What’s Bharata Natyam?


This blog is a revised excerpt from:

Bansal-Tönz, Scharmila: Research on the songs of Purandaradāsa (1484 – 1564) and their modern reception in Indian dance Bharata Natyam. Zurich : University, 2018.

Dissertation at the University of Zurich, 2017 

© Copyright by Sharmila Bansal-Tönz. All rights reserved.


Presentation of God Kṛṣṇa in Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam is a body-conscious dance. This is expressed on the one hand in powerful combinations of movement with complex coordination elements of the various limbs, and on the other hand in the narration of meaningful content and the expression of emotions. In its present form, it can’t be clearly assigned to known categories such as “ritual dance” or “secular dance”1Vgl. LIECHTENHAN (2000:9). because, ideologically, it refers to a ritualistic origin, but in its contemporary form it claims the status of a formalized stage art. The staging still has its own ritual aspects, such as the greeting and homage to God Naṭarāja and the mother goddess. However, these are elements artificially added to the dance in the middle of the 20th century.In this respect one can speak of a reconstructed ritual art. Bharata Natyam has developed the character of a homeland dance through its past of the last 150 years.2LIECHTENHAN (2000:19) uses the term “Heimattanz” (homeland dance) in connection with the characterization of folk dances. In the case of Bharata Natyam, this characterization can certainly also be applied to this “classical” dance form. Although it is considered a South Indian dance style, it represents a identity-creating and identity-granting tradition: «[…] bharata natyam appears to conjure images of quintessential Indianness.»3O’SHEA (2007:70)

In the attempt to define Bharata Natyam, the comparison to ballet seems likely, even if only related to its role as a stage dance. Ballet is also a highly stylized stage art and a kind of a narrative dance form:

 «[…] In this way we can call ballet a stage art, which uses stage dance in the same sense as it does in the play with the spoken word and in the opera with the sung word.»4«[…] so können wir das Ballett als eine Kunstgattung der Bühne bezeichnen, die sich des Bühnentanzes im gleichen Sinne bedient, wie dies im Schauspiel mit dem gesprochenen und in der Oper mit dem gesungenen Wort geschieht.», LIECHTENHAN (2000:27), translation by the author.

In Bharata Natyam dance and theater are not devided through clear boundaries, because what is depicted is intimately connected with the rhythm of the vocal accompaniment, the emotions of the musical accompaniment and the contents of the lyrics. The movements and the expression of the dancer are both graceful and charming (lāsya) and powerful (tāṇḍava).5This characterization is reminiscent of the dance as it existed in ancient Greek theater, s. LIECHTENHAN (2000:12). However, the graceful and powerful component aren’t necessarily restricted to certain areas of representation in dance. In Bharata Natyam, narrative episodes can be portrayed gracefully as well as powerful and non-narrative dance moves can be presented charmingly as well as dynamic. The multi-layered connection between dance, rhythm, music and emotion is often evidenced by the interpretation of the word “Bharata”, which is commonly understood as an acronym:6At the same time, according to legend, Bharata is the author of the Nāṭyaśāstra, which makes Bharata Natyam the dance of Bharata. Furthermore, Bharata is the general Indian name for “India”, which makes the name “Bharata Natyam” “The Dance of India”. Indian dancers tend to value this multiple interpretation as a quality feature of dance art.

Bha       =          bhāva (expression of feeling)

Ra         =          rāga (sound mode)

Ta          =          tāla (rhythm)

Referencing these three terms to the second sub-word «nāṭyam» (Sa .: “dance, acting”)7Here nāṭya means not only the dance but the totality of the dramaturgical representation, which sees itself as a stylized interpretation of reality, and not as a realistic imitation, s. COOMARASWAMY & GOPALAKRISHNA (1997:5):
«It should be noted throughout that the words Nāṭya, etc., imply both acting and dan¬cing. […] Indian acting is poetic art, an interpretation of life, […].»
gives you the traditional pillars of the dance theory of classical Indian dance. The expression of feelings (bhāva) finds its expression in the dramatic representation of the dance, the nṛtya. Here, gestures, postures and facial expressions form semantics and convey meaningful content. This ‘body-text’ is able to represent coherent content that can be understood by the experienced observer as a language structure. This includes a technique in mimicry (abhinaya), which conveys certain emotions or moods through its codified representation. Rāga points to the melodic basis that accompanies the dance through song composition. Both the technical and structural form of the composition as well as the emotional-poetic component of the accompanying text and its musical interpretation set the framework within which the choreography of dance can proceed. Tāla points to the rhythmic element in the dance:

