pure abhinaya. These songs are the classical Indian dance compositions of great mystics like the Purandharadaasa, the Kanakadaasa, the Vijayadaasa, the Vyasaraaja to name a few.


The Tillana is usually the last item in any Bharatanatyam performance. It is full of complicated movements, postures and Muktayas or Sholkattu.


Mangala means the ending the performance with salutations to the god, the guru and the audience for making the performance a success.

Some of the famous Bharatanatyam performers are Bala Saraswathi, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Rugmini Arundel, Kamala Laxman, Padma Subrahmaniam and Chithra Visweswaran.


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