 «Nritta is the pure, non-narrative dance form. It is a representation of dynamic aesthetics, with beautiful and graceful movements of all limbs, the head and the neck, through complicated rhythmic footwork. In nritta the rhythm (tāḷa) is particularly pronounced and refined. Even the fastest step sequences are kept in exact accordance with it.»8«Nritta ist die reine, nicht erzählende Tanzform. Sie ist eine Darstellung von dynamischer Ästhetik, wobei durch komplizierte rhythmische Fussarbeit schöne und grazile Bewegungen aller Glieder, des Kopfes und des Nackens entstehen. Im nritta ist der Rhythmus (tāḷa) besonders ausgeprägt und verfeinert. Auch schnellste Schrittfolgen werden in genauer Übereinstimmung damit gehalten.», RAO (1987:108), translation by the author.

This dynamic dance form is free of narrative elements.

Besides this enumeration of the basic aspects of dance, depictions of dance theory in Bharata Natyam emphasize in most cases the distinction between nṛtya and nṛtta.9S. e.g. VATSYAYAN (2007:17, 25ff.), GASTON (2005:257), REBLING (1982:48ff. & 144), RAO (1987:108ff.) oder SARABHAI (1996:29f.); I shall not describe the dance solely on the basis of these elements, since a reduction to nṛtya and nṛtta would bring about a valuation that dichotomizes the dance, and therefore is not very helpful in understanding the essence of this dance form. About the risk of depreciation or appreciation of nṛtya and nṛtta s. IYER (1993). Wherever possible, Nāṭyaśāstra is cited to refer to the ancient origins and traditions of art. Due to the influence of the “Tanjore Quartet” and the related anchoring in the Tamil language, today’s practice in Bharata Natyam consists of many termini technici in the Tamil language. The dance practice and its basics are therefore composed of a spectrum of elements of different origin and age.

Optical harmony of the limbs in the basic posture of Bharata Natyam

It is the essential aim of Bharata Natyam Dance to create an optical harmony of the body’s parts and to convey a mood that generates an aesthetic pleasure in the viewer. The performance should be light and effortless, however severe and difficult it may be for the dancer. Both narrative and non-narrative dance must be expressive and should combine the right balance of bodywork and emotion so that the viewer feels a rapture for the duration of the staging. The dance fundamentals are formed by the basic steps (aḍavu),10For an overview of the traditional basic steps in Bharata Natyam s. RAGHUPATHY (1998:211ff. & 1999:109ff.) and VAIDYANATHAN (1996:84ff.). PURECHAS (2003:445ff.) presentation is even more comprehensive thanks to visual material and the interpretation of the associated rhythmic language. A western analysis of these basic steps is done by VANZILE (1993). SUBRAHMANYAM (1979:35ff.) combines the description of the aḍavu with a rhythmic notation system. which are based on:

  1. Body control: The control of the limbs (aṅga) and the posture (sthānaka) form the basis for every movement in Bharata Natyam. These involve the detailed movement of the wrists and wrists, coordination of arm and leg movement or the change in hand gestures.
  2. Dance technique: The basis of the dance technique begins with the footwork, consisting of various stamping movements of the foot and other techniques, such as running, jumps, turns etc. Regarding the upper body, the basis consists of different postures of the arms and hands as well as the required angles of the same. General physical conditions, such as endurance and stamina are not specifically trained by the technique, but are among the necessary requirements to master the dance technique.
  3. Presence in dance11This presence is primarily trained through the visual focus, citing a verse from the Abhinayadarpaṇa:
    yato hastas tato dṛṣṭir yato dṛṣṭis tato manaḥ | yato manas tato bhāvo yato bhāvas tato smaḥ ||37||
    «Where the hands go, the eyes follow. Wherever the eyes go, there follows the spirit. Where the mind is, there is the feeling. Where the feeling is, there is our presence.»
    : The internalization of a particular feeling while dancing is the most important and at the same time the most difficult point, since it depends – besides the required fundamental knowledge – mostly on the individual prerequisite of the dancer and her ability of expression. The basics in Bharata Natyam define 5 points that determine this presence12The following list is based on RAO (1987:114). RAO mentions similar five points, not in the context of expression training, but as the sole central exercise criteria of initial dance training. On a closer look, it is noticeable that these points don’t consider or distinguish between body control and the learning of dance technique. In fact, RAO treats with her enumeration the presence in dance as it is defined here, and no general training criteria.:

a) Harmonic posture of the limbs (aṅgaśuddha)
b) Correct coordination of movement and posture (nṛttahasta, pādabedha etc.)
c) Adherence to the dance rhythm (tālaśuddha)
d) Energetic force (tāṇḍava)
e) Charming grace (lāsya)

All dances in the repertoire of traditional Bharata Natyam build on these basic skills13In detail about the aḍavu s. SARABHAI (1996:26ff.) and RAO (1987:114ff.).. After a number of basic steps defined by the tradition, the dancer is expected to have appropriate body control, strength, stamina and flexibility as well as sufficient knowledge of dance technique. Hence begins the teaching in individual dance pieces of the repertoire. The first dances are pure nṛtta dances and consist of dance units (jati): «[Jati] is used to build, express and elaborate a particular tāla, a rythmic pattern which may be simple or complex14PESCH (1999:129).» In keeping with the rhythmic structures of the jati, the dance is choreographed from the available vocabulary of the aḍavu and its components. The ability to present these rhythmic compositions in coherent form, with appropriate body control, dance technique and expressiveness, is the goal to be achieved. In the course of learning the repertoire this ability is perfected by means of different degrees of difficulty of the choreography.

Portrayal of fear (bhaya) in Bharata Natyam

Bharata Natyam students are introduced relatively late in drama dance (nṛtya) techniques. Mimcry in Bharata Natyam builds on the concept of a stylized representation (nāṭya-dharmi). The main components of this presentation are bhāva (emotional expression) and rasa (mood). The syllabus of Bharata Natyam acting technique does not provide any methods to learn these basics of nṛtya through basic exercises. The method that is used is a so-called “learning by doing” and takes place during the learning of the first drama dance piece. The other technical requirements remain the same as described at the beginning (body control, dance technique, expression). However, the body presence and expression is now extended by one component, namely that which gives meaning to the expression. The same movement language used to represent the nṛtta is now used to convey meaning content. The acting in Bharata Natyam is therefore to be understood as “codified acting”:

«Performing according to a semiotically constructed score of movements, gestures, songs, costumes and makeup. This score is rooted in tradition and passed down from teachers to students by mean of rigorous training.15SCHECHNER (2007:183)»

The occurrence of drama in dance pieces increases regarding scope and range while learning new dances from the traditional repertoire. Depending on the context, the codifications of the narrative function in Bharata Natyam follow an imitative or metaphorical mode of representation16S. BALME (2014:118).. The drama can match the lyrics in its movements. In this case, the sung word is at the same time “translated” through body language. This presentation mode depends on recognizable features of the depicted content17“Milk” e.g. is represented by imitating the stylized hand movements of the milking process.. The movements in the naturalistic action are stylized by the reduction to primary identification marks18This stylization is contextual. It is closely linked to everyday cultural and social patterns, s. BINDER (2013:225).. This stylization works in two directions: On the one hand, the sequence of the movement becomes clear and “readable”. On the other hand, the stylized movements confer a formal character to the presentation. The “non-trivial body aesthetics” is “the result of a conscious formation and training of body language, in order to clearly distinguish it on stage from the body language of everyday life.19BALME (2014:134)” But the movement can also have symbolic character and be detached from the conventional everyday semantics. These include expression of phenomenal aspects that cannot be represented due to the physical limitations of the dancer, such as a sunrise. In contrast to SCHECHNER’s (1985) characterization of rāmlīlā, which he describes as i. a. an iconographic staging20S. SCHECHNER (1985:203)., the solo performance of a Bharata Natyam dancer is much more diversified. This is partly due to the fact that the actress successively plays different characters with different profiles. She has no support of external features, such as masks, and must be recognizable through her theatrical finesse alone. On the other hand, one of the depicted characters is usually identical to the narrator of the lyrics and thus closely linked to the meta-text of the piece. The presentation thus assumes a psychological depth21In contrast stands e. g. the yakṣagāna play, which works more with stereotyped characters and the iconographic representation mentioned by Schechner, s. BINDER (2013:160)..


